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Helping Your Teen Understand Their Options After High School

Imagine this: You’re 18 years old, and all your life you’ve been told what to do by your parents, teachers, and coaches. Now, all of a sudden, it’s entirely up to you. You, and you alone, have to make all the choices about your life and options after high school.

Sounds extremely stressful and daunting, right?

It is. And unless your child has a superstar guidance counselor or the lived experience of older siblings, it’s difficult for them to know all the options available to them. That’s where we, as parents, have to step in.

As a parent, you don’t have to have all of the answers. In fact, it’s impossible to have all the answers. But it does help if you can provide some direction.

If you want to equip your teen with the information they need to make an informed decision for post-high school options, here are some choices to consider.

Options After High School

Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

If your child struggled in high school, if they didn’t excel academically in that particular environment, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a bright future ahead of them. It simply means that they need to find an environment and an opportunity that provides a better fit.

It means that your little fish needs to stop trying to climb trees and instead stretch their fins in the wide open ocean!

Luckily, there are many options available outside of university or college. Don’t get me wrong, these are great choices. But they’re not for everyone, and this post will focus on some of the other paths a high school graduate can take.

everybody is a genius Albert Einstein quote

Trade School

Trade school a great option for someone who is looking for a program that teaches specific skills you can apply in the real world. For example, if you go to trade school to become a plumber, you’ll leave knowing how to fix a broken pipe.

In comparison, most university programs are theoretical, meaning you spend your time thinking about complex topics and trying to make sense of them. Basically, you’re learning how to learn. This is obviously a useful skill but not in the same practical way as the knowledge you acquire in trade school. The applied skills you acquire in trade school are easily implemented in a tangible way, rather than an abstract, theoretical one.

If your child works well with these types of skills, trade school is a solid choice for their post-high school education.

Pros of Trade School:

  • Usually cheaper than a traditional four-year college or university program.
  • In many apprenticeship programs, you earn money while going to school. This can help to control the amount of student debt.
  • Can be shorter term than traditional four-year programs (many programs are two years instead of four).

Cons of Trade School:

  • Because you learn very specific skills, if decide you want to do something different, you’ll likely have to go back to school.

Gap Year

Many parents might not like the sound of this. But I promise you, this is the right choice for some of your kids. If your high school senior has no idea what they want to do after they graduate, they might need some time to think and explore different options.

This doesn’t mean they take a year off to party and sleep in. You’ll want to help them formulate a plan and set goals to make the most of their time.

For instance, if your child has never been out of the country or has always dreamed of experiencing new places, then help them figure out how to afford to do so. A few months or a year of travel can be a life-changing opportunity. It might provide them the direction they’ve been lacking, or present unexpected career options.

You never know!

Pros of a Gap Year to Travel:

  • See new places, experience new cultures, eat new foods. Travel allows you to gain new perspectives and understand how different people live. It’s truly an education in itself.
  • Travel provides some serious adulting skills. It teaches you things like planning, time management, organization, budgeting, laundry, and how to get around on your own.

Cons of a Gap Year to Travel:

  • Travel can be expensive, even on a shoestring budget. It will likely require months of saving and planning to execute.
  • There is risk involved. Especially as it pertains to safety. You’ll want to teach your kids how to keep themselves, their money, and their belongings safe in a foreign country.


If you don’t have enough money to finance your child’s education, you might want to encourage your student to take a gap year to work. This will provide them money for college and reduce the amount of debt they might incur.

Encourage them to work in a sector that they are interested in pursuing. Not only will this provide a paycheck, but it will give them valuable, hands-on experience in the field, making them an even more attractive job candidate later on.

Working during a gap year isn’t as exciting as traveling, but if they earn enough money, you can encourage them to do both.

Pros of Taking a Gap Year to Work:

  • Save up money for school to reduce student debt.
  • Real world work experience.
  • Opportunity to work and network in a field they think they are interested in before committing to a post-secondary program.

