I'm A School Counselor. Here's What Many Parents Get Wrong About College.

School counselors reveal the accidentally-damaging things adults say to teens when it comes to deciding their future.
These school counselors have seen it all, and they want to share advice on how to manage expectations during this stressful time.
SDI Productions via Getty Images
These school counselors have seen it all, and they want to share advice on how to manage expectations during this stressful time.

As summer ends and school returns, with it can come the headaches of college application season.

It can be an unimaginably stressful time for young people facing big decisions. And, unfortunately, how the adults talk to them about this decision can be making it much more difficult.

School counselors know this all too well.

Brian Coleman, the counseling department chair at Jones College Prep in Chicago and the 2019 School Counselor of the Year by the American School Counselor Association, said that a lot of his role is “around helping folks cope with their anxiety ― not avoid it, or ignore it ― but cope with the reality that there’s so many factors that they don’t control.”

HuffPost talked to several school counselors across the country to hear their big “don’ts” when it comes to the language we could be using with students, particularly when it comes to college. Here’s what they shared about what kind of invalidating, discouraging things they would never say to young adults:

1. “You won’t be able to afford this, so don’t bother applying.”

“I would never discourage students from attending a university because of costs. Often students are encouraged to attend a community college because it’s low-cost or free,” said California-based high school counselor Jose Cardenas. “There is an opportunity cost that students may be unaware of. Students can miss out on valuable opportunities such as networking, study abroad programs, and in some cases they may have a different quality of education.”

But you can talk about the reality of a college’s sticker price without crushing a young person’s dream. Steve Schneider, a school counselor at Sheboygan South High School in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, said a fairer way to manage a student’s expectations is to highlight the importance of diversifying the lists of where students apply. “I might say to a kid, ‘Keep that one on the list. That sounds like it’s gonna be a great fit for you. But let’s diversify your list. Like that’s an expensive school.’”

Families and students may not know the ultimate cost of college until a student learns which colleges accepted them and how much financial aid or scholarships the student will receive, he noted. “Get the official offer, and then make a decision about whether you can afford it or not,” Schneider said.

But it’s also possible to get a sense of affordability, so that students and families can manage expectations before decisions must be made. Coleman said that U.S. colleges that receive federal funding must have a net price calculator on their website, and using these calculators is what he advises students and families to do for every school they are interested in.

“That is arguably the most important thing that a family can do during the list creation phase,” Coleman said. “The affordability piece cannot be ignored, and that’s where a lot of the heart pain and heartbreak comes during the application season.”

2. Any predictions like, “You will or won’t get in if you apply here.”

The school counselors all advised against giving predictions about which schools a student will or will not get into.

“It’s OK to be real about, ‘This is the acceptance rate at [the University of California, Berkeley], this is last year’s graduating class,’ and giving information, but never saying to a young person, whether it’s a student or your child, like, ‘Oh, you’d never get in.’ Not taking that hope away I think is important too,” said Alma Lopez, lead school counselor and coordinator at Livingston Middle School in California and the 2022 School Counselor of the Year by the American School Counselor Association.

“Sometimes, they’re gonna get that rejection letter, and they don’t need the rejection at home,” Lopez said. Other times, it will work out in their favor.

3. “You need to go to this school because it’s the best.”

Schneider said the presumed prestige of an institution can show up in conversations to students with language like, “This is the best school to go to, so make sure you apply to that one.”

“If you’re not listening to the kid, then you shouldn’t be talking to them.”

- School counselor Steve Schneider

But, he noted, “anytime the conversation puts an institution in front of the student, I think there’s potential there for a problem. If you’re not listening to the kid, then you shouldn’t be talking to them.”

Check your biases about the type of education the student in your life should pursue and focus on listening to what they are telling you about their career goals, Schneider said.

“Sometimes there’s some presumptions and assumptions about undervaluing a two-year associate degree,” he said, sharing examples of adults saying that pursuing anything other than a four-year degree is “settling” or a “waste of time.”

In reality, “If you’re somebody who is pretty financially aware, you might actually realize that a two-year program can get you where you want to be,” Lopez said.

