The 10 Important Pre-College Conversations to Have With Teens

Raising children involves preparing them for what’s to come. Practicing new routines and discussing unfamiliar and potentially challenging scenarios to reassure teens that the unknown isn’t totally out of their control. Thoughtful preparation shouldn’t stop when teens graduate high school and plan to transition to college.

Discussing important “adulting” topics is essential for you and your college-bound student. The pre-college conversations below are suggested to initiate discussions with your child, not parental lectures. These conversations enable parents to share their opinions, provide guidance, discuss expectations, and communicate their support for their teen’s ability to thrive in the transition ahead.

They also offer college-bound students the opportunity to share their ideas, concerns, and expectations before they independently handle many of these issues.

There are ten important conversations before your teen goes to college (Twenty20

Parents need to talk about these 10 topics with their college-bound teens

1. The Big Picture

Why have this conversation? Sometimes parents overlook the most obvious questions in conversations with their college-bound students. Big-picture discussions will help ground future conversations about the big transition ahead.

Prompts to start the dialogue: Why does the student want to attend college? Why do you want your child to go to college? What decisions does the student want to make independently in college? What decisions do you want your child to make independently in college? What do you each consider a successful college experience academically? Socially? Emotionally?

2. Family Expectations

Why have this conversation? Parents and teens often have differing expectations about how their relationship will change once college begins.

Prompts to start the dialogue: How often and by what means do you expect to communicate with each other once college begins? What are your expectations regarding your child’s response to texts and phone calls? Staying in touch with siblings and extended family? What is vital about how your child manages their first weeks in college? What is most important for your student to know about life at home when they are away?

3. Money

Why have this conversation? College costs continue rising, and families struggle to pay for their children’s undergraduate education. Simultaneously, most incoming college students lack experience with budgeting, saving, loaning, and using credit.

Prompts to start the dialogue: How much does the student’s college (or the colleges they are considering) cost annually, including tuition, room, and board? What will the family/student contribute? Does the family/student anticipate taking out loans? Who will be responsible for repaying these loans? Will the student find part-time work in college? How will expenses be handled, such as food off the meal plan, entertainment, or online purchases? Does the student know how to keep a weekly/monthly budget?

Dr. Brenner, the author of this post, created the “Talking College” card deck to help families converse on 11 important topics before their teen goes to college.

4. Safety

Why have this conversation? Student safety is a priority for every college, but with so many people living nearby, even the safest campuses experience their share of crimes, burglaries, and assaults. Discussions about emergency preparedness and safety precautions must be discussed with students before they leave home.

Prompts to start the dialogue: What are some ways for the student to protect themself while walking alone? What is their plan if a valuable item, such as a wallet or laptop, is lost or stolen on campus? How can students keep their friends safe while attending college parties? How can students keep their information safe while using credit cards or unsecured Wi-Fi connections in college?

5. Health

Why have this conversation? Parents have until now been responsible for preventative healthcare and caretaking for their sick kids, but college students will begin to manage all aspects of their healthcare (and illnesses spread rapidly in residence halls!)

Prompts to start the dialogue: What health insurance plan will the student have in college, and how does it work? Can the student narrate their personal health history to a medical provider? What are the names and dosages of the students’ medications, and why do they take them? Does the student make their appointments for medical and dental visits yet? Do they refill their prescriptions?

6. Academics

Why have this conversation? Ultimately, college is school, but the differences between high school and college academic standards take a lot of new college students by surprise. These differences include time management, personal responsibility, finding and using academic resources, and more heavily weighted assignments. 

Prompts to start the dialogue: What are the differences between how academic success is defined in high school versus college? What are the student’s time management challenges? What are the student’s/family’s expectations for the chosen academic course? What are the expectations for sharing grades now that parents cannot access them directly? What are the advantages of attending professors’ and TAs’ office hours? How will the student know if they should consider dropping a class? 

7. Relationships

Why have this conversation? Healthy relationships with roommates, friends, romantic partners, mentors, and educators are critical factors in whether a first-year student will return to college for their sophomore year.

Prompts to start the dialogue: How will the student respond if they can’t get along with their roommate? How might the student approach a situation where a new college friend cannot afford things that they can afford or where they cannot afford things that others can? How might someone recognize an unhealthy or toxic relationship with a mentor? An employer? A romantic partner? What topics might make the student uncomfortable when speaking to new college friends?

8. Drugs and Alcohol

Why have this conversation? The availability of drugs and alcohol + the absence of parents, + the desire to fit in = potentially risky decisions regarding college partying.

Prompts to start the dialogue: What role does the student think alcohol and drugs will have in their college experience? What are your expectations for your student’s behavior regarding substance use in college? How should the student care for a peer who is very drunk or has passed out? What are the known dangers specific to college binge drinking? How are consuming edibles different from smoking marijuana? How does substance use to affect a person’s ability to consent to a sexual experience?

9. Getting Involved

Why? Studies show that involvement in campus clubs and organizations offers significant benefits for college students, such as finding a community of friends and expanding their organizational and leadership skills.

Prompts to start the dialogue: Which clubs, organizations, or affinity groups does the student want to explore in college? When students picture college involvement, do they think they’ll want to hone existing skills and passions or try something new? If they are interested in Greek life, what is the best way to handle the time commitment, social pressures, and financial responsibility of joining?

10. Self-Care

Why? Across the country, colleges and universities face a massive increase in students needing mental health care and wellness support. New college students must learn to balance their daily self-care with all the newness of an already stressful college life.

Prompts to start the dialogue: How much sleep does the student need to function well? Given all the distractions, what are some ways to develop a healthy sleep routine in college? Are there foods the student should eat regularly or limit? What are the student’s plans for following a healthy exercise routine in college? Will the student use the counseling services offered at their new college? What are some healthy ways for the student to relieve stress?

These discussion prompts are just the beginning. If you are interested, check out the Talking College™ cards, created by Dr. Brenner and built on the experiences of college faculty, staff, and families. The cards provide for the most critical pre-college discussions about “adulting.” The deck includes 279 discussion prompts covering 11 different themes.

About Andrea Malkin Brenner

Dr. Andrea Malkin Brenner is a college transition educator and author who brings years of experience as a “college insider” to her talks and workshops for high school students and parents. Andrea is the creator of the newly published Talking College™ cards, the original card deck of discussion prompts for college-bound students and their parents. She’s also co-author of How to College: What to Know Before You Go (and When You’re There,) a student-facing book that guides high school graduates through their transition to college life.

Andrea worked at American University in Washington, DC for 25 years as a sociology professor and administrator. She created the nationally recognized first-year experience program and directed the university’s largest freshman living-learning community. Dr. Brenner has received multiple awards for her teaching and first-year student programs. To bring Dr. Brenner to your student’s high school, contact Andrea through

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