Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Like any average, overconfident junior having just barely survived a challenging schedule, I approached senior year like it would be a walk in the park. As a sophomore, I had heard the dire warnings of the outgoing juniors and their laments of, “Junior year is the hardest year of high school” or “Just make it through junior year, and you’ll be fine surviving senior year.” Somehow, graduating junior year was supposed to entail knowing everything you needed to know about high school and beyond, establishing the preconception that senior year would be a breeze.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The pressures of senior year begin well before high schools even open their doors for the fall. In June, vague, motivational emails entitled things like “The Future is Yours to Take” and “The Path Forward” find their way into your inbox, poorly concealing expectations that the college application process is already well underway. By late July, the notices contain cautionary tales of the Students Who Waited Till the Last Minute (cue the dramatic music), but of course it’s only the students who began writing their Common App essay in May that believe these emails are intended for them to spur progress. “Get it all done over the summer” is a common phrase heard throughout the college application process, and while this is a respectable goal, most essay prompts aren’t released or made official until August, leaving most seniors with a feeling of impending doom as they walk into class for the first time without a finalized personal statement or even a complete college list.
In addition to all this, coaches, club advisors, directors, and teachers generally begin senior year with pep talks and warnings intended to drive away any notions of senioritis. As the captains, club presidents, leads in the plays, and student government officers, seniors are held to higher levels of extracurricular commitment and contribution from Day 1. Even in the home, the reality of a kid leaving for college looms ever closer for nostalgic parents desperate to spend time together before everything changes. And level four classes are no joke. Applying to college, managing a difficult school schedule, leading extracurriculars, and balancing time with family and friends is a monumental task. To top it all off, rising seniors are usually blissfully unaware, believing the myth that junior year is the hardest it ever gets.
Despite where you think this is going, I’m not here to be the high school alumna with new dire warnings or cautionary tales of how I survived the biggest challenges of high school. Don’t get me wrong, senior year can be very difficult, but it also can be extraordinarily rewarding. And contrary to common belief, it’s rewarding because it is so challenging.
As positive psychology expert Shawn Achor describes, “Stress is an inevitable part of work and life, but the effect of stress upon us is far from inevitable.” Further he says, “stress can be good or bad depending on how you use it.” All of the responsibilities of senior year can feel like a panic attack waiting to happen, but the reality is that those pressures can all be viewed as very healthy stress points when handled appropriately. Having a sense of urgency about applying to college motivates you to get it done before the last minute. Knowing your coach is relying on you to lead the team can bring out really positive leadership skills. In the end, it comes down to how you look at it.
Stress is a self fulfilling prophecy. If you dreaded junior year and fell into a state of fear about it, chances are that you found junior year to be incredibly difficult and anxiety inducing. Your mindset sets you up for the way you are going to handle whatever gets thrown at you. For the record, I had many friends who had an incredibly enjoyable and anxiety-free last two years of high school. They were certainly stressed at certain points, but they viewed it as a necessary and even constructive part of life.
Going into senior year with expectations of its extreme ease is both naive and unhelpful. The fourth year of high school, just like the three previous years, comes with its own set of challenges, privileges, responsibilities, and rewards. When you know they are coming and you are prepared with the tools to manage them, you then have every opportunity to make your experience as anxiety-free or stressful as you want to.