College Admission and Toxic Questions

Once children become teenagers, there is one big question that looms large over their four years of high school – where will they gain college admission. Lisa and I both have 11th graders who are taking the SAT, visiting schools and, along with three million other kids, seeking the answer.

Practically from the delivery room, we begin to imagine our child’s future. As they grow up, kids take custody of their own hopes and dreams leaving parents to find a balance between being supportive and overbearing.  Too many questions, dictates or unsolicited advice and we risk watching our kids flee, slamming the bedroom doors behind them.

teenage avoidance

Unfortunately, even the most well-meaning adults fail to appreciate how intrusive it can feel to be bombarded with questions about college admission. Even perfect strangers glibly offer unsolicited advice on college and career.

So here is our advice to you should you encounter an 11th grader: offer your college opinions only if asked and avoid these ten toxic questions:

1.     How was the SAT?
2.     Are you taking any AP classes?
3.     How’s your GPA?
4.     What schools have you visited?
5.     What colleges are you applying to?
6.     What do you want to major in?
7.     Are you going to the school where your sister goes?
8.     When will you find out?
9.     Are you in anywhere, yet?
10.   Did you find an internship or summer job?

Alternatives? Fall back on sports, current events, movies/music/tv, the family dog – none of these should make your young friend excuse herself to avoid you and your curiosity –  a much happier outcome for all.

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  1. says

    Yes, yes and yes. And there’s always the unimaginable possibility that they aren’t planning on attending college – at all or for a year or two. One size doesn’t necessarily fit all. I’ve had four – two graduated from college, one joined the military and is seeing the world and getting his bachelors in the service and one is artistic, follows his own drummer, bartends and works in the forest service and is happy as a clam – a modern day “hippie,” I guess. They each come with their own footprint I’ve decided.

    • says

      Yes! This is the other thing–the kids who aren’t going to college, or who are adopting an alternate route. Our son skipped his last year of high school, as he was recruited at age 17 to a high-tech company; he had to field so many questions about “why aren’t you finishing high school?” “Will you eventually go to university?” “Why not?”

      Fortunately, he was fine with it all, and has been incredibly successful in his career, with absolutely no academic credentials to speak of. But that was a hard time for him.

      • says

        Karen, what an interesting story you share about your son and how wonderful that the path he took has worked out so well for him. There is this period of time when teenagers- young adults get peppered with questions that don’t let up until they are perceived as being “settled.” Thank you for your comment!

    • says

      Barb, you make a very good point about the individual paths our kids take that are much more diverse than the choice of attending a four year college. Thank you for sharing the experiences of your four children.

  2. says

    Oh, yeah!

    How well I remember this time last year, when you could cut the anxiety around here with a knife. Especially because many of her friends were applying to “early admissions” programs, whereas she wouldn’t hear until mid-March.

    Best to focus on easy, low-stress subjects, to prevent our kids from huddling in a corner, gnawing on their own wrists.

    • says

      Agreed! Love having conversations with my kids (and their friends) about low-stress subjects that have nothing to do with college.

  3. Risa says

    And it’s a good idea to coach the kids too–they don’t have to answer every question just because it’s asked. It’s tough to deflect all the curiosity, but kids CAN protect their privacy, and so can the parents! Some of this stuff is “need to know,” and not everyone you meet “needs to know”!!

    • says

      Risa, you bring your solid experience here with this very excellent suggestion. Coaching our kids to politely deflect noisy questions is a very, very good idea. Thank you!

  4. W.Williams says

    I totally agree with the advice above, but would like to add that high schools should ask kids NOT to wear t-shirts, hoodies, etc. bearing the name of theier accepted college. For all the reasons given above, there may be kids who are unable to attend those schools or didn’t get in to first, second, or fourth choices.

  5. W.Williams says

    I totally agree with the advice above, but would like to add that high schools should ask kids NOT to wear t-shirts, hoodies, etc. bearing the name of their accepted college. There may be kids who aren’t going on to college, or who didn’t get into their first, second, or fourth choice. It would make for a saner environment during the very stressful junior and senior years of high school.

    • says

      We have volunteered at our children’s high school (at the snack bar) for many years and we witness varying degrees of anxiety/relief on the kids’ faces beginning with early decision results through April…. difficult, stressful time for seniors until they are accepted into college.

  6. Emily says

    Have I mentioned that I am so dreading that 11th grade year?? Keep this advice coming…it’s invaluable!

  7. Andrea says

    I have some experience of this particular moment in a kid’s life (both as private college counselor and mother of 3 who have gone through it). While I do think this can be a toxic moment for kids, I am also persuaded they are far more resilient than parents give them due. Indeed, I suspect that very often much of the anxiety we feel on their behalf, is actually our own! Yes, they are probably going to get roughed up a bit by all of this, whatever choices they have and they make – that’s life for you, and there is always some arrogant twit around to rub your face in it – but I wonder if walking on eggshells around them will help much. Perhaps the best antidote to the moment may just be a good dose of gentle humor. Teach them to have some perspective on their lives and their choices and to handle it with humor – that way when they get kicked out of the cotton wool in which we like to wrap them, as they inevitably will, they can dust themselves off and get on with it.

