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Why you shouldn't ask seniors where they're headed for college

College regular decision admission results are beginning to roll in this week in the US. High school seniors everywhere are on edge, not just about their admissions prospects, but even more so, by the barrage of questions they’re anticipating from adults.

“Where are you going for school next year?”, “Is that your top choice?”, “What are you going to study?”. While well-intentioned, these questions harmfully imply that everyone is headed to 4-year college after high school. Whether consciously or not, these questions are often also indirect ways for adults to compare the teens they know.

So, for many 12th grade students, college admission decisions can feel like a public stamp of judgement on their ‘K-12 marathon’, rather than a celebration of their unique aspirations, learnings, and achievements. “It honestly feels like every parent has a horse in ‘the race’, and this is when people start asking around to see how your horse fared in the Kentucky Derby as if every horse is in that race,” quips a senior who will be taking a gap year for culinary school after high school.

Beyond fostering toxic competition and shame by implying there’s only one linear path to “success”, these types of questions exclude many families and teens from the conversation. For teens with learning differences and “non-traditional” career aspirations, this can be a season of grief and shame, even if college was never on their agenda. Parents of these teens often feel they have to fight extra hard to show their unconditional love and support for their teen, especially in the face of other parents who may be asking about their teen’s post-high school plans. It’s time adults stop asking these questions altogether.

There are a multitude of different paths for teens post-high school and deciding what to do after high school should be driven by a teen’s passion and readiness. For teens not intending to or not yet ready to commit to a 4 year college, skills bootcamps, gap years, the military, community college, trade school, and finding a job are all excellent choices that will continue to develop their skills and maturity. If you think this will dampen your teen’s career chances, think again: Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Group), Rachel Ray (Chef), Dave Thomas (founder of Wendy’s), and Amancio Ortega (founder of Zara) all never went to college and became self-made multi-millionaires (billionaires, in some cases).

With many top employers like Tesla, Google, Apple, Bank of America, and Netflix no longer requiring college degrees for hiring, it’s increasingly possible for young people to find alternative paths to a successful, independent life without immediately heading to a 4-year college after high school (or at all). The key is to focus on finding the right opportunities for your teen to build skills. Thought leaders like Peter Thiel (Paypal co-founder and billionaire who created fellowship that gives $100,000K to young people who “want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom”), are actively encouraging students to consider alternative options that will help them build skills and connections, instead of taking on debt and “wasting time” at a 4-year college if they are not clear on their goals for college in the first place.

So, as this season of admission decision announcements begin, let’s not focus on whether or not a teen is headed for a 4-year college. Let’s instead ask how they will continue learning, upskilling, and creating a meaningful and independent life for themselves.

Here are a few questions to try this season instead of asking about college:

  • What are you most looking forward to doing this summer?

  • How have you surprised yourself in high school?

  • Are you taking any classes in school that you like and are really interested in?

  • What do you think was the most unexpected part of high school?

  • Which of your teachers do you think has made the biggest impact on you?

  • 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?

  • What has brought you the most joy in the last year?

  • How are you hoping to continue learning even after you graduate high school?

  • What’s a goal you’ve set for yourself during high school and how’s that going?

  • What are you looking forward to in the next year?

  • What types of students do you think should go to a 4 year college?

  • What’s one thing you learned in high school you hope you never forget?

  • Which of your high school hobbies do you hope you’ll keep for years to come?


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