Everywhere she’s gone during the past few months, high school senior Katie Phelan has been asked a variation of one question: Where are you going to college?
In the hallways of her high school, at friends’ houses, at family events, even while she was trying on clothes at the mall. “One of the ladies working there was asking me through the curtain — while I was changing,” she recalls.
“The topic is almost unavoidable,” says Phelan, who attends the private Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Md. Even though she knows that most people are well-meaning, and that some are simply using the question as an icebreaker, it’s nerve-racking. “The more I talk about it, the more I realize how stressed I actually am.”
“Any questions that you don’t have an answer to are difficult,” agrees Patty Dirlam, a senior at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, Md. “They serve as a reminder that we do not have everything figured out, that we may be in a bit over our heads.”
Parents, high school counselors, independent college consultants and therapists know one of the most fraught elements of the college application process is the inquiries seniors get, whether from kindly acquaintances, judgmental relatives or nosy neighbors.
Plus, especially in the age of social media, choosing a college is “their first big decision that’s very public,” says Tish Peterson, director of college counseling at the private Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Md.
Peterson, who spent nearly 20 years in college admissions before joining Holton-Arms in 2000, has watched with concern as the application process has become accelerated and more pressurized nationwide. “That’s something we need to acknowledge and deal with, so that students are capable of making as good a choice as they can for themselves,” she says.
To help deal with that pressure, some high school counselors, especially at private schools, and independent consultants are arming students with strategies for managing the process’s stress points — including the inevitable questions.
Robbye Fox, a counselor with the College Lady, a Washington-area independent college counseling group, encourages students to embrace this time as a period to develop important social skills. After all, this is likely only the beginning of the queries students are going to get in their lifetimes, questions such as when are you going to get married/have kids/finish that degree/ buy a house, etc. “Learning how to politely sidestep these questions from well-meaning others is a skill they will be able to use again and again,” Fox says.
Peterson begins advising students in their junior year to anticipate what kinds of questions they will get and think through which information they’ll share with friends, and with adults outside their immediate family.
“We try to empower them so they don’t feel awkward about their responses,” she says.
And if they don’t want to share? “We also tell them it’s perfectly acceptable to say: I’ve decided to keep that information private. Or: I’ve decided not to talk a lot about my college process until I’ve made a decision about where I’m going.”
To make that easier for students at Holton, “We also suggest that here in school teachers and other students not constantly bombard seniors with questions about where they’ve applied or been admitted,” says Peterson, “because they really need to have a break from the constant focus on the college process.”
If students do want to talk about it, Peterson and other counselors suggest that they emphasize the range of schools on their list. Emily Livelli, associate director of college counseling at Georgetown Day School in Washington, urges students to have more than one “first” choice (disclosure: the author’s son attended GDS). “That way they are not putting all of their hopes and dreams in one basket,” Livelli says, “but rather they have picked schools that are a good fit for them and what they’re looking for and can honestly say to that question: I don’t have a first choice; I’m excited about all of my choices.”
Another reason not to get too caught up in talking about a favorite school is that teens grow and change quite a bit throughout senior year. “As they get to April or May, their priorities may have changed, so we want them to take a fresh look, not to just go for the sizzle, or rush to deposit at a school that contacts them the most,” says Jim Mahoney, a counselor at the independent Blake School in the Minneapolis area.
When Phelan and her mother brainstormed responses that were polite yet respectful of Katie’s needs, they came up with a similar strategy.
“Most times I say, I applied to a lot of schools in the South, but I’m still waiting to hear back, so we’ll see,” Phelan says. Then she turns the conversation to things going on at Good Counsel.
Redirection (a skill any parent will tell you comes in handy) can be informative. Fox suggests that students reframe these conversations as an opportunity to ask adults about their experiences, perhaps by saying, How did you go about deciding what to do after high school? Or: What led you to your current career/field? “They never know what helpful tidbit they may pick up from the adult’s response,” Fox says.
Fox also recommends students try to lighten up the situation through humor. “I try to get their creative juices flowing and help them come up with a story that’s linked to one of their interests,” she says. For example, a boy who loves ice hockey might respond to questions about his future with something akin to, I might take a year off and drive the Zamboni for the Capitals.