    • says

      Andrea, all really good points. I know that I am guilty of harboring more than a little anxiety about my kids’ anxiety. Thank you for offering advice about helping our teenagers understand a broader perspective on this phase of their lives and, most importantly, adding in a “gentle sense of humor.” Very helpful!

  8. Kyle says

    Having been through this twice with my own children and being an independent college counsellor, I have first hand experience with the stress that 11th and 12th graders go through. Some schools have more competitive students/parents than others. The competitive ones can wreak havoc with a student’s self image regardless of what his/her parents do. We all know that peer approval is so important at that age.
    On another note, I’m a big fan of the gap year. Go out and get a job, earn some money, travel, get away from the high school hot-house. Figure out what it is you want to get out of college. It wasn’t a popular choice when I last lived in the US but I understand gap years are gaining popularity and acceptance with colleges.

    • says

      Kyle, thank you so much for this suggestion. Like others who have commented on this post, there are more options for kids than going to a 4 year college right out of high school. A gap year can be really beneficial, for all the reasons you mention. Very helpful!

  9. says

    I think the more pressure we put on kids at that time, the more discouraged they become. It’s a tough decision to make at a tough time in life. As adults, we should just be supportive and offer advice if asked.

  10. says

    bravo mary! sometimes i’m surprised these kids can stand up straight with all the stress placed on them to make adult decisions when they’ve still a foot in childhood. i hope everyone who reads this post takes it to heart.

    • says

      Thanks, Sandy. Like with so much of parenting, unless you witness it first hand with your own kids, you just don’t understand what it is like for kids.

  11. says

    Been there, done that. Now waiting for Grandchildren to grow up so I can help with their education! Followed you from SITS. Have a blessed day!

  12. says

    I admire all the wise comments here and wish I had access to such advice when we were going through this time in our lives as we too sometimes made mistakes with asking too many questions.

  13. Andrea says

    I have been informed. I’ll have to keep this post in mind the next time I see my 11th grade nephew. I won’t make any promises that I won’t slip up…#sitssharefest

  14. says

    Happy Sharefest!

    This is such an informative post.
    I have a teenager who is starting high school in September and she has no idea what she wants to be when she “grows” up and constantly says she isn’t going to college. I let her know that I went and have a degree and most people who have successful jobs go to college.

    Let’s see what happens!


  15. says

    Totally agree! I have a junior too-way too much pressure on these kids!

  16. says

    BTW I’m readin the book “Admissions”, love Tina Fey, not sure if she is a romantic lead?? Haven’t seen the film. I try to avoid talking to kids at all…unless they talk to me first!

    • says

      Tima Fey-Paul Rudd looks credible to me and I can’t wait to see the movie later this month. How do you like the book?

  17. Carpool Goddess says

    I also think it’s important not to ask if they have a favorite, because if that school doesn’t come through for them it might be uncomfortable next time they see that person. I’ve always flown under the radar during the college process and advised my kids to be careful what information they share with others. There’s a lot of gossiping and comparing stats (real or inflated), that just make the kids even more stressed.

    • says

      That is a very good suggestion for the exact reason you mention. Good advice about coaching your kids to be guarded.

  18. says

    I love this. I wish I had had it ten years ago when it was my turn, and I would have just copied and pasted this link into a mass email. My sister and I always talk about how all of the above questions occur often in high school, and then after college it’s all about career and marriage, and then when married, it’s all about when you’re going to have children! And sometimes the questions get a little too personal.

    • says

      So true – our college sons are getting their share of questions, too. Best to just practice listening.

  19. says

    I admit I was guilty of engaging in too much college-speak when my daughter was going through the application process. I was so persistent that she had to establish a rule with me–no college talk before breakfast! That helped me to wake up and smell the coffee. :)

  20. says

    Where we live, it all starts in eighth grade with the high school admissions process. My daughter is in sixth grade and she’s already getting questioned almost about where she’s applying to high school! I’ll consider it a pre-college practice run.

  21. says

    To be honest, I wish my parents had talked to me a little bit more about what I was in for. I took my SAT once, applied to one college early admission, got in, and attended. If you aren’t talking to your kids BEFORE junior year, they may not know what they’re doing, and then they may feel overwhelmingly stressed out junior/senior year (which is what happened to me). Plant the seed early, and talk about it over time. I agree that junior year is super stressful, so bring it up freshman year – and just talk about basics, like the major differences between colleges, not what major he/she wants to be. Hope that helps =)