It’s long been accepted conventional wisdom that students’ junior year of high school is the most stressful. Many adults can recount their own tales of junior year stress: maintaining their grade point average, preparing for college-entrance exams and thinking about college, perhaps participating in a sport or working a part-time job. And while high school is full of new experiences, many of which can cause students stress, junior year has a reputation as the most stressful of the four years of high school.
Freshman year introduces students to the brave new world of high school. Senior year is the year of college applications and goodbyes. Junior year, however, is not only more stressful than the other three years of a student’s career in high school, it’s also become more stressful for today’s students than ever before.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of high school graduates attending college or university has increased by almost 14 points over the last 30 years. Additionally, as the population of the United States has grown, so has the annual population of college freshman each year. This has had the practical result of increasing the competition for college admissions. The most prestigious colleges and universities in the nation may only accept between 5 and 8 percent of applicants, down from almost 20 percent 30 years ago. As there’s an increase in the number of applicants for these available spots each year, competition for a seat at the table at a student’s college or university of choice has translated into an equivalent increase in stress for America’s high school students. The lion’s share of this stress falls on students during their junior year.
Junior year tends to be the year when a huge shift in a student’s life tends to occur. It’s common for students to turn 16 during their junior year. Many students undergo major changes biologically during this period, including some of the largest transformations from childhood to adulthood. Social stresses of dating and an increased number of organized dances add to the confusion of this biological adjustment. One good result of this growth is a new maturity that many parents and educators see in students during junior year.
This new maturity is rewarded, unfortunately, with additional responsibilities. In their junior year, many students take on additional roles in the educational, extracurricular, and financial aspects of their lives. Many schools open up challenging courses in Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) to juniors, and these courses can be essential for improving one’s résumé in preparation for the college admissions process. It’s often during the junior year that students rise to varsity teams in sports or leads and solos in the performing arts. Students are also expected to rise to leadership positions within clubs and other extracurricular organizations at their schools. Additionally, the trend of colleges and universities requiring an increasing number of hours spent volunteering has only begun to subside. Juniors must navigate this maze of activity and maintain a high-grade point average in classes more challenging and advanced than ever before.
It’s worth noting that the complexity of high school subjects has increased far more than most parents realize. One example is in math. 30 years ago, most high school students took Algebra 1 as a freshman, and only a handful of students completed pre-Calculus or beyond. The majority of students in the country who will be graduating over the next few years, in contrast, took Algebra 1 in either 7th or 8th grade, and many of them will finish high school having taken Calculus, AP Calculus, and/or AP Statistics. Add in the traditional stresses of a first job, earning a driver’s license, or junior prom, just like mom and dad experienced, and it is no wonder than juniors feel more stressed than ever before.
Luckily, there are resources available to students and their parents to help them on this journey through the maze of junior year stresses and college applications. While parents are often a student’s first resource, with the changes in the standardized testing landscape, the advent of online applications, the greater opportunities available to students further from home, parents may feel overwhelmed by options not available to them when they were students. High school college counselors have had more and more responsibilities laid at their feet as well, allowing them less and less time to do the jobs they do so well. Resources such as private college counselors, tutoring and test prep, and online assistance can be invaluable to students and parents in an era that is more hectic than ever. The human touch that a helping hand can provide many be just the thing to reduce the stress of junior year.