Students aren’t the only ones dealing with this pressure. “The most dangerous place to be as the parent of a senior is the sideline of a fall sporting event,” half-jokes Whitney Bruce, a postsecondary counselor at Maine Coast Waldorf School. Peterson notes that parents “can also feel judged or scrutinized in the process.” She suggests parents field inquiries by saying, My daughter has applied to a range of schools she’s interested in, or, Once she hears and decides where she’s going, we’ll be happy to share the news.
When colleges start responding, uncertainty can be replaced by complicated emotions aroused by acceptances and rejections. Though counselors emphasize that a college decision isn’t a verdict on a student’s worth, rejection can be devastating.
At the Blake School, Mahoney often tells students: “Sometimes you just have to feel the hurt. You loved the college and you weren’t admitted. Go hit a golf ball or go for a run, and get up the next day and begin again. There are some positive decisions around the corner.”
In addition to dealing with their excitement and dejection, students will be trying to exercise “the ability to be happy for someone and then sad for yourself, and vice versa,” Livelli says.
Bailey Weinstein, a senior at Langley High School in Fairfax County, Va., wishes he’d kept the schools he’d applied to private. “It’s not because I don’t want my friends to think less of me, but I hate knowing that they’re rooting for me to get in, and because I feel like they were disappointed for me when I got deferred.”
Under these circumstances, it can be especially difficult to answer the blunt, Did you get into X school? Mahoney says he reminds students to divulge only the information they feel comfortable sharing. One possible response: I’m lucky to be choosing between a few exciting options. If the questioner presses, he suggests: I’ll be happy to let you know when I make a final choice.
If the questioner is a fellow teen, however, opening up can help, says Falls Church, Va., clinical social worker Devra Gordon. “What I tell kids is, if you bring it up, you will be surprised at the floodgates that open, that others are experiencing these feelings and these doubts. And you might get some great peer advice about how to handle those things.”
Gordon, a former public schools social worker, says answering college-related queries can be especially difficult “for kids who decide to take a gap year, or for kids for whom college is not their plan.” She suggests that parents of kids pursuing a nontraditional path help equip them for the onslaught: “Say, ‘How can I support you talking about it?’ Sometimes just having a prepared sentence helps because it gives you confidence in what you’re doing.”
In communities with a highly educated parent population where it seems as if everyone is going to a selective four-year institution, it can be challenging to keep college decisions in perspective. “It’s easy to believe that that is the norm, and it’s not,” says Bruce. She tells students that “going to college is life-changing,” no matter where they wind up.
Alexandra Robbins, who attended high school in competitive Montgomery County and is the author of “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids,” tries to remind students that acceptances and rejections can boil down to mundane details — and luck. “Rejection could be as simple as the school orchestra needs a French horn player,” Robbins says. She also emphasizes that what matters is not the name of the college as much as what students do when they are there.
Sometimes the best advice comes from those who have been there not so long ago. The college counseling office at the Bush School in Seattle hosts a breakfast each winter for recent alumni and current seniors. It’s an opportunity for the high-schoolers to see that there are many different ways to go, at all points in the process, explains Melissa Ewing Lanctot, co-director of college counseling at the school.
“They talk about what they’re studying, or about changing majors, and what they wish they’d known a year or two years ago,” Lanctot says. “And the students see, ‘Hey, I am going to be there — be them — pretty soon, and I’m going to make it.’ ”
So what can adults do to not add to the stress?
Advice for parents from counselors and consultants includes asking relatives to back down on the college questions and avoid talking about it daily or allowing it to overshadow everything else. “If your child really wants to talk about it, that’s great,” Livelli says. “And if they don’t, pick one finite time per week to check in on anything that needs to be worked on or talked through, and let the rest of the week be about all the other things going on senior year.”
If you’re a well-meaning relative or neighbor, Bethesda psychologist Anita Iverson suggests posing open-ended questions. This allows students to choose whether to talk broadly or to narrow the topic to specific schools. Some examples: Is there anything you’ve discovered that surprised you as you visited colleges? How are you faring with the whole process?
Phelan, the high school senior, hopes parents asking their kids’ friends about college plans can be nonjudgmental — and avoid the temptation of listing all the schools their own children have been accepted to. “It is life, and we all do have to deal with it,” she says, “but I just hope that more people can be sensitive about this college process.”
Christine Koubek is a freelance writer based in Maryland.
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