How to help kids choose which college to attend

April is a great month here at Collegewise as we get to sit down with our seniors, discuss their college options, and help them decide where to spend the next four years.  If you’re a counselor, a teacher, a parent or anyone a senior trusts enough to ask your advice about which college to attend, here are few things we do that might be helpful.

1.    We let the kids do the talking.

A lot of seniors receive generous portions of unsolicited advice from too many sources about where they should go to college.  We think we do these students a favor by asking them what they think, being quiet, and really listening to their answers.

This also helps us uncover the real concerns kids have.

A lot of kids who are struggling with the final decision are actually struggling with things they haven’t revealed—or even acknowledged—yet, like a fear of leaving home, a fear of not measuring up to the other students, or a fear of being unhappy with their choice.  And since most kids won’t just come right out and tell us what they’re worried about, we have to ask a lot of questions and do a lot of listening, like therapists.  A therapist doesn’t just tell someone five minutes into a session, “Your problem is that your sister makes you feel unworthy, so stop talking to her!”  She asks a lot of questions and guides the person to come to her own realizations. That’s how we approach these meetings.

2.    If a student asks a question for which we can’t give a straight answer, we reverse it. 

Students often ask questions about their choices to which there are no real answers, like “Isn’t Georgetown better for law school than Yale?”  Those kinds of questions are often not the real source of indecision for the kid.  So we reverse them.

“Wow, law school?  That’s great you’re thinking that far ahead.  Do you want to pick your college based on something you might do four years from now?”

Don’t be surprised if the student says something like, “Well, my dad’s a lawyer, and he really wants me to go to Georgetown.”  Turns out the original question had nothing to do with law school.  And if you’d gone into a lengthy explanation of how the assumption of Georgetown being better than Yale is flawed, you’d have been spinning your wheels and avoiding the real issue.

3. We think it’s more important to prevent a kid from making a bad decision than it is to convince him to make what we think is the right one. 

It’s not our responsibility (or our place) to tell any kid where he should to go to college.  Any student who is mature enough to go to college is mature enough to make the final decision.  Our responsibility is to be good listeners, to give kids any information they need, and of course, to speak up if our counseling instincts say that the kid’s about to make a terrible mistake.

I’m not saying we won’t share with a student which choice we think would be best and why—that’s our job.  In fact, I once had a student say, “What I really want you to do is just tell me where you think I should go to college.”  So I did.  But we think it’s more important to help students make informed choices (and avoid bad ones) than it is to make the decision for them.

4.   We don’t debate.

The more you argue with a teenager, the more a lot of them will dig their heals in.  When a student says, “UCLA students are a lot friendlier than students at NYU,” that’s obviously a huge generalization with little factual merit.  But we don’t debate the point. The kid doesn’t want to debate with us. So instead, we ask him what made the UCLA students seem so friendly.  We keep him talking.  The less we push, the more likely the student is to ask for (and listen to) whatever perspective we have to share.

5.  We don’t try to minimize concerns about the school, especially if they’re valid.

No college is perfect.  So we don’t try to minimize valid concerns about any school.  Instead, we face them head on and talk about how students on campus deal with them.

Let’s say a student tells us, “I like Gonzaga, but I’m worried I’ll get bored in Spokane.”

That’s a valid concern.  Kids at Gonzaga love it there, but if they wanted exciting city life in college, they would have gone somewhere else.

So rather than try to convince that kid that Spokane is lively, we’ll just say,

“You’re right.  Kids at Gonzaga will tell you there’s not much to do in Spokane.  But they don’t care.  They didn’t go to Gonzaga for city life.   Do you think the city life is important to you?”

Now that kid gets to explore the real issue: does he love what other students love about Gonzaga enough to ignore that he won’t be in Chigaco or New York or Los Angeles for college?

Kids often say to us, “I worry about whether or not USC is going to be safe enough.”

USC seems to go out of its way to talk about how safe it is.  No, you’re not going to get kidnapped from your dorm.  But c’mon.  It’s in a big city, and not a particularly nice part of that city.  So we face that concern head on.

“Yeah, I get that.  The campus might be safe, but the surrounding area, like those near a lot of colleges, is not.  USC students understand that they have to be smart about their safety.  They know it’s not a good idea to walk alone late at night.  How do you feel about that?”

Face it head on.

If a student says, “I heard UCLA puts three kids in dorms that are made for two.  I wouldn’t have to deal with that at Pomona…”

We respond…

“You’re right.  UCLA packs them in.  Most kids at UCLA don’t seem to care about that.  They tell us that they hardly spend time in their dorm room because they’re too busy doing a hundred different things on campus and in Westwood.   Does that sound like you?”

The reason we do this is to show the student that no college is perfect.  The happiest students on college campuses love their schools in spite of the inherent flaws.  There is nothing anyone can do to make Spokane lively, USC 100% safe, or UCLA small and homey.  Don’t try to minimize the concern.  That’s just wasting time.

As long as you ask a lot of questions, listen, avoid debating and try to help a student uncover their real concerns about their college choices, you’ll be doing a good job for that kid.