I got an email from a friend last week suggesting that I advise students about talking through their college-search process with school counselors and other advisors. The suggestion came out of a frustrating meeting she had with her 11th-grade daughter and the college counselor at her high school. It was their first time to discuss college and how the counselor could help. But her daughter completely clammed up. My friend's daughter has already done a lot of thinking about school, and she's been smart about it: "she wants it to be relatively small, in an urban area, have great science facilities and opportunities to work directly with professors. She's thinking biology, likely pre-med, but also acknowledges that she might abandon that entirely when she gets to school in favor of something more like politics or public policy. If you ask her casually, she's pretty articulate about her thought process." So why did her daughter, when asked about her plans by a professional who wants to help her, just shrug and say "I don't know"?
I can't say why her daughter got all quiet, because I don't know. What I do know is this is a common problem, and I can guess about some possible explanations why you don't speak proudly and loudly about your plans. These are some typical reasons why people say "I don't know" when they actually do have a pretty good idea of what they want, and they're also reasons why some people lie, speaking loudly and proudly about plans they're not actually committed to.
You're intimidated. Having dreams is one thing. Having a path to know how to make those dreams reality is another thing altogether. And speaking aloud those dreams and that path to someone you don't know well? Especially one who will play a role in the process? And who is more expert than you? That's really something different. It's completely understandable and normal to be intimidated when it comes to these conversations. It's no problem. Just acknowledge to yourself that you're intimidated and work on ways to overcome it. You can find plenty of help out there for dealing with interactions when you're intimidated or nervous. My favorite, which I go back to over and over, is this list of exercises from a former hostage negotiator. It's not specific to talking about college, just voice exercises to make you feel and sound more in control in any meeting.
You don't actually want help. Maybe your school automatically schedules you to talk to a counselor about college, or maybe someone in your family decides they're going to walk you through the process, but you don't actually want their help. If this is the case, you can save yourself--and probably your family, too--a lot of trouble by articulating this. Instead of saying "I don't know" when asked about your plans, you can say something more like "I feel like I've got that pretty under control. I'm looking at small, urban schools with strong science programs but also lots of other opportunities." If you don't want to even go that far, because you're afraid (probably correctly) that a straightforward answer like that will still garner unwanted advice, then maybe try "I feel like I've got that pretty under control, but I'm not ready to talk about specifics right now." I know it's tempting to say nothing, but it's better to be clear and listen politely to the unwanted advice than to pretend you have no ideas. Playing dead is usually a great way to get poked by a stick. Metaphorically speaking.
You don't want to be forthcoming. Maybe my friend's daughter is perfectly comfortable talking about college, she just didn't want to talk about it with that particular counselor at that particular meeting. It may be that you have one or two people you're comfortable discussing college stuff with, but that doesn't mean that you're comfortable talking about it with just anybody. Maybe you want help, but not from anyone and everyone who happens to ask about college. That's fine. Better than fine; that's wise. But again, find a better statement to make than playing dumb. "I've got it under control, and I'm getting good help" might be a way to put it.
Thinking about moving on to college and independence has brought on an Existential Crisis. Or perhaps it's highlighted the younger, hipper cousin of Existential Crisis, FOMO. Welcome to adulthood. Find an empathetic person you trust, whether it's a personal friend or a professional counselor, and talk it over. Then get back to work. Repeat as necessary.
You haven't practiced. Maybe the only real hang-up is that you're not used to talking about this, because this is all new and it feels really important. You're not exactly sure what you want from college, and so you stumble on your words. And that stumbling makes you even less sure what you want from college, which makes you stumble on your words, which makes....
If you really do, like my friend's daughter, have a pretty good idea of what you're looking for, then practice saying it aloud in a short, clear sentence. For what it's worth, I've had to do this myself. Since I quit teaching high school last May, I've had trouble answering the basic question "what do you do?" I used to go through this really awkward "well, I used to teach high school English and Art History, but...um...now I'm kind of transitioning...to...um...making a web site and...maybe...coaching students...or maybe writing a book...." Lately, whenever I'm on the way to someplace I'm likely to be asked, I actually practice saying "I taught high school for a long time, and now I write about college admissions for high school students. I have a web site you should check out."
But if you're not sure what you want, if you're being quiet because you're overwhelmed, then your first step is to spend some time thinking about yourself. The best knowledge is self knowledge. When asked about college, simply say "I'm still giving that a lot of thought and don't really want to talk yet." And then make sure you actually do give it a lot of thought, and a lot of good thought. Here is a place to begin. And next week I'll have a post about writing a college mission statement and how to craft that shirt statement that you can repeat to yourself and others who want to help you.
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