College Pete


Awkward Thanksgiving Conversations

Awkward Thanksgiving Conversations

With Thanksgiving just days away, I wanted to re-impart a message to high school students (and the relatives who love them) about how best to handle inevitable, often uncomfortable, conversations surrounding college admissions and post-high school plans. I first wrote this message in 2015 to help my own niece and daughter navigate our family’s Thanksgiving Day table talk when they were in 11th grade.

Like my own family’s gathering, I know that between the delicious food, the beverages, the football, Thanksgiving traditions and the reconnection with extended relatives, these get-togethers can also be uber-stressful for high school students who are applying or who plan to apply to college. Once you’re through the initial greetings, Uncle Billy or Aunt Cathy will eventually get to The Question… the one that can leave a teenager teetering on edge.

“So, where are you applying to college?”

It seems like such a simple question, and from an adult’s point of view it is. But the answer, and the conversation that follows, can come with so much emotion, stress, and pressure for students, most of whom would rather pet the dog, or watch the football game, or play on the Xbox. Over the break, especially for students in the throes of the application or standardized testing cycle, college is the last thing most teens want to discuss over turkey and stuffing. But it’s largely unavoidable, so herein lies the potential conflict that awaits – and more importantly, how to sidestep it effectively:

Kids, please be patient. Uncle Billy and Aunt Cathy have life experience and opinions, and they want to express them. They want to tell you their stories…and they also just want to have a good conversation with their tight-lipped, teenage relatives. To most adults, what happens after high school seems like an obvious, safe and easy conversation starter. The best way to deflect this question AND have a meaningful interaction with your family is to ask them about above-referenced life experiences.  Like, for example, when Uncle Billy asks about your plans for after high school or what you’re thinking about studying, be curious. Respond to his query by respectfully asking him about what his college or post-high school life was like. Ask him if he would do something different today and why? And then, listen – I’m sure he has some valuable nuggets he’d really like to impart.

Remember, Uncle Billy and Aunt Cathy mean no harm by their questions, or the comments that follow. They’re just being conversational and expressing their interest in you. After years of helping families navigate these types of conversations, I’m confident that with an appropriate response to your family’s interest, you can ease your emotional burden and shift the focus back onto Uncle Billy or Aunt Cathy.

So, when asked this year, try saying the following:

“I’m considering lots of college options. So tell me, Aunt Cathy…where did YOU go to college?”

In some ways, this is exactly what Aunt Cathy wants to talk about anyway. Get her to start talking about her own post-high school or college experience, and before you know it you’ll be finished with your sweet potatoes and ready for dessert, or to watch the 2nd half of the football game. Aunt Cathy doesn’t mean any harm by her line of questioning. Uncle Billy just wants to start the conversation. Try not to be defensive, and instead try to enjoy your family’s company.

Now to Aunt Cathy and Uncle Billy and all of our older (read: more experienced) folks. Please see above, and be inquisitive and open-ended with your questioning — and try to keep it to something they are currently doing (other than completing tests or college apps). Keep in mind it’s much easier for a teenager to discuss the tangible, as in what they’re doing in the moment than what they’re considering for their future.

If you want to inquire, perhaps start with, ‘what are you liking in school these days? Any particular project or activity you’re enjoying?’ instead of of where do you want to go to college (or what do you want to do after high school). To many High school students, any questions about their future feel fraught with judgment and may engage a knee-jerk, fight or flight fear response. They fear that you’ll find their choices or indecision about their choices – or their inability to articulate what they’re really thinking — to be lacking — either in ideas or ambition or ability.

And even if they do engage and name several colleges they’re considering or articulate their most recent post-high school plans, keep the conversation going by avoiding the ‘Whys’ in your follow-up. Like, instead of “Why are or aren’t you applying to {Fill in Blank} University? Your cousin Frank went there and now he works on Wall Street!”, try saying something like, ‘Oh that’s interesting, tell me more about XY or Z’.. or try responding without a follow up question at all and talk instead about your own recollection of the pressure and experiences as a teenager with planning your post-high school life — good and bad.

Also please take note of other very uncomfortable questions that teens despise hearing from loving relatives, including:

“What did you get on the SAT (or ACT)?”


“What do you want to major in?” Followed by the Most Dreaded, “What do you intend to do with that?”

If you’re an Uncle Billy or Aunt Cathy, and you want to have a productive conversation with your nephew or niece, try to steer the conversation towards something that the teen enjoys doing. Ask about what they do OUTSIDE of school. After all, these kids are on vacation. They would rather sit in the dentist chair than discuss their grades, GPA, test scores, or college admissions with you.

We know that Thanksgiving can be a stressful family event, especially with teenagers, but it can also be full of joy, love, and of course apple pie. My wish for our students at this Thanksgiving holiday is to embrace their family and their inquisitiveness. It typically comes from a place of love, so view it through that prism.

And to my older readers (parents and other adult relatives), be sensitive to the pressure that your younger teenage relatives may be feeling and try to both embrace whatever they give you while sharing a little piece of your life with them.

Be confident in their ultimate success. You are your family’s own best subject matter expert, so approach these gatherings as an opportunity to connect with those who care most about you.

May we all make lasting, loving memories this holiday season.

From my family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving! Be sure to save room for dessert.

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