Two women in conversation

10 Senior-Year Conversation starters NOT about College applications!

Please Don’t Make this conversation about College Apps!

To make friendly conversation, it’s tempting to ask seniors in high school how the college application process is going, or where they are applying.  They MAY be tempted to strangle you, but they’ll probably act decently about it and politely recite their list.  Maybe even tell you it’s going OK.

What they really want to do is go to the closest room and scream so loudly that the Common App site crashes (or so they tell me, but it’s kinda obvious if you just look closely at their faces).

Think about it this way: if you were applying for a high stakes job that took many hundreds of hours and every time you saw anyone THAT WAS ALL THEY WANTED TO TALK ABOUT WITH YOU IN ALL CAPS.

Arg. Ick.

PSA, Care Elsewhere!

This post is a PSA from someone in the industry, moi (I SEE YOU, TEENS!): if you are hanging out with high school seniors these days and strike up conversation TRY REALLY HARD NOT TO ASK THEM ABOUT COLLEGE/COLLEGE PROCESS. Like, AT ALL.

I know you really care, but unless you’re their guidance counselor, care about something else.  Really, you will get so many cool points for not making the conversation about C-O-L-L-E-G-E.  They need the mental break.  They need to know they are interesting and valuable and very awesome BEYOND this demanding process.

At this point in the fall, COLLEGE CRAP (that’s how they are thinking of it) is all anyone asks about (Not you? Cool, you should run a tutorial for other adults!).  It gets Teen-TEDIOUS.

Branch out the conversation

Rule of thumb: No college crap.

While you are at it, avoid school generally.

Ask them, like, what they had for lunch, or to tell you about something weird they noticed on the street.

Here are 10 suggestions to start up a real conversation with a teen in the middle of college applications.

  1. What’s the last thing that really got you mad?
  2. What’s the last thing that made you feel completely relaxed?
  3. What makes you want to get up and do something? i.e. What are you passionate about?
  4. If there were no hidden costs and no judgments, what do you most want to learn about OUTSIDE SCHOOL?
  5. Who is your crush these days, c’mon, you can tell me, no really, you can…(You have to know if this question is in your purview, m’kay?)- a better approach: if you’ve got a crush, when is the last time you saw the person? How did it go?
  6. Describe an awkward situation you wish you could do over– how would things play out?
  7. Tell me about the last movie you saw and why you loved it.
  8. If your life could be like any movie, which would you pick and why?
  9. Wanna go do something non-academic?
  10. Do you have any writing you would read to me? I’d love to just listen.

Did the Conversation Turn to college app stress anyway?

We want to help teens with that, and panicking teens are our specialty.  Y’all can do it– you can turn that stress into super-prose.

In Essay Intensive individual sessions, we’ll talk around the essays to get at the best topics and structure, so get ready for good conversation. Sliding scale rates so don’t be shy.

More Conversation Starters from Friends

Look, this lady on HuffPo, mom of 4 and a Happiness Coach (!!) has more ideas for you!

What parent help really helps teens write?

What can parents do?

Parents Influence

As parents, it’s hard to figure out the right balance of influence and distance when your kid is writing the college essay(s). And like everything else parenting related, the perfect balance differs.  But it’s important to establish healthy and helpful bottom lines in your role and relationship.

This week, I read an(other) NYTimes article about how admissions officers (90% of them?) can tell if the essay is written in the student’s voice and style, or that of some much older adult– often the parent.  It’s not foolproof– some kids have mastered adult-ese. Or they purposefully write in an even more sophisticated way in the essay (it’s called trying too hard?) than is natural for them.

An adultered style (no pun intended) is especially common if a lot is at stake (college acceptance, anyone?) and the students are trying to be impressive. (As I have said elsewhere, the best way to be impressive is to….be impressive. That doesn’t happen in a one-off.)

Their passion is the point

There are all kinds of ethical issues with parents picking or heavily influencing the essay topic and its execution.  But one of the biggest is: the raw passion isn’t there.

Spend 10 minutes with adolescents asking them about what they love, what moves or bothers them, what is really on their mind, and you are met with a slew of passionate speech. That same passion will not and cannot be there if their parents have fed them a topic about which they don’t feel equally strong.

Remember, your student might really really really want to please you, the parent, or  at least not disappoint.


Yes, all writing is a produced self.  But, no, not all writing is photoshopped to fit in well with the family portrait.

Agendas are obstacles.

You have one, I have one, students have one.

Mostly– you want your kid to be liked.  To shine out as special, but not to take too big a risk that might cost something.

Whereas students, wrongheaded or not, might be willing to take a risk that costs something.  They are defenders of the passionate life, the life that is meaningful TO THEM.  You don’t want them to write about the time they made a big mistake because you want the admissions officers to find them stellar.  Your agenda is to protect them, and have them show a more perfect self.

BUT, stellar people make mistakes.  And colleges want real people– I think.

So what can parents do?

The best things you can do:

  • Set up a calendar at home with deadlines.  Point to it– be neutral.
  • Genuinely ask them how they are doing with the process.
  • Offer to be a reader at the very end, only to help them find their errors in sentence construction and so on– IF you have the skills yourself to point those out non-emotionally.
  • ALSO, you might just listen, so they can read the essay aloud and hear for themselves if something sounds off, untrue, tangential.
  • You can also just (YES) tell them you love them. Like, a lot.

Yes. That you know this application thing is hard and it’s hard for you too to start to let them go and let them make their own choices.  That you trust them, even if part of that trust means they might make mistakes or choices they will regret later.

Because– right?– you love them.

In the end, that love, and the quality of that relationship, the trust you build or break, is more important than exactly where they go to school; exactly what any one reader thinks of them.

Seek other help


Some families don’t want outside help. They want to handle it solo. If that’s you, and if you value your relationship with your kid above their achievements, I suggest the above approach.

Otherwise, encourage them to do their best quality work, and to connect with other adults who can give them non-emotional, candid feedback– grammar and clarity help where appropriate.

Perhaps decide together what kind of help and from whom serves your student and family’s needs best.

Maybe you’re into hiring someone– like me, or the other experts (like this incredible person) who flood the market.  I genuinely love doing this work for its own sake: because I love the struggle for truth.  Human truth, and adolescent truth. I love the process of helping them narrow down their topics and ideas until one feels like the REAL DEAL.  I offer sliding scale so the support is available for all families.

Or maybe there is a cool, kind adult in your community who is a good reader and can both listen AND talk about the composition issues. Hug that person.

A free phone call with me for parents to figure it out

To help yourself and your family get on track, try a free phone session with me–10 minute Q&A.

The full 30-60 minute consultation can be purchased, with or without your kid on the line, to talk through the best approach to parenting the college essay writer through this process.

Can’t wait to hear from you, here.  

What’s helped you so far in this process?  What’s working out for you and your student, and what isn’t?  Let us know the details, here.