Four Questions Before College

Do you bear the scars? Anyone dealing with the anxiety of senior year in high school—either directly as a student or vicariously as a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, teacher or simply as the local letter carrier—knows what I’m referring to. The last year of high school has become a battleground.

Whether it’s questions about a student’s future schooling and career or simply pushing boundaries at home, senior year is a time of transition for many family relationships. In the words of one youth minister speaking to a colleague recently, “Senior year exists so that parents aren’t sad when their kids leave for college.” She was only partially joking.

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For the better part of a decade, my own experience with this phenomenon has been through researching and writing The Freshman Survival Guide: Soulful Advice for Studying, Socializing, and Everything In Between. This book, co-authored with Nora Bradbury-Haehl, is meant to help high school seniors successfully transition into first year college students.

From the beginning of senior year, students are asked two questions until they’re exhausted:

Where are you going to school?

What are you going to study?

Now that the pressure surrounding the annual springtime rites of acceptance/rejection has subsided, it’s time to ask a different set of questions. These four questions—developed with my co-author—speak to the core meaning of a student’s education and development far more than where he or she was accepted. Ideally, it should be done as an exercise between a student and a parent, mentor or teacher, with each answering the questions separately and then sharing the responses. If the situation is delicate, try exchanging the written responses first before discussing them. Honest responses, shared respectfully, are the goal for all concerned.

Question 1: What do you hope happens to you/for you in college?

Both student and mentor should go beyond the obvious (a good education, new friends, etc.) and focus on how each would like the student to grow over the next four years. What qualities as a person do both of you hope the college experience will develop in the student? A broader worldview? Greater self-understanding? A job? This should spark an interesting conversation about values and goals.

Question 2: What are you most afraid of?

It’s helpful for the student to name the fear in order to better understand his or her vulnerabilities. It can also be a good reality check. Is this a reasonable fear or just one of those floating anxieties that can be addressed with a little logic and life experience? For the parents/mentors this is a helpful way to communicate real world concerns and their own deepest fears. “One father talked to me about his answer to his son’s question ‘Why don’t you trust me?’” said Nora Bradbury-Haehl. “It’s not that I don’t trust you” he said. “I’m afraid that I haven’t properly prepared you to face the world and the consequences of that can be the worst of all. I could lose you.”

Question 3: What are your biggest weaknesses/strengths?

Often students already know their Achilles’ heel; this needn’t be the time to visit old failures except to talk about the important lessons learned from falling down and getting back up. Talk about the gifts and skills, the successes and strengths that will help them meet the challenges ahead.

Question 4: Whom will you call with problems/big life questions?

Students will inevitably encounter challenges; some might seem overwhelming. Keep in mind that nobody at college knows what is “normal” for you. Don’t go it alone. Whom do you call when you’re in trouble or have big life questions? Students should write down the name of the person(s) they will contact. Parents, don’t be offended if you’re not on the list. Write down names of people you hope your child will contact. Agree that whoever they decide to reach out to should also be in touch with the parent in case of an emergency.

No doubt this exercise might provoke some very difficult conversations during an already turbulent year. I don’t suggest it be taken lightly. But given all that has led up to this point, one more battle now is certainly preferable to seeing a student crash and burn as a freshman. Ultimately, so much more is at stake than where they’ve been accepted.

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