“Why should I go to college when I don’t know what I want to do?” It’s a question many parents of teenagers hear as the end of high school approaches, even in families where college planning is well advanced, grades and SAT scores are college-worthy, and finances aren’t an issue. “College is where you discover what that is,” we tell them, and when they won’t take that for an answer we offer another one; estimates of the difference in lifetime earnings between college graduates and those without undergraduate degrees range from a low of $279,893 to well over a million dollars. But even that won’t satisfy because it doesn’t address the real issue: their free-flowing anxiety about the future.
Most teenagers’ sense of the future, as Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan describes it, is simply “the present that hasn’t happened yet.” But now it’s suddenly clear that the future is upon them, and heading into it without a direction or even a map to possible destinations is a very scary proposition. Their anxiety may be heightened if they’re feeling parental pressure about choosing a career or even a major – worrying that even a preliminary choice will define and determine the rest of their lives, they may act out their fears in a number of ways, including precluding or delaying the college option by procrastinating until they’ve missed key deadlines in the college application and admissions process, ignoring incomplete graduation requirements, or even engaging in uncharacteristically risky behavior.
Before it gets to that point, help your teenager envision a possible future – not by giving advice about deciding on a career, but by helping them inventory their own skills, interests and values. Ask them to recall seven or more times in their life when they enjoyed what they were doing, thought they did it well, and felt a sense of accomplishment – selling Girl Scout cookies, managing a high school team or club, getting up a garage band, putting on a play, running for student office, being a camp counselor, organizing a food drive at school, even getting a driver’s license. Why did they do it? What did they like most about it? What part of it were they best at? Then help them look for commonalities, patterns that may not by themselves express a particular vocational leaning, let alone a career path, but that can be a starting point for teenagers to assess themselves functionally.
Meanwhile, stay open to the possibility that hesitating when it comes to going to college right after high school may not be the worst thing that can happen to your teenagers. Experience has shown that some adolescents have a better college experience by waiting a year or even longer. The “Seven Stories” exercise may help yours focus more clearly on alternatives to college – a gap year during which vocational training, work/study jobs, organized travel, volunteerism (AmeriCorps, for example), apprenticeships, internships, or even military service can provide some of the real world experience that might illuminate (or even eliminate) the confusion about whether going to college without a goal beyond just graduating is worth what it costs.