There are many paths.
At Shorewood High School, there is a general channel toward college, and that may or may not be the right path for your student. Keep an open mind about gap years and vocational training and career options. Even if college is the right path, there are many varieties within that broad category. Just because you enjoyed your college experience 30 years ago does not mean that your student's experience has to be similar. There are advantages and disadvantages to all types of schools, and until you start looking and experiencing options together, your student may not know where they would thrive.
The path can always be revised.
We know young adults who have changed course several times. There are many paths even for each person, and what first seems like a delay or a detour can end up being the best path forward.
Do your homework.
The stress of this process can be decreased when it is demystified. If you spread the legwork out by starting early, then your student will have more mental space for decisions later on and will not be crazy busy senior year. Don't know what to do early on? Figure out your family's EFC. Play with some Net Price Calculators. Play with academic factors in the SuperMatch on Naviance. Figure out your family's limiters for future options. Maybe you need colleges that cover near 100% of financial need. Maybe you need colleges that offer merit aid. Maybe you need a college that has a certain support system available.
Talk with your student.
Notice what they like and don't like about school now. Notice what they like and don't like about the world around them. Ask about what they think about a gap year. Ask what they think of the future choices of someone you know. If your student gets excited about something they learn or read about, that might connect with a path forward. Once you visit places, ask about impressions and reactions. This talking should not be stressful, but should be the interior part of the future search.
Play to your strengths.
Within each pathway, revise the general strategy according to your strengths. If you are headed to college but do not do well on tests, then don't spend excessive amounts of time & money doing test prep. Apply to a few of the 800+ test optional or test flexible schools. If you are great at taking tests, then take them, get them over with, and consider looking for schools with merit scholarships based on academic achievement (often measured in part on test scores). If you are a great writer, then tackle the application supplements with gusto, filling in every "optional" essay and showing colleges how you think. If leadership is your strength, look for schools that value your experience. If you are looking for something completely different, perhaps a technical certification, look at all of the options in the area. Shoreline Community College has a plethora of great programs, but Lake Washington Institute of Technology or Renton Technical College may be better suited to your strengths and interests.
Know that math can be cruel.
No, I don't mean calculus! We are talking admission rates. Those 7% or 18% or 34% rates may be motivating at first, but in the end, that math can be brutal. Turn those numbers around and realize that 93% or 82% or 66% of applicants get rejected from those schools. Even if it is not personal--most of the applicants to those schools are qualified--our kids feel each one as a personal blow. You will never know whether they need trombone players or writers or chemists or soccer midfielders at that particular school that particular year.
We aren't advocating being power-hungry, but you want to have a few options that would work for your student. Don't give all of your power to a few very selective schools. You want to be the one choosing from several options, not defaulting to the only remaining option. This stripping away of options happens because families do one or both of these two things: 1) they only apply to schools that are very challenging to get into; 2) they apply to schools without investigating whether those schools would be affordable.
Be gentle with your human.
This is the first time our kids have had to package themselves to be evaluated. It is a shift from what they know, where they have been evaluated only after teachers get to know them and their work in class. As all of you parents already know, our kids need our support and love even as they get older. They need it during this search and transition time as well.
Find the balance.
We do not think there is any one way that the student - parent partnership works in the future search. Some students look up programs and email professors without any prompting, and others need to be led step by step through the process. Some parents love the research and others do not. We know students pursuing majors that their parents suggested because the parent noticed that the student lit up when talking about a certain topic, and students in really cool programs that the parents found out about. We also know students who discovered really interesting options on their own and who surprised their parents by choosing something at once unexpected but completely their own.