Adults know that high school is stressful. They know that teens spend too much time on homework and too little time sleeping, and often live on an emotional knife’s edge.
And still, they can’t resist asking questions that only make things worse.
Alice Kleeman, a recently retired college adviser at Menlo-Atherton High School in California, says she filtered her questions by asking herself, “Am I contributing to the problem with what I am about to say, am I fueling the frenzy, am I adding to the stress or am I helping to mitigate the problem with what is about to come out of my mouth next?”
Don't despair! There are lots of ways to approach the college talk with teens. But in the meantime, next time you’re about to talk to a teenager, avoid these 10 toxic questions.
How was the SAT?
The SAT was hard. It was hard for me, it was hard for you and it was hard for every 16- and 17-year-old in history. The best thing that can be said about the SAT is that it is over. So, no asking about the test, the score, the retakes or even sneaking in a question about the ACT.
Are you taking any AP classes?
If the answer to this question is no, that is pressure that no teen wants to feel. If the answer is yes, you can almost be certain that the student taking two APs feels pressure to take three. The student taking 5 is pretty sure that if he or she could just take 6, Stanford would be in the bag. A better question might be to ask which subjects the student finds most interesting.
How’s your GPA?
Asking a high schooler their GPA is like asking adults their salaries. They have worked hard for that GPA. It might not be everything they hoped (or it might be), but it was earned with sheer effort over many years. Any adult who is not happy to flash their paychecks maybe shouldn’t ask a teen to do the same.
What schools have you visited?
If an adult could ask a high school student which colleges they had visited and then not offer a running commentary (“Wow, that was a back-up school in my day” or “Hope you’re a legacy; no one gets in there”), then this question would be acceptable. But no one does that. We ask kids about the schools they are interested in and then we offer our random, outdated and unsolicited insights. These comments are filtered through our individual set of experiences and may be irrelevant or harmful to the teen listening.
What colleges are you applying to?
This is the question from which the listener can infer something about SATs, APs, visits and more. It is the seemingly innocent question that in truth answers many other toxic queries. Where to apply to college is complex. Most students have spent a great deal of time considering geography, family finances, interests and fit. Be patient. In a few months you can just ask, “Where are you going next fall?”
What do you want to major in?
Seventeen-year-olds have no idea what they want to major in. Over 80 percent of college students change their major at least once after beginning their studies. So go ahead and ask, but the answer is almost meaningless.
Are you going to school where your sister goes?
There is simply no good answer to this question. If the student has applied to her sibling’s school, you can bet she is nervous about being accepted. If she hasn’t? Maybe she wants to strike out on her own, or maybe she just didn’t have the grades or scores to get in.
When will you find out?
What are high schoolers, walking calendars? Every school has a different admissions date. There is Early Decision, Early Decision 2 and regular admissions, and public universities are on an entirely different schedule from private ones. And most importantly, teens applying to college are trying not to focus on that date. Look this up on the Internet.
Have you gotten in anywhere yet?
Talk about piling on the pressure. If the answer is yes, most kids will pipe up, unbidden, with the good news. They have worked hard for this and have every reason to be proud. If the answer is no, did you really want to ask?
Did you find a summer job?
The only thing worse than being asked about college is being asked about jobs. Unemployment for 16 and 17 year olds is still at staggeringly high levels — above 20 percent. Find a different topic.
Lisa Heffernan and Mary Dell Harrington are the cofounders of Grown and Flown, a site for parents of 15-25 year olds. Between them, they have five kids who are in college or recent grads.