My 17-year-old son is a boy of few words. He likes to keep to himself. He is very independent and conscientious. I would suspect that he already has thoughts and opinions about the college process but he is not willing to discuss them with me. He is a strong student and a hard worker but he is not interested in gathering any information about college through discussion, websites or guides (although I know he has had a productive conversation with his school college counselor). What should I do?

Many parents find themselves in similar situations. Some teens are quiet by nature, while others may be reluctant to share because they find the college admission process stressful or feel uncomfortable expressing indecision. There are a number of things parents can do to open up discussions with their children.

Sprinkle casual questions into daily conversation.

Sometimes sitting down for “the college talk” stifles students. Parents may have more luck by adding occasional questions into everyday conversation. “What did you think of that brochure that came in the mail from XYZ College?” “You are doing so well in history, do you think that is a subject you would want to continue to study in college?” Reticent teens may need additional prompting with questions like, “Why is that?” or “What makes you feel that way?”

There are many opportunities for casual conversation, but there are a few topics of discussion parents should avoid. Avoid asking questions about other students; too often, teens view these as critical comparisons. No one wants to compare his or her college options with those of the current valedictorian or star athlete. Also, avoid questions that suggest judgment, like, “You don’t want to go hear the presentation from State U, do you?” Teens are more likely to speak up if they know their opinions will be heard and valued.

Enlist the help of your school guidance counselor.

In this situation, you are fortunate your son has a productive working relationship with his school guidance counselor. Sometimes teens find it easier to talk to someone other than their parents. Don’t take this as an insult; look at it as an opportunity.

Schedule an appointment to meet with the counselor without your son. Explain your situation and ask for his or her insight. Some teens worry about disappointing their parents or don’t want to admit they are nervous about this next step. The counselor may be able to offer insight into your son’s thoughts and opinions and provide some suggestions of schools you may want to visit as a family.

Plan some college visits.

Researching colleges can seem like added homework; actually, visiting a campus can help even a reluctant student engage in the college search process. Families don’t need to wait until a student’s junior year to visit schools.

Colleges are eager to meet interested students, and most have information about campus visits on the admissions office website. The typical visit lasts about two hours and includes an information session led by someone from the admissions office, as well as a student-led tour of the campus. Take notes during or after your visit to list what you liked and didn’t like about the school. Ask your son for his feedback, and be ready to listen.

Establish regular times for family conversation.

Sometimes teens clam up when they feel pressure to make major decisions. Trying to sit down for a big family meeting may make it more difficult for your son to express himself. Rather than having one or two major discussions a month, establish regular times for family conversation. If your family never gets a chance to eat dinner together during the week because of conflicting schedules, don’t worry. Your family time might come in the car on the way to and from practice, over lunch on Sunday, or while watching sports on TV. Make time when everyone has unplugged from computers and phones and is able to chat about the events of the day or week. During these informal talks, you may learn a lot more about your son’s plans for his future, dreams for college, and ideas on the schools that are right for him. 

Guide the research process.

Researching colleges sounds a lot like doing another research paper for some teens. While some students eagerly dive into guidebooks, websites, and college fairs, others—like your son—show little interest. You may need to guide the research process. Learning about different schools or academic offerings doesn’t have to be a chore. If your son learns better by experiencing things, you may want to find some video tours of campuses and plan more in-person visits. Some students are overwhelmed with the volume of reading in guidebooks and online, but they will happily page through course catalogs or brochures they receive in the mail. As a parent, you may need to find the resources that are most relevant and best fit your son’s preferred method for information-gathering.

 

Most high school students are willing to discuss their college options, as long as they feel certain their wishes, ideas, and goals are being taken seriously. It’s a good thing that your son is open to the idea of college and has discussed the college admissions process with his school counselor. However, because parents do play a significant role in a student’s transition to college, it’s important that you help guide your son’s college explorations so that he considers all of the relevant factors and ends up making a solid college choice.