I was moderating a panel recently that was meant to give high school students advice before they go off to college. Almost all of the panelists gave tips that boiled down to, “Don’t worry.”
“Don’t worry about choosing your major. You won’t even use it in your job.”
“Don’t worry about graduating on a set timetable. Go at your own pace.”
“Don’t worry about going to the right college, because where you go doesn’t matter as much as you think.”
I understand the intention behind that advice—young people are stressed out about what they’ll have to do to succeed in life, so “don’t worry” is simply a well-meaning attempt to ease students’ anxiety. The problem is, most students have been taught to focus on achievement since childhood. High test scores, a 4.0 GPA, AP classes, and accelerated “math lanes” have prepped them to view their education as a competition.
But when students are suddenly told, “Oh, don’t worry. It doesn’t really matter. You can go at your own pace,” they feel like they’re getting mixed signals.
They’re confused—and develop even more anxiety. In fact, almost every student came up to me after that panel and said they felt more stressed. Their concerns about college weren’t alleviated or acknowledged.
Students know that college is ridiculously expensive, and it doesn’t guarantee a job that will help them pay off loans after graduation. They’re worried, and they have every reason to be.
If you truly want to help alleviate stress, start by acknowledging students’ worries
Young people are more perceptive than they often get credit for. They’ve heard about the massive debt that many college students take on. They are told that the prestige of certain schools can positively or negatively affect their chances at a job.
Rather than dismiss those worries, parents and advisers should lay them out on the table.
Start by asking, “Why are you worried about this decision?” and give them an opportunity to explain. Maybe they’ll say, “I feel like if I choose the wrong major, I’m going to be screwed for the rest of my life. What if I go to the more expensive private school, but can’t pay off my loans for two decades?”
By listening to students’ concerns, advisers have an opportunity to correct any misunderstandings and help them create a better framework for making decisions. Maybe the student is misinformed about the magnitude of some of their worries. Maybe they don’t realize that there are strategies for getting a job after graduation, regardless of where they go to school.
Once you explore and understand someone’s worries, you can begin addressing them.
Use students’ concerns to explore realistic options
Students need to know that they’re not crazy—that their worries about the cost or timeline of a college degree are valid. The only way to help is by sitting down with them and reviewing their options.
You should be talking to students about the costs of college. You should be talking with them about the average time to graduate and how much time they want to budget for college. You need to get them thinking about their finances before, during, and after college. Maybe that means helping them weigh a decision between a state school or a more prestigious (but more expensive) private school.
By sitting down and listening to their concerns, parents can give their kids the chance to relieve that pent-up anxiety—and then help them explore the nuances of those worries. It can be incredibly helpful to write down the options for every scenario and talk through them calmly and without judgment.
Once the options are laid out, help students identify the support they need
Students are already fidgeting over these issues, and their stress and worry manifest in the desire to do something. If you tell them, “Don’t worry,” you’re essentially pinning their arms down.
But once you know exactly what students are anxious about, you have the opportunity to identify solutions and find support.
Trusted teachers, family, friends, community resources, school resources—there are people and organizations out there who can answer questions and help students take control of the process. If students are able to use that nervous energy in a positive, productive way, they’ll feel empowered to act and take responsibility for their college experience.
Students today are as stressed as they are excited about making such huge decisions. But telling them not to worry about it isn’t helpful, and it isn’t realistic. They’re going to continue to worry about it, no matter what we say to them. So, why not give them an outlet to express those concerns in a productive manner and then find them the support they need?
In order to make that happen, you have to understand and empathize with their reality. Listen to them, address their concerns, and give them the tools they need to make the best decisions possible.