A few week’s back, fresh off taking the new Oct 14 PSAT, our 11th grade daughter brought a few friends home to dinner. All had college on their minds; none really wanted to talk about it. Neither did we. And here’s why.

Talking college with your teen is a lot like giving or having a performance appraisal or asking your boss for a raise.

It’s a deeply personal and extremely sensitive (not to mention, competitive) conversation. And there is a time and a place for conversations like those. A casual dinner in front of friends or your extended family is not one of those times. That said, it’s hard to avoid – talking about this college thing.

Like moths to flames, college conversations happen everywhere and all the time – especially among teenagers (and their parents) who are being inundated with information and frankly, a lot of misinformation, about what it takes to get in, what tests and courses they should and shouldn’t be taking, how much it costs, why they should or shouldn’t go to a particular school, etc.

Now, as a higher ed professional I know better. I know that nothing can strike a nerve or cause more distress (and stress) to a college bound teen (and their parents) than A) being offered unsolicited college advice or B) getting asked any hypothetical college-related question.

But as a mom, even one who has professionally counseled hundreds of students and parents on how or when to have difficult college conversations, I know stuff (as in, uncomfortable college conversations) happens. And if I’m being completely honest, I’m sure my daughter would tell you that I’m the main cause of this stuff to happen (for her).

So, since my Thanksgiving table will be filled with my own children as well as many of my teenage and college-bound nieces and nephews, I’ve created a college conversation ‘cheat sheet’ for my own family. And while I certainly understand that there are rightfully far more critical and global matters on most of our minds this Thanksgiving, I hope these tips might be helpful should you find yourself talking college over turkey (or football) at your Thanksgiving table.

Tips for Talking About College

Tip #1: Don’t ask a 12th grader, ‘So, have you finished all of your applications?’ or worse; ‘Have you heard from {insert student’s Top Choice U}’? Or for that matter, don’t ask them these two either: ‘What are you going to major in…’ and the dreaded follow up of ‘Seriously? what are you going to do with that?’ I promise, 12th graders who have or know these answers will surely volunteer them. So, if they haven’t said, you probably shouldn’t ask.

Tip #2: Don’t ask anyone, ‘Where do you want to go to college?’ or, ‘How many AP’s are you taking?’, or especially this: What they got on the {insert Admissions Test of choice}? Instead, steer the conversation towards what they like to ‘do’ in or out of the classroom​ or how they’re enjoying or not enjoying {insert grade here}. They’ll volunteer more if you offer a softer touch.

Tip #3: Know that your silence is always a better response than ‘You know what you should do…’ or any variation thereof including, ‘You know who you should talk to…’, ‘You know what your cousin did or is doing’, and finally, You know what my best friend’s son’s girlfriend’s teacher said…’ Any of these are the fastest way to turn off your teen on any topic.

Tip #4: Students, these last two are for you! If someone does ask you any of the above… please try not to become defensive or to read into the question more than you should. Consider any question to be a well-intentioned conversation starter and not one that is meant to cause you any anxiety.

Tip #5: If you are asked What college you want to go to, for example, and you don’t know or don’t want to say, simply reply with ‘I’m still considering different options – where did YOU go to college?’ Chances are that’s exactly what whomever asked wanted to talk about in the first place, so you’re off the hook and you might actually gain some bonus insight at the same time.

Same is true of nearly every other ‘no-no’ question on this list. Most people are just eager to share what they know (or think they know). You have the power to listen politely and with an open mind. Later, you can choose to accept what works for you and discard what doesn’t.

Remember, few people remember how personal the college process really is – every student, every situation is different – and everything is different today than when I was applying (or most of your parents were).

We like to remind people of the sign hanging in our daughter’s guidance office – ‘College is NOT (my emphasis) a prize to be won; it is a match to be made.’ The simple truth is that it’s not where you ‘get in’ that counts, or even where you wind up going that matters — it’s far more about what you do when you get there that will determine your future.

You will be successful in college and in life as long as you’re in the right college environment for you – which is NOT necessarily the same environment that’s right for your sister, your cousin or your uncle’s best friend’s son’s girlfriend… nor is it likely to be determined by any ‘national ranking.’

One last bonus tip. We know that rumors are beginning to circulate about some popular Florida destinations (namely, FSU and UCF) that are planning to ask students for middle school transcripts – voluntarily at first, mandatory over the next couple of years. Obviously this is concerning on many levels… not the least of which is that it adds another new wrinkle that is turning what the Wall Street Journal called a ‘mind-numbingly complex’ admissions process into a true ‘cluster’, as I called it in last week’s article.

That said, middle school students in Florida who take high-school level classes, such as a foreign language or Algebra, already receive a ‘HS transcript’ along with their middle school one. Of greater concern is the increased amount of pressure on both middle schools and young students to focus on college prep – without the necessary resources and well before the students have the sufficient maturity to do so.

In fact, our experience is that most selective colleges give far less weight to grades in 9th and 10th grade (especially for boys) if the student shows considerable improvement in the upper grades. So, while we’re following this development and will report on it in short order, I’d suggest refraining from discussing it with your 6th grader or his/her teacher until we have a full understanding of what’s intended.

To that point, we are holding our last public workshop of the year on Dec. 9th. It’s free, but seating is limited.

Parents of 12th graders, you’re in emergency mode. Parents of 11th graders, you’re getting there… and 10th, 9th and maybe even 8th graders, you’re on-the-clock, admissions-wise and financially speaking. We hope to see you there.

Until then, we want to thank you for your continued support and we wish you a safe, stress-free and enjoyable Thanksgiving weekend.

— Jill (and Peter)

p.s. Please share this with a friend, colleague or relative with college-bound teens in their home for the holiday… they’ll all thank you for it.

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