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College Season Etiquette

Support high school students by respecting the intensity and ambiguity of their experience this season.

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Just as some of us are shifting our conversational dialogue away from professional identity or achievement and toward a holistic understanding of one another, similar tactics will serve our young people well during this college admission season.  In a recent issue of Thrive, replacement questions were offered to help change the way we relate to one another upon first meeting. For example, in place of “So, what do you do for a living?” the suggestion, “Tell me something about your life” was offered.  Or, instead of “Have any plans for the weekend?” ask “How are you planning to spend your weekend?”’ The stay at home parent or homemaker can feel free in answering the first question to describe how she spends her days or to simply share thoughts about current interests and projects.  Likewise, the person asked about his weekend is freer to say “I am planning to take a nap and read.” without feeling like a social outcast for having “no plans.” This model of social dialogue liberates the receiver to decide which personal information gets the emphasis. It also suggests respect for the receiver as a whole person more than just her occupation.

Similarly, we need to shift our conversational focus during this college admission season away from “So, where are you applying?” or “What are you doing next year after high school?” toward “Tell me what interests you; what you are thinking about?” or, simply, “Wonderful to see you. How are you? Good luck on your next steps.”

What difference does it make in your day to know if Suzie is applying to Harvard or University of Massachusetts?  Other than secretly ranking that information in your mind against your own child’s aspirations and accomplishments or your preconceived notions about Suzie’s capacities or that of her high school reputation, it likely makes little difference to you.  To the young person or their parents, it can make a big difference in their day, leaving them in a cloud of anxiety, previously quiet unhelpful peer comparison reawakened and newfound worry stirred up over the as yet unknown outcome.  

When my son was a freshman in high school, I became wise to this cultural phenomenon regarding the college process and finding it unkind to our youth, I shifted my ways with the other high school seniors and their families in my life and those whom I encountered.  One year for Thanksgiving, we hosted a family with a daughter who was in her senior year of high school. Upon making the invitation, I informed the parents to let Zoe know that we would not be asking her about college process unless she wanted to share. The parents were pleasantly surprised and after checking with Zoe, gratefully welcomed a true day off from the stress of the college process.  It was a holiday after all.

When the time came for my son to start looking at schools and eventually apply to college, we coached him on how to dodge unwelcome inquiries.  We backed our son up by also shielding ourselves from the same, making comebacks like “He is looking far and wide; thanks for your interest; gotta run, “ or “He’s not sure; when he has news he wants to share, he’ll let you know.”  Mainly, we told our son, this is one of those situations in life where just because they ask, it does not mean you have to answer.

I will never forget our son’s college counselor’s response when we said that we would look at the local state university along with several other schools.  He remarked that he wished he “could get more parents to think like that.” Too many parents, he went on, will only consider the Ivy+ level of schools for their students.

This parentally-led, student-adopted superficial obsession with where, i.e., how selective a school, a student is applying to or attending, must end now.  It pigeon holes students’ self-worth into a tiny set of “successful” outcomes, unattainable to the great majority. It places the emphasis in the wrong place. Ambitious college-ready students, due to the pressure of insane admission odds and far from adequate financial aid, feel vulnerable and stressed; a group now considered at high risk based on research in this recent Washington Post article .  High school students are whole people, not just college applicants.  

To teach is to demonstrate.  Let’s teach our children and each other through our actions and words that we care more about who our students are, how they feel and what they think than where they are going after high school graduation.  

Action Steps?  

  1. Reflect on how much of your own desire, unmet aspiration or ego is driving your student’s pursuit of the college process.  Understand that it is fair to expect honesty and hard work from your student. Attaching that expectation to a specific outcome is not.  
  2. Consider writing a letter to your college-ready student.  Let them know what you appreciate about who they are. Let them know you are there to support them – unconditionally – as they take steps toward life beyond high school.  Remind your student that your love for them is unattached to any particular outcome.
  3. Shift the emphasis.  When your child comes home, refrain from asking “How did the test go?” and instead ask “How are you?

Kate Banks is a parent, writer, and teacher of yoga and mindfulness. She holds a BA in Sociology and an MBA in Management Systems. In addition to the wellness associated with yoga and mindfulness, Kate’s areas of interest and expertise include parenting, caregiving, chronic illness/pain, and recovery.

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