British Columbia

How to guide your teen through their post-secondary options

The winter holidays may be a time for food, festivities and fun, but with college and university application deadlines looming just around the corner, this may also be when some parents chat with their teens about plans for after high school.

Experts say taking a gap year to volunteer, travel or work can help young adults discover their passions

Thousands of Grade 12 students across B.C. are expected to graduate this year. They have a plethora of options for their next steps in life. (Shutterstock)

The winter holidays may be a time for food, festivities and fun, but with college and university application deadlines looming just around the corner, this may also be when some parents chat with their teens about plans for after high school.

About 50,500 Grade 12 students in B.C. are expected to graduate this year, and according to provincial data more than half of them are likely to directly transition to post-secondary school. Those who do have a plethora of options to choose from — including universities, technical colleges and distance education.

Others may choose none of those, or opt to take a year off instead. 

UBC professor Richard Young, who specializes in vocational psychology, said the key point for parents to remember when they're talking to their kids about their options is to truly listen. 

"It's a matter of understanding," Young said. "It's sort of normal for parents to do this, but they put a lot of expectations on their kids." 

Whether a teenager is on the fence about their next steps in life or more certain of their goals, experts like Young agree parents can best support their children by helping them discover their interests — and realize that likely won't take them along a straight path. 

"We have to use what happens every day to help us formulate that path," he said. "There's no perfect answer." 

Imagine the possibilities

For teens who aren't sure what career they want to pursue, Young recommends parents encourage them to ponder the possibilities. One way to do that is to ask where they see themselves a few years from now. 

"It gives the young person an opportunity to think into the future," he said. 

Parents can also encourage their teenagers, especially if they're anxious or ambivalent, to think about just trying something out for a year — whether it's joining friends at a community college or taking a year off to work.

Experts say that taking a gap year can be a good way for young adults to discover their interests. (CRStudio/Shutterstock)

Jay Brotherton, a counsellor who has worked with kids and youth throughout his career, endorses volunteering as a way to explore potential careers. 

Taking time off after high school to travel, volunteer and try out different jobs instead of rushing to university can also be a great way for young adults to learn about themselves and their interests, Brotherton says — even if parents worry  their kids will lose academic momentum.

"A lot of youth, I think, could use a little faith that they'll come back round maybe in a year or two after they really figure out, 'Oh this is definitely what I want,'" he said. 

Brotherton also recommends talking to kids about their current interests as a way to explore career options. What are they doing now that brings them joy and leaves them feeling charged and not drained?

'It's a big world out there'

When teens and young adults have a better idea of what further education they want to pursue, Brotherton said parents can be useful by helping them find information. 

"It's a big world out there and it can be pretty intimidating for youth," he said.

Rey Buenaventura, who oversees admissions and recruitment at Langara College, strongly recommends getting in touch with an institution's recruitment advisors to ask them for personalized information about programs. 

Prospective students should also keep in mind that there are lots of options other than studying full-time, Buenaventura said. People can try out a subject area by taking classes through distance education or part-time. 

Buenaventura said most post-secondary students in B.C. can also start off at one institution and transfer to another fairly easily.

Ongoing conversations    

UBC's Richard Young said it's important for parents to realize that students may start a program and realize it's not a good fit, or they may unexpectedly discover a new passion.

Wherever a graduating teen may be in their thought process on post-secondary education, Young said it's likely he or she won't make any decisions after a single conversation with his or her parents. 

Instead, he encourages parents to think about this as an ongoing dialogue. 

"Whatever conversations they might have now or over the holidays is one conversation that's part of a whole series of conversations they have had and will continue to have really from childhood on," he said.

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler


Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at