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Don't Ask This Question of Your High School Senior

Deborah Porter

As we plan to gather for Thanksgiving and the winter holidays (before we know it, it will be full-on graduation season with a string of parties to attend), we will undoubtedly have conversations with the young adults in our lives.

Upon arrival at any of these festive events, there are hellos, hugs, and greetings, and then it happens. It sounds something like this: "What will you major in?" or maybe "What is it you want to do?"

I have to admit, I've asked these questions myself. Asking high school seniors and new college students about their future plans and dreams seems very normal.

But once my children started graduating from high school, I instantly wanted to apologize to all the other kids I had asked those questions.

The reason these questions are so loaded is two-fold or maybe three-fold. First, it assumes that they know what they're going to major in. However, did you realize that an estimated 20–50% of incoming first-year students have not yet declared a major? Second, 80% of all college students change their major at least once (both of my boys did). And third, perhaps this student is not yet confident in the major or school they are considering, and they aren't quite ready to say it out loud.

This isn't meant to be judgmental or hard on anyone who's asked these questions (remember, I already outed myself on this one). But I want the adults in the room to be more mindful of how these questions require 18-year-olds to have their whole lives figured out. I'm not sure about you or the people in your circle, but I know 35-year-olds who are still trying to figure that out.

Choosing a major can be a very complicated decision. As of the writing of this article, most colleges require students to select a major by the end of their sophomore year. If you remember, the first year is filled with core classes and a few electives. My youngest son found his major after taking a random elective when others were already filled.

And other things contribute to students finding themselves or declaring a major while attending their college of choice. Joining a club that they're interested in is one contributing factor. And some schools allow students to audit classes, which means they can sit in on a course without being officially enrolled.

Still, other students may decide to attend community college for two years and use that time to find and decide on a major, then transfer to a four-year university to complete their studies in the major chosen. And others will head to a trade school and begin working sooner than their counterparts or take a gap year.

So, back to this conversation with the young adult you are proud of. You may be thinking, "Well, what DO I ask this student in my attempt to show interest and encouragement?"

I'm so glad you asked. Consider asking any of these five questions instead:

  • "Where are you headed?" (Remember, some high school graduates may not be headed straight to college.)
  • If you know they are going to college or are already in college, consider asking, "What was it about the school that drew you in?"
  • "What are you most looking forward to now that high school is about done?"
  • "Do you already know your roommate yet?"
  • "How far from home will you be?"

And here's a bonus — just say, "Congratulations. We're so happy for you!"

These are just a few questions to move us from requiring an 18-year-old to know what they want to major in, where they will intern, and the job they will end up with to provide for the family they have not even considered. Focus on conversations that don't require these teens to define themselves based on work. And what if they have more than one interest? This is one reason a gap year has become more and more popular with high school graduates. It's an opportunity for them to explore travel, different cultures, and being on their own.

Now I know that no one means any harm when asking any of the above questions. And because of that, I coached my children on how to respond if they were unsure or uncomfortable answering one of the common questions. Here's what we came up with. "I haven't completely decided yet, but I'm excited about what's next," or "Lucky for me, there are so many great majors and professors at my school, so we'll see." And my personal favorite: "No idea, just happy to be on my way!"

It should (but may not) go without saying that the same rules can apply to questions about where they are applying to college, which is a subject many high school seniors don't want to discuss at holiday parties.

Let's remove the pressure of having to answer these kinds of questions and engage in a conversation with this student about their current outstanding accomplishments and the upcoming milestone of high school graduation. Be curious about who they are right now. And be sure to let them know that, whatever they decide to do, there's a village at home cheering them on.

Deborah Porter is The Ultimate Mom Coach — a life balance coach for dedicated moms who need home management systems and a self-care routine that goes beyond a good mani/pedi. She and her husband have three adult children and she believes that the woman you were before having kids still matters. Deborah is a regular contributor to "Virginia This Morning" on WTVR. Download her free ebook, "7 Habits of Confident Moms"!
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