Life is full of moments, and the transition from high school to college is one of the big ones. But it isn’t always easy to think you’re ready — or to even be certain you’re cut out for four more years of school.
Some students might yearn for a break after years of AP and Honors courses. Others might wonder how they’ll fare in the college classroom. And some are just plain nervous about living away from home.
If your student has mixed feelings about college, there are ways to get at the heart of the ambivalence. First, it helps to engage in a bit of self-reflection — and for parents to listen with as much curiosity as they can muster.
“When we are curious, we can learn more about what their concerns are, the student can feel heard, and then we can have the appropriate conversations,” says Mercy High School Counselor Holly Markiecki-Bennetts.
So in the spirit of figuring out this thing called life, seeking answers and having constructive conversations, here are some questions that may help your child sort out his or her college feelings – and a few things for you to ponder as well.
1. Am I not ready for college – or is it that I don’t want to pursue the experience college is offering?
There’s a difference. If they don’t feel ready, they might lack confidence in their ability to handle the social and academic demands of college, or to live away from home; on the other hand, a student can be ready for the demands, but feel like the college isn’t the appropriate path for their post-secondary goals, says Detroit Country Day college counselor Judith Stahl.
2. If I’m not sure I’m ready for college, could it be that I just need a break – or should I look for something other than a traditional college degree?
Some students grind their way through high school to meet the academic demands of college prep, but need a break from the pressure. These students might explore a gap year, Markiecki-Bennetts suggests. Then there are students who want something other than a traditional four-year degree but aren’t aware of alternatives, such as two-year (or less) technical degrees that lead to in-demand jobs.
3. If I’m interested in learning about the alternatives to a traditional four-year degree, how can I explore the possibilities?
Check out the technical center affiliated with the high school, Markiecki-Bennetts suggests. Oakland Technical Center, for instance, offers training or early college credits in fields as varied as automotive technology, the culinary arts and the health sciences. Don’t overlook the community colleges, either. “Schoolcraft (College in Livonia) has a phenomenal open house for students interested in the skilled trades, ” Markiecki-Bennetts says.
And Ferris State University in Big Rapids doesn’t just offer bachelor’s degree programs, it offers two-year degrees in high-demand fields such as HVACR (Heating, Ventilation, Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration) Technology – and more.
4. What is it about school that I like and don’t like?
Maybe a student learns by doing but gets bored with traditional classroom instruction; or a student enjoys class discussions but hates writing papers. If it’s a matter of learning style, it may be the choice of college, type of degree program or major that makes them feel unprepared — not that they aren’t ready or cut out for college, Markiecki-Bennetts suggests.
Even hands-on learners succeed in school, particularly when they find programs that suit their desire to build, create, invent — or whatever tickles their hands-on fancy.
5. If I just need a break and want to explore a gap year, does that risk my college admission?
Not really — just make sure it’s productive and shows growth. The good news: you don’t have to save the rain forest to show the value of a gap year.
“Productive means something that doesn’t keep you stagnant. You might gap a year because you have to save money for college and can work full time. And that’s a valuable gap year,” says Markiecki-Bennetts. So is taking care of an elderly parent or grandparent. If you lean toward a more traditional gap year, with a social justice angle, for instance, “There are some schools that have structured gap years built into their admissions.” You can also set up your own gap year through organizations such as the American Gap Association.
6. Can I build my confidence by attending community college first?
Absolutely. Community colleges are a great alternative for students who aren’t ready to leave home, are unsure of their major or who may be looking for a financially prudent start to college, Stahl says. They also offer smaller class sizes and “prerequisites to harder classes so the student may experience success (great grades) prior to tackling more difficult material rather than jumping right” into a four-year program.
“With greater confidence comes an excitement and the ability to tackle more challenging academics in an academic pathway of learning.”
7. If my study and time management skills — or lack thereof — are getting in the way, is it too late to build them?
It’s never too late to create or reinforce study skills, Stahl says. “Time management is something we all deal with whether in post-secondary education, or juggling running a business or home.” It may help to know that college freshmen are often required to enroll in orientation classes that help develop the requisite time management and study skills.
8. Am I afraid to live away from home?
“What happens if I get sick? I don’t know how to do my laundry. Sometimes, it’s those kinds of skill sets that make students nervous,” Markiecki-Bennetts says. Developing some basic skills ahead of time can build confidence. So practice a few kitchen skills, take charge of laundry, and if they are late for class in the morning, have them deal with the consequences instead of asking for a note from you.
9. If I’m still anxious, how else can I resolve this?
Reach out to one of the counselors or professionals at the high school – have your student find someone they trust and who can act as an advocate in the college selection process, Stahl says. “A close friend can also provide the support a student needs.”
And now a couple of questions for the parents:
1. Am I putting too much pressure on my child?
“While I realize parents only want the best for their children, the pressure they convey is often unintentional but real and causes much anxiety for students,” Stahl says. “Parents need to recognize that this is not their path and they cannot fulfill their dreams and ambitions through their children. This is often difficult for parents but so necessary.”
2. Would it help to expand what it means to go to college?
Yes, says Markiecki-Bennetts, noting the state’s goal is that 60 percent of Michigan residents complete a post-secondary certificate or degree by the year 2030. In fact, she is not a fan of the term “college isn’t for everybody.”
“If we start to look at college as any certification beyond high school, then that is for everybody,” she adds. It also expands the definition of higher education — whether it’s a four-year degree, two-year degree, skilled trades certifications, apprenticeships and more.