Dear Zinc is a regular advice column for high schoolers and their parents. To submit a question, email us.
I go to a small school so I’ve been hearing a lot about college and college counseling from the teachers and older kids for years. Plus, my brother already went through it and it was stressful to be around. I wouldn’t say my parents are college obsessed, but they are definitely involved and have pretty high expectations (though they would deny that). If I ask my parents for help or advice, they have a million opinions and suggestions. So do other kids and teachers. I’m already feeling overwhelmed by everything. My parents and I are going in to meet my college counselor for the first time next week. What should I be doing right now?
Dear A. O.,
Everyone in this process means well, including, obviously, you. It’s just one of those emotion-tangling times when the tides of life overlap and everyone needs all the help they can get to navigate the cross currents.
Put yourself in your parents’ shoes. They may have an odd way of showing it — like, by going to the office and working all weekend or yelling at you for neglecting to clean the cat litter again — but you’re probably more important to them than eating. And college will rip you from their lives (sort of) and launch you straight out into the world they’ve spent so much energy protecting you from for the last sixteen years. They’d really love to have all the answers for you. Of course, they don’t, so they’re compensating by talking a lot.
Put yourself in your shoes. It wasn’t that long ago you were filling your Club Penguin coffers with gems and rings. Now you’re juggling rinsta, finsta, SAT, stoichiometry and the Treaty of Westphalia, and you’re somehow also supposed to “fall in love with ten colleges” or find your life’s true calling. And all of this is meant to prepare you for that looming menace called “adulthood” when you’ll somehow be expected to make your own way in the world.
I’m exhausted writing that.
The writer Mo Ogrodnik has described coming-of-age as journeying into one’s aloneness. When we are finally left to ourselves, we notice paths meant only for us. Tough to do that while keeping up with teams and homework and social media, aka, being normal. Still, for many of us, the college process is the first of many opportunities to figure out what matters to us and act on it.
There’s a world of difference between freedom from — as in, “freedom from my parents telling me what to do all the time” — and freedom to — as in, “freedom to choose what to study or who to be.” Take stock of yourself and prepare to make choices.
You can start by making two lists.
Before your counselor meeting, make a list of any activities and experiences that have mattered to you. You need not make a formal “resume,” but writing them up in a form you can hand to the counselor is a good idea. They need to get to know you, and people love lists. Just make sure to include the color commentary. Instead of just “camper – Camp Sarsaparilla,” clarify that you spent your summers without electricity growing your own organic food.
The second list should be a very preliminary list of colleges. Look up some schools online. Your preferences may well change, but notice what appeals to you — big university with lots of graduate schools or small liberal arts college that emphasizes undergrad teaching? Major metropolis or tiny college town? Do you want to stay near home or go far away?
There will be many other factors to consider. What will your transcript look like? What test scores will you present? Where will you get the best financial aid package? No matter the answers to any of these questions, you will have choices to make, and, at the end of the day, some or all of these choices will be yours.
Take a deep breath, A.O. Give yourself a pat for asking this honest question. Put your phone in a drawer in another room. Go for a long walk. Free-write in your journal. Meditate. Visit a house of worship or a museum or a park. Look for other opportunities to tune yourself in.