Getting good advice from your family

I was a little surprised to read last week that the people who have the most influence on high school students' college decisions is their parents. (You can read the full Department of Education report here.) For an example of why I found that surprising, consider that a friend told me that the number one question his high schooler son asks him about college is "why do you keep talking to me about college?" But it also makes sense, because your parents have been talking to you about college, directly or indirectly, like it or not, a lot longer than anyone else has. Unless you're going to completely ignore your family and go straight to the second-largest influence, "myself," you can get the most wisdom from what your family says to you.

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If you're going to get advice from your family, you may as well be proactive about it and not just a passive listener. Ask lots of questions. Ask detail-oriented questions and ask big-picture questions. Ask for information, and ask for wisdom. Here are some example questions:

What kind of college do you think I would do best at? Why? What is your "dream school" for me?

Do you think I'm on track to be prepared for college? What should I do to be better prepared?

What's your biggest fear concerning me and college?

What all do you know about this college I'm considering? What suggestions do you have for how to get more and better information about that college?

For family members who attended college: what were your best experiences in college? What warnings do you have for me?

For family members who didn't attend college: how do you feel about the path you took? What warnings do you have for me?

How do you think college is different now than when you went to college?

Understand their biases. Whatever advice your family gives, it's probably based on their own experiences and their feelings about them. One person's parent, who is struggling with debt, says that there's no good reason to go out of state for college but to save money by living at home and going to a less-expensive state university. Another person's parent, who regrets not experiencing more places while she had the opportunity, says that it's important to go far away from home and try new things. Neither is objectively right or wrong. Both parents have their own biases built into their advice, but those biases don't negate the truth in what they say. It's important for you to understand where the advice your parents give is coming from to help you evaluate it for yourself. To learn from your parents' experiences is great, but you don't necessarily need to repeat their good experiences or avoid their bad ones.

Ask them to explain their thinking. For every what, when, or where statement your family members make about college, follow it up with a why or how question. It may take practice for it not to sound like you're challenging them, but once they understand that you're trying to get more advice from them, not less, they'll probably be happy to talk with you.

Don't put off talking about money. There's no real way for college not to be expensive. Someone--usually a number of people--have to make compromises and sacrifices. (Even if you get a "full ride" scholarship, that money came from someone who could have spent it on something else, so there's always sacrifice and compromise.) The sooner you talk to your family about money, the better. It's completely common for a family to only talk about academics and social life, holding off on financial conversations as long as possible. It's also common for a family to only stress the importance of making college affordable, without talking much about academics or social life. Both of these approaches are unbalanced. By asking more questions, asking more follow-up questions, and letting your family know that you're hearing their advice, you can make the process go more smoothly for everyone.

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