Decision time: how to help your teen make life choices

Posted October 2, 2019

Once your teen hits GCSEs, suddenly so much is expected of them. Deciding their A Levels, college, university and what career path to go down – they’re overwhelming thoughts even for adults! Any parent knows that the A Levels or university course you do doesn’t set your future in stone, but they can definitely shape the course of their life for the next few years.

A guiding hand

Some teens will actively seek out advice, others might bury their head in the sand while some will stubbornly go down the route they’ve already decided. So what’s the best way to decide on the future? If you don’t want to leave it to a Magic 8 ball, there are some really helpful approaches you can use to rationally work things out.

There’s no single solution that works for everyone, but here are some simple strategies you can use, no matter what stage your child is at.

Pros, cons, and everything in between

If your teen’s not sure what subject or subjects to study at the next stage, it’s easy for them to panic as the deadlines loom closer. And with all the possibilities and uncertainties about the future, who can blame them? A really effective way to calm their nerves is to take a systematic approach together. If they’re positive about what they want to do, it’s still useful to double check that their choices fit with that plan. If they’re not sure, it might take a bit more soul-searching. Wherever they’re at, have a go at working through these steps.

  1. Start by writing out all the possible choices that are on the table for them and cross out any they’re definitely not interested in. So long, Geography!
  2. Talk about what they enjoy the most. Anything they’re really passionate about should be kept.
  3. For any other “maybe” subjects, write down all the benefits of taking it that you can think of. Once you’ve done this for each subject, have a look at the ones with more “pros” than the others, talk about it and see if that makes the best decision clearer.
  4. Think long term. Without determining their whole future forever, it can help to start with a long-term ambition and work backwards from there. So if they’d like to become a doctor, they should look up the A Level subjects that universities ask for from applicants, and include them either in A Levels or in GCSEs if that’s where they’re at.
  5. If they’re torn between two different paths, try where possible to keep them both open. A teen at A Level who can’t decide between studying Medicine and German at uni, for example, could take Biology, Physics, Chemistry and German when they start sixth form, can take year 11 to think about it, do some work experience to sample each path, and still have the choice right up to the Summer hols before they make their UCAS application.

    Even then, they shouldn’t feel trapped into their decision. Knowing the ways they can change their paths after making decisions can make a big difference in reducing the “what if I’ve made the wrong decision” anxiety. Some schools let kids change their GCSEs or A Levels in the first few weeks of Autumn term, while some universities also have flexible transfer options if they change their mind later.
    If they change their mind altogether during their last year of school, they can also take a gap year and reapply in 12 months time.

  6. With a provisional plan, see if they can talk to some experts for advice – teachers, tutors, family friends and school careers counsellors can all offer different perspectives to help them weigh things up.
  7. Go with their gut. Rationalising decisions is a great way to work things out, but ultimately, your teen should go with what feels right to them.

GCSEs

At this stage, they’ve still got years of school ahead of them, and with an average of nine choices, it’s easy for them to keep lots of doors open. They should keep what they’re best at, what they enjoy, and what keeps their options wide too.

A Level

They’ll be happy to be able to drop any compulsory subjects they’ve had to keep until this point. With free rein, now’s the time to think seriously about what they want to do after school. They should stick with what they love most and what they’re best at.

They should also think about the sort of university course they might want to do. It’s wise to check with a teacher what the A Level course module is like, and see if it sounds appealing.

University choices

By the last year or so of school, your teen should have some sense of their strengths and passions. With this, it’s a really good idea to have a read of a university prospectus or two. There are lots of uni subjects that aren’t offered in schools, and the idea of learning something brand new might excite them. Social Anthropology, Psychology, Arabic, International Relations – the world’s their oyster. Once they make a subject choice, they should check how the courses differ at various universities, and choose their applications from there. Check out our guide to UCAS for more details.

While they’re still at school or on a gap year, it’s the perfect time for them to try lots of things out. Any work experience they can find in the holidays is a fantastic way to see the world beyond school and uni. Talking to their teachers, their school’s careers counsellor, a tutor or any other experts they can meet will help them better understand their options and what’s best for them.

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