Why I’ll Never Again Ask ‘Where Are You Going to College Next Year?’

For years, come spring, I’d excitedly ask the high school seniors I knew “So where are you headed to school next year?” I meant well – honestly, I thought each of these kids was awesome and was excited for whatever they had in store. But now that I’ve gone through college admissions with my first child and I’m almost-but-not-quite through it with my second, I’ve vowed never to ask again.

I don’t ask the teens, and I don’t ask the parents. If they have news and want to share, I will give them the most enthusiastic reaction they can hope for. But I’m done putting them on the spot.

I never want to put a teen, or their parent, on the spot with well-meaning but intrusive questions. (Shutterstosk Oleg Golovnev)

The college acceptance topic may be uncomfortable

Why? Well, if the college admissions process had a relationship status, more often than not, it would be “It’s complicated.” Even now – well into May – a lot of students don’t know where they’re going. And there is often no short, easy answer to give to a neighbor or the parent of a kid you went to elementary school with when you bump into them at the grocery store. No doubt they’re trying to be friendly, show interest, and make conversation, but still, they may inadvertently be poking at an extremely tender, vulnerable spot.

I learned this the hard way. My first-born is now absolutely thriving at her first-choice college…but it was a long, painful road to get there. As a terrific student who was qualified to go pretty much anywhere, she aimed high. Sure, she applied to a range of schools, but she didn’t have a “unicorn” on her list; a school with a high acceptance rate that she also truly loved and would be genuinely excited to attend.

My daughter’s college acceptance journey was long and complicated

An early decision application turned to a deferral, then a rejection. More rejections and waitlists came with time. There were some acceptances, but visits confirmed that she really didn’t want to go to any of them. 

By then, it was late April. We panicked. We considered and discarded the idea of a gap year. We started applying overseas, thinking we could MacGyver a first year study-abroad experience and have her transfer for sophomore year. We held out hope that a waitlist would turn into an acceptance. Every day felt like a year. And every day, well-meaning people asked “So where are you headed to school next year?”

Maybe the pain and panic in her eyes when she was asked was more evident to me – I’m her mom, after all – but my heart broke a little every time, and I can’t lie, it did add stress to an already agonizing time of her life. Mine, too.

Every time someone asked about college acceptances my mind went into overdrive

Every time someone asked The Question, my mind went into overdrive: “How well do I know this person? Should I deflect or explain? How much detail should I give? How upbeat do I act in my response even if I’m crying inside? Should I even answer at all, given that it isn’t really my story to tell?”

Wash, rinse, repeat, until May 22nd, when she miraculously received a call from the admissions office of the place she most wanted to go. She had a happy ending, but it made me hyper-aware that not everyone’s story wraps up with a neat bow by April 1st

This year, it’s even worse. Skyrocketing application numbers and overworked admissions offices pushed acceptance rates down and deferrals and waitlists up, and the FAFSA debacle makes the whole thing infinitely worse. Even if students are accepted at a school they desperately wanted to attend, they did not know if they could afford to attend that school.

The FASFA debacle forced many schools to push their commitment dates forward

Many schools reacted by pushing the commitment date from May 1 to May 15 or even June 1, which in turn may push movement on waitlists too. It’s complicated, right? With that in mind, I am not asking – and am also feeling less compelled to do any telling about my second kid’s journey, which is not yet concluded.

Now that my daughter is home for the summer after sophomore year, I’ve added a corollary to my “don’t ask about college” rule. I also don’t ask “So what are you doing for the summer?” because that almost always reads as “Where are you working?” And maybe the answer is “I have an amazing internship that relates to my major with a super cool company that might hire me after graduation!” But, maybe the answer is, you guessed it, complicated.

Maybe they applied to dozens of internships and were rejected or ghosted or still waiting to hear. Maybe they’re babysitting but feel shy about sharing that with a near-stranger who they feel would expect more. Maybe they experienced physical or mental health challenges and just need to rest and recuperate. 

I’ve decided to change the question I ask

So – I’ve decided my question is going to be “Is there something you’re excited about doing this summer?” because that could be answered with details about a job, if they have one they want to share with me. Or it could as easily be answered with, “Yes, I cannot wait to get to the beach, I go to school up north and I’m dying for some sun” or “Yes, we’re having a huge family reunion to celebrate my Lola’s 85th birthday and I’m excited to see my little cousins” or “Yes, I’m finally going to see Hamilton.”

And I hope that interaction will leave us both feeling a little bit connected, which was, of course, the goal all along.

More Great Reading:

College Admissions: 5 Things High School Seniors Want Parents to Know

College Admissions: Grown and Flown

About Michelle McGorty

Michelle McGorty lives in northern New Jersey with her husband, 3 teens, and the cutest Bernedoodle you'll ever meet. A former consultant and communications professional, these days she spends most of her time volunteering for various local theater organizations, being a dance mom, and walking the dog everyone else promised they would walk

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