College Pete

Sanity-saving family advice: What to do if a nosy, know-it-all Uncle’s talkin’ college over dinner

Sanity-saving family advice: What to do if a nosy, know-it-all Uncle’s talkin’ college over dinner

I love big family dinners, but our teens around the table, especially those who are in the throes of figuring out what they’ll be doing post-high school, don’t like it so much.

See, eventually some well-meaning adult will bring up the ‘c’ word, as in College. Like: ‘So, where are you applying? Did you get that SAT score last week? Was it better?’. You get the point.

The response: awkward silence.

Just imagine how you’d feel if your boss’s best friend decided to ask you about your performance appraisal at the next department meeting?

Yeah, that’s kind of what talking college with a teen at a table full of their cousins and grandparents feels like to him/her. Extremely stressful.

That’s because to a student, any chat about post-high school plans is a deeply personal and extremely sensitive (not to mention, competitive) conversation. And there is a time and a place for conversations like those. Thanksgiving dinner is probably 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.

As a higher ed professional, I should 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, college conversations will happen.

So a few years back, we created a college conversation ‘cheat sheet’ for our family. We hope these tips might be helpful should you find yourself talking college at your dining table.

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: Often (or inevitably) someone will say “college costs too much!” When they do, they are likely referring to the ‘gross or published price’ that they’ve seen or heard about. Remember, that is NOT likely to be the price that you’ll have to pay for college (at least 2/3 of matriculating freshman pay LESS than the published price – often significantly less – the AVERAGE discount rate is 49%). Some post high school education is required by 99% of jobs created since the recession and education has benefits that go far beyond economics… but only if it’s affordable. And it can be, so take a deep breath and nod politely with confidence knowing that you’ve got experts to help you make college affordable (see image below).

BONUS Tips: Kids, these last few 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.

-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 son’s guidance office – ‘College is a match to be made. It is NOT (my emphasis) a prize to be won.’ 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 environment for you (at the right price for your family)- 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 for our young teens in middle school. I know that students in middle school are feeling increasing pressure to accelerate their college planning efforts (exacerbated by the portfolio component of the Coalition app and the increase in the amount of Algebra 2 on standardized tests).

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’ (my word).

That said, many middle school students 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 these developments and do have curriculum for 7th and 8th graders, we continue to emphasize the idea of middle schoolers becoming aware of their options and what’s required to achieve those options and nothing more.

With that, we wish you the best at your next family get-together!

Leave a comment