The one question to ask your teenager before they apply to university

Photo by Pang Yuhao on Unsplash
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – Lao Tze

It is more than normal, these days, for teenagers to feel confused about what they would like to study at university and what a future career could look like for them. It is a noisy world out there and it has become increasingly harder to hear each other, let alone ourselves.

Traditionally, children followed the career paths of their parents, went to the local university, and sometimes, left to continue their studies or work abroad. This is no longer the case today with parents themselves having to sometimes shift lanes mid-career to fit into a new economic reality. With the world of education stretching in all directions, the