How We Can Help Teens Feel Less Anxious About Getting Into College
By Rosalind Wiseman
Have you heard back from any schools yet? Where are you thinking about going?
As someone who works with high school people across the country, I can assure you high school seniors hate answering these questions.
People ask me what do I want to do in my life. I don’t even know what I want to do tomorrow. -Liv, 17
But, in the wake of the college admissions bribery scandal, if we ever needed a time to stop asking these questions and start acknowledging the insanity of the college applications process, it’s now.
However, we also have to recognize how we all contribute to the anxiety that this system feeds off of. Every time we ask a high school senior where they are “going,” we contribute to the problem. Every time we gossip with other parents about who got in and why we contribute to the problem. Every time we post which schools our children got into or how much scholarship money they received, we contribute to the problem. Every time we project our anxieties onto our children and convince ourselves that their happiness (and ours by extension) is tied up in getting into the “right” school, we contribute to the problem.
We can stop this.
This is a subject I talk to high school students about and they have come up with three possible reasons adults are constantly asking questions about where they are going to college:
- They are genuinely interested because they care.
- They don’t know what else to talk about with a person their age.
- They are comparing their own child to the young person they are talking to
It’s disappointing but most of the students feel that the last reason is the most common.
As soon as you mention you’re a senior the question is, “Oh, where are you going to college?” – Gabriella, 17 – Cultures of Dignity editorial advisor
High school students need to flip the script. The next time an adult asks a “Where are you going to college?” question, they can respond by asking the adult at least one of the following questions:
Questions Teens Can Ask Adults About College Admissions
- Where did you go to college? Was it where you wanted to go?
- What did you learn from the experience and the application process as a whole?
- Did you go to college close to or far away from home?
- Were you limited in where you could apply because of money?
- Did you share where you got in with your friends and family? What do you think that would be like now with social media?
- Can you tell me if you knew what you wanted to major in when you were my age?
- Were you anxious about applying to college?
- Did your friends help or hurt your stress as you went through the process of applying to colleges?
- What do you think is the best way to manage the judgment and comparisons that people often make about getting into college?
Of course, these questions should be asked in a respectful and curious tone and a meaningful conversation may well come out of it. A young person could learn a lot from an adult who is willing to answer honestly about their college experience.
I also asked young people to share their advice about how an adult can engage with them in conversation about their future. Here are some of their suggestions:
I bet you’re being asked about college a lot right now and I’m not going to do that. I am much more interested in knowing how you see things.
Are you taking any classes in school that you like and are really interested in?
What do you think are important issues high school students care about?
What do you think is the best use of your time after you graduate from high school?
If you are talking to a young person you know well, including your own children, you can always say,
I know I’m saying something obvious, but the combination of social media, the college application process, and how people will talk with you about college is designed to make you as anxious as possible. It’s horrible but true.
It’s really important to remember that the “right school” means the right school for you. Please know that wherever you end up going, you are investing in that school because you believe you can learn best in their environment. Wherever you end up, I will be proud of you if you worked hard, strived to make the world a little bit better, and upheld your dignity through the process.
Adults should help young people navigate the anxiety and feelings of rejection and disappointment, not contribute to them. We must support young people to push back on the anxiety and inequity that is inherent in higher education’s admission process.
Our children’s happiness will never be dependent on what college they attend. Their happiness is, and will always be, based on contributing to something larger than themselves, curiosity, meaningful social connection, a hope of success, and having a place to process and find peace as they navigate the inevitable conflicts and challenges they face. In the words of Lara, 16, “It’s a pity that the parents involved in this college fraud scheme do not appear to have understood this.” But we can and act accordingly.