Stop Making Small Talk About College

McKeon: Parents make the college process more stressful when they pry about college choices, make small talk


Thanks to his last name, Ezra Zigmond has always been at the bottom of the class list. But in every other respect, he’s always been at the top.

To my knowledge, he is the only member of our senior class to be admitted to Harvard University. Harvard, whose admission rate lingers just below six percent; whose graduates total 47 Nobel Laureates, 32 heads of state and 48 Pulitzer Prize winners and whose name carries more weight than maybe any other college in North America.

But Zigmond gets a bit embarrassed when asked about his accomplishment.

“I feel like I’m Mitt Romney and they ask me how much I make a year,” he said.

Ah, college small talk. Let’s hear how bad his case is.

A few days after he got in, Zigmond’s parents held an open house to celebrate some recent renovations. “It was one of the most awkward experiences I’ve ever had . . . The whole neighborhood knew I had gotten into Harvard.”

Zigmond estimates “dozens” of people congratulated him.

“The first one was nice. . . . They said, ‘So, you’re going to Harvard, right?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m still waiting to hear back from Stanford.’ And then that’s when the Mitt Romney feeling comes in. It’s like, they gave me a million dollars, but I’m waiting for a better offer. . . . By the time I got to the 22nd person, and they asked, ‘Are you going to Harvard?’ I just said, ‘Probably.’ It’s easier.”

This small talk sounds particularly cringe-inducing: “And then they say, ‘Oh, you’re going to be Mark Zuckerberg! You’re going to be Steve Jobs!’ ”


It’s March, which means many seniors are nearing the end of the collegiate waiting game. They’ve taken the tests, written the essays and pressed the Submit button on the Common App.

For juniors, you unlucky souls, it’s all just beginning. Prepare yourselves for the essays, the testing and, worst of all, the college small talk.

The world would be a better place if there was less college small talk.

At the very least, college small talk is mildly irritating. From now until they graduate, juniors will recite their answers to Where are you applying? and What do you want to study? during every interaction with a parent. And I do mean every interaction.

At the very most, the constant onslaught of small talk makes the college process so public it creates self-conscious students who feel pressured to apply to “impressive” colleges in order to outdo their peers and impress adults.

And that pressure is there, because everyone will know your plans for next fall. Everyone. “I probably told three or four of my closest friends,” he said. Within a day, thanks to social media and word of mouth, Zigmond estimates nearly everyone in the senior class knew he had gotten in.

Applying to college is important, and people who hold a stake in the process should discuss it thoroughly. But small talk doesn’t help anyone; the applicant’s parents and counselor should be the main– if not the only — people who discuss college with a student.

Senior Ezra Zigmond completes a worksheet in his AP Psychology class. Harvard University accepted Zigmond in December.
Senior Ezra Zigmond completes a worksheet in his AP Psychology class. Harvard University accepted Zigmond in December.

It is an exciting time, though, and college talk is sometimes unavoidable. Zigmond said, “There’s so little else to talk about because it’s on everyone’s mind; it’s on every parent’s mind and every student’s mind, but sometimes it does feel a little malicious. ‘Where is your kid going? My kid is going here. Is my kid doing better than yours?’ When kids ask each other, I don’t think they have anything bad in mind; they just want to know. When parents ask, they want to make a ranking.”

With college small talk, there is always a sense that some parents are waging proxy battles through their kids. Students often get caught in the crossfire; we spend months stressed, anxious, guilty, embarrassed, stressed, feeling inferior, hopeless and stressed again, victims of an overly-competitive, overly-public college arms race.

Let’s change that.

Parents: here is your unofficial rulebook for college small talk, compiled from conversations with current seniors.

1. Strive to discuss college only with your own children.

2. You may discuss college if the student has brought it up, but Rule 6 still applies.

3. It is permissible, in rare instances, to make college small talk if you have run out of all other small-talk options; if given no other choice, college small talk may be used to break an awkward silence. First, though, you must exhaust all possible discussion of the weather and the Browns.

4. If you do make college small talk, find a fresh way to make it. Do not ask the cliche questions noted above. Find something less trite; you’ll likely get a more satisfying answer from the student, too.

5. Not all parents are uber-competitive, small talk-making monsters; some are just curious. If you are that parent, develop a “quick-and-painless” approach; hear what you need to hear and change the subject.

6. Establish a time limit for each round of small talk; no student should be subjected to more than 30 seconds of college small talk at a time.

7. Learn the old adage: “Your safety might be someone else’s reach.” Never condescend to a school. Ever.

8. Try not to compare your college admissions process with a current student; the process has changed drastically since you applied.

9. Never explicitly or implicitly critique a student’s college decisions; rest assured, students are concerned about their own future and do not need your help shaping it.

10. Avoid asking questions that require numerical answers; that is, do not ask about test scores, financial aid and admissions rates.

11. Remember that where a student applies is not solely based on a test score; a student may be fully capable of acceptance at a “selective” college, but may decide against it because of cost, distance, student experience, area of study, athletics, ideological/religious affiliation and dozens of other external factors that are usually none of your business.

12. Strive to be a conversational break from the college process. Students deal with college stuff enough; why not help them take their minds off it?

13. When in doubt, err on the side of not discussing college.

Attached is a document. It is the No College Small Talk Pledge. It lists all of these rules and a region for you to sign. I encourage you to print it, read it, sign it and hang it somewhere you’ll see it.

College does not define a student or a parent, a family or a school district. Zigmond said it best. “It’s not a measure of your self-worth; it’s just a couple of white guys sitting in a room looking at some pieces of paper and deciding they like your piece of paper.”


Comment using your Facebook, Yahoo, AOL or Hotmail account