You can encourage a student to pursue more options, but be careful about whether you put down different types of education than your own preference to do so. For example, “‘I think you might be underselling the fact that you could probably be successful on a four-year campus.’ That’s a way different conversation than saying to a kid, ‘You’re too smart to go to community college,’” Schneider said.

4. “I don’t want you to apply there because it’s too far from family.”

“It can sometimes be scary for a family to imagine their child leaving home and moving outside of a close radius to their family. I have seen some families struggle with this idea and even discourage students from applying to certain universities because it isn’t the one the parent wants them to attend,” said California-based high school counselor Alexis Goddard.

Distance from home is a fair consideration when applying to colleges, but one better way for families to frame this conversation would be for them to have them earlier in the application process and by joining the student on school visits when they can, she said.

“I think the important thing to do is talk about all of the options their child has, including schools that may be farther away than the parent wishes. Going to visit schools together, having an open discussion on the pros and cons of each school, and how they felt when they visited can be a huge help,” Goddard added.

5. “I’m your guardian. You should go where I want you to.”

How you are raised shapes who you are, and that can carry over into how students and their families approach college decisions.

As a result, Coleman said he would never tell a student either to do what their parents say or to never listen to them.

Instead, “I would probably say something that’s more in the middle of like, ‘Well help me understand how your parents or guardians or caregivers are going to be involved in this decision-making process for you,’” he said. “Some students come from a very collectivist family model, some from a very independent model. And I don’t know what that is, and I don’t know what works for each family.”

“Being more inquisitive, and less presumptive I think is really important there,” Coleman said.

6. “You’ll have a great time just like I did if you go here.”

Sometimes, adults can project assumptions that a student’s experience will mirror the experience they once had. But there’s a way to share your story without making it all about you.

“For families that do have college education, I think sharing that experience and story with your young person is so important. But then also recognizing that, you know, maybe they don’t want to be a legacy at the college you went to,” Lopez said.

Be mindful to the feedback a student may be sharing about your favorite university. “If they take over the conversation about, ‘Oh, it’s going to be great, it’s going to be fine, you’re going to have a great experience, because I did.’ If the adults they’re talking to aren’t taking the time to listen to what the concerns are...that type of stuff doesn’t really help the kid,” Schneider said.

One big piece of general advice that could prevent future conflicts? Don’t assume that you know what a student wants if you haven’t asked them. “My clear ‘don’t’ would be don’t assume you know what your child is wanting for their own future if you haven’t asked the questions,” Lopez said.

7. “Follow your heart.”

This is well-intentioned advice that is not actually all that helpful for students.

“Your heart is part of it, but so is your brain.”

- School counselor Brian Coleman

“‘Follow your heart’ just is so broad and so vague, and...doesn’t come back to those tangible, specific items or perspectives or pieces that we want to encourage students to research on, get more information on and make more thoughtful decisions,” Coleman said. “Your heart is part of it, but so is your brain.”

He recommended more specific questions for reflection such as:
1. “Is this a good academic match for you? How do you know? Based on what evidence is this a good fit for you? How do you know it’s going to be a good fit for who you are who you want to be?”
2. “Is this affordable for you and your family? How do you know?”
3. “How excited are you? And why? What about this institution excites you? How do you know that’s exciting for you? What makes you passionate about this experience?”

Based on all those factors together, Coleman said students can then see which colleges rank on their lists. “It’s not about the rankings of these schools. It’s more about what school is best for you,” he said.

8. “There’s only one right decision, and you have to stick with it.”

Choosing where you go to college is a major decision, but it will not make or break your career. You may need to take a break from school or transfer to a different institution after you make your first choice and that’s perfectly OK.

“Let’s normalize that there’s a lot of pressure and stress on this one decision. But it’s one of so many decisions,” Coleman said.

Ultimately there is no singular right career trajectory. As media mogul Oprah Winfrey would put it, when you’re facing a crossroads, it’s more helpful to ask yourself, “What is the next right move?”

“This is a big decision that you’re making by collecting a lot of different factors. And you’re going to make the best informed decision that you can. And also you may need to pivot,” Coleman said. “I don’t want anyone to feel like they failed if they pivot in any way.”

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