Cons of Taking a Gap Year to Work:

  • Wasting time and money. If there’s no goal or direction for the gap year, it can be easy to get caught up in the party scene. This can be a huge waste of money. Make sure your teen has a plan for what they want to accomplish.
  • Fear that time off might mean the child will never want to go back to school. I get it. Remember, a college or university education isn’t right for everyone. If your teenager is motivated to pursue post-secondary education, it will happen regardless of a gap year.


Has your child been developing apps since grade school or have they started a small business selling handmade jewelry on Etsy?

Sounds like you may have an entrepreneur on your hands.

If your child is finding success with their current business endeavors, perhaps a full-time foray into entrepreneurship is the right option after high school.

A degree in business or entrepreneurship wouldn’t hurt since it’ll teach them some of the management aspects of owning a business. But, if your child is obsessed with their business and spends every waking moment work on it, encourage them to take the leap to entrepreneurship.

They can figure out the rest with some mentorship and guidance.

Pros of Entrepreneurship:

  • Unlimited earning potential. If their business takes off, the sky’s the limit!
  • Unlimited creative freedom.

Cons of Entrepreneurship:

  • It’s risky. A lot of small businesses fail. But, you’ll never know unless you try. Also, it’s really important to fail when you’re young and you still have time on your side.
  • The challenge of finding work-life balance. When you work a 9 to 5 cubicle job, it can be easy to leave work at work. When you are building your own business, the workday doesn’t end at 5; it ends when you decide it’s time to stop. And sometimes, that is a difficult line to draw.

If your child is interested in entrepreneurship, now is the perfect time. They will never have more energy or less responsibility, so encourage them to go for it!


I’d have mixed feelings if my son or daughter decided to join the military. The risk of deployment and active duty would result in a lot of sleepless nights for me. However, it’s really up to our kids to decide, and there are a lot of perks involved with joining the military.

For some, it’s an option that is definitely worth looking into. It might provide them with opportunities they may not otherwise have access to, or it might provide them with some direction and discipline.

But this is one choice that definitely takes some careful consideration given the risks associated with it.

Pros of the military:

  • Free college.
  • An opportunity to see the world, for free.
  • Free healthcare.

Cons of the military:

  • Deployment and active duty.
  • Being away from home for extended periods of time.
  • Once you sign your contract, you can’t quit.

For a more thorough list of pros and cons of exploring the military option written by someone with firsthand experience, check out this post.

Helping Teens Understand Their Options After High School

A four-year degree is not the only path for students to take after high school, and it’s not the best fit for those students who don’t excel in an academic environment.

If this sounds like your child, show them that there are other options out there. And remind them that once they make a decision, they aren’t locked in. They can change their mind, or even do a couple of these at the same time. It’s a lot of trial and error.

Most of us don’t know what we want to do with the rest of our lives at 17 or 18 years old. But with the right information and guidance, we can help our kids make the best choice for them right now.

I want to hear from you. What other options or information did you share with your high school seniors when they were getting ready to graduate and enter the real world?

helping your teen understand their options after high school pin girl with backpack about to get on train

non-college options to discuss with your teen pin with girl thinking about different careers

1 thought on “Helping Your Teen Understand Their Options After High School”

  1. We started long before high school stressing that STEM jobs like engineering paid better and offered more interesting work than most other careers and also let them know we’d pay reasonable college costs because it was obvious that all three of our kids were very book smart. Two out of three did become engineers, one of those later became a medical doctor. The third resisted our propaganda and majored in business and later in adult education and truly enjoys her job of helping division one athletes succeed in their studies. Because all three excelled at academics it made sense for them to go the college route and all have graduate degrees in addition to four year degrees. One is now pursuing a PhD where she works. I chair a community college/trade school board of trustees and I also see practical two year degrees paying off for young people all the time in jobs like process technicians, physical therapy assistants, nursing and surgical technicians. Good advice in this post!

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