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Avoid the college plans questions



For the Monitor
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The cursor inches across the screen, ever closer to “Submit,” which squats in the corner like the portal to her future.

Breathless, her face a blend of excitement and dread, she forces her hand the final inch and clicks. And it’s away: another early decision application launched into the admission cyber void.

Over the past month, I have sat with dozens of high school seniors toiling over their early college applications. I watched as they laughed, cried, tweaked and obsessed over essays, forms, and procedures.

Thanks to an amped up timeline, the majority of my seniors have submitted at least one application and are headed into the holidays as relaxed and carefree as I have seen them all fall. And yet their travails are far from over.

Dare I tell them what lies ahead at holiday gatherings? I suspect some students are already anticipating the college inquisition from family, friends and neighbors, but are they truly prepared to respond?

What will you do when Aunt Gertrude looks poised to ask you about your college list?

What will you say when your mother’s business partner asks about your test scores?

Do you have an answer for when your Ivy League-educated cousin asks why you are not applying to his alma mater?

What will be your witty response when asked what you plan to study?

Here are a few diversion tactics from the playbook that I have developed over two decades of guiding students to college and away from awkward holiday conversations

(Note: These suggestions also work well for soon to be college graduates, the recently divorced or those looking for a new job.)

The Duck and Cover: Stay alert. The most likely inquirer will be that guest who has not found anyone to talk to and wants to kill time at the shrimp platter. By knowing your surroundings and not lingering anywhere too long, you can avoid the inevitable questions about college as they search for something over which to connect. This is also known as the “Smalltalk Slip.”

The Kids’ Table: Right, we get it, you are a young adult and sooo beyond eating at the kids’ table, but don’t brush off this useful tactic. Your little cousin will be more interested in when he gets dessert than your life plan. I had an uncle who always chose to eat at the kids’ table because he knew it would be more fun. In our politically-charged world, you might find you actually have to fight other adults for the tiny chair.

The Comedian: The quick-witted can catch their interrogator off guard when asked about college plans. A simple “You haven’t heard that I was kicked out of high school?” or “Mom and Dad said they can only afford to send my brother to college,” can distract long enough that the topic might change.

The Task Master: Okay, so normally you would not be the first to volunteer to take out the recycling or help with other party details, but this could be your best strategy. If you are responsible for stoking the fire, you have a ready excuse to change course when under attack.

The Straight Shooter:While not as creative or fun, sometimes honesty is the best policy. You can simply explain that you are experiencing application fatigue and could use a night/week off from thinking or talking about it. Have some other material in your arsenal to talk about instead of the future. Perhaps tell them how much you are enjoying high school and being a teenager.

The Infirm: My daughter has a head cold and at our pre-Thanksgiving family reunion last weekend, she was avoided like the plague. Nobody wants to get sick during the holidays. A few well timed coughs or sniffles could earn you the space you have been looking for.

The Rebuttal: There is always the “fight fire with fire” approach. When asked if you have submitted your application yet, the confident senior might respond: “Why? Have you filed your taxes yet?” This might encourage the inquirer to consider their line of questioning. My colleague, Bruce Berk, likes to say, “we don’t ask a person’s weight or salary, so why is it okay to ask about tests scores or college lists?”

The Small Bladder: When you can sense the conversation heading towards college, you can always fall back on a bathroom break. Yes, you run the risk of the whole family thinking you have urinary issues, but the added bonus is that you can use the safety of the washroom to check your Instagram account.

The Little Brother: Remember that younger sibling that always seems to nag you when you are trying to hang with your friends? Harness that energy. Develop a signal with your sibling that will cue an intervention. You might have to provide some monetary reward or other incentive, but it might just be worth it when you flash the sign when cornered by your nosy neighbor.

The Preemptive Strike: If the conversation is going to revolve around college anyway, why not go “all in” and make it a family affair. When each guest arrives, have them write down three adjectives that best describe them on a notecard. Before you eat, read each card and see if the group can guess who is who. For more advanced players, you can pick your favorite essay prompt and challenge each guest to come prepared to share.

Hopefully one of these strategies will come in handy to survive the holidays.

As for the rest of us, resist the urge to turn conversation toward college admission, which often betrays how our own insecurities about this ordeal can linger into adulthood. Allow that to be a source of compassion rather than misery for your young relatives or friends.

My daughter was playing with her phone recently and asked “Siri” what her SAT scores were. “You are not supposed to ask your assistant such things” was the response. Take it from our digital friend and be aware of what you are inquiring about when you gather to celebrate.

If students want to discuss college, trust them to raise it. Otherwise “mum’s the word.” This will earn you “cool uncle” status and maybe even a saved seat at the kids’ table.