Kids in high school have a lot to think about. There are challenging classes, competitive extra-curricular activities and complex social situations. If that weren’t enough, there are expectations that 9th-12th graders start thinking about and planning for what they will do after high school—whether that’s college, some type of vocational or other specialized training, or something else. Taking a so-called “gap” or “bridge” year has become popular, too; that’s when high school graduates work, travel, intern or volunteer before moving on to their next chapter.

Austin ISD schools have a wealth of information online to help students who are entering their high school phase. Check out your child’s school website to see how counseling and other assistance/preparatory services are organized and what is offered. Take a peek at a few other local schools’ websites, too. Since AISD high schools and programs vary significantly, a quick survey may yield additional tips. The district’s website offers useful information as well.

In addition to online resources, each high school has a team of counselors to support students in a variety of ways. Because these schools tend to be large, some with nearly 3,000 students, many counselors spend most of their time on scheduling. But each school also has one or more counselors who work with students specifically on preparing for college and careers after high school.

College Prep

Of course, not all students want to attend college or get other formal training after high school. For those who do, the district has resources and tools available to support the process of choosing and applying to educational institutions, a process that really begins in 9th grade. A comprehensive college readiness checklist has been developed for each grade level, which can be viewed at AISD’s College and Career Readiness page. Here’s an overview:

  • Freshman year is about building a strong foundation. Students should take courses that interest and challenge them and strive to get the best grades possible. They should also explore opportunities to learn about what others do, gain new experiences and look for opportunities to demonstrate leadership.
  • For sophomores, college planning starts in earnest. Sophomores should consult with a counselor and learn about the standardized tests (PSAT, SAT, ACT, etc.) they will need for college applications and when to take them. They should be looking for fairs to attend and campuses to visit. They should also cultivate relationships with teachers and counselors who can both advise and give recommendations. AISD uses an interactive online program called Naviance that facilitates student research into colleges as well as their application processes.
  • Juniors should start developing a short list of colleges or other institutions in which they have interest and begin drafting applications. In conjunction, they should ensure they are on track with whatever standardized testing they will need. Counselors can help juniors identify and apply for financial assistance and resources. Many colleges and universities display something called a “Net Price Calculator” on their websites that students can use to determine costs they would pay to attend.
  • Senior year is where the rubber meets the road. Seniors must know and meet final application deadlines for academic programs and financial aid and be sure they complete (and pass) all the necessary coursework to graduate.

Maintaining an Open Mind

Whether your child is intent on pursuing a four-year degree, starting a job in a particular industry or some other path forward, it’s important to stay flexible and keep an open mind. Moreover, teens develop and mature at different rates.

“What I have learned after doing this work since 2001, is that every student finds out their path on their own time, and that we can encourage them from where they are, not where we think they need to be,” says long-time counselor Tara Miller, a college and career counselor at Austin High School.

Miller says she encourages students to “think outside the box” and consider options beyond what they already know or think is a good fit. Fairs are great places for students of any age to explore, ask questions and learn about institutions, programs and careers. An organization called Colleges That Change Lives will hold a fair in Austin on August 12. Learn more at Look for other local fairs, such as the “Gap Year” Fair sponsored by St. Stephen’s Episcopal School and the National College Fair, both held in the spring semester, to spur ideas and enthusiasm for what might lie ahead.

Margaret Nicklas is an Austin-based freelance journalist, writer and mom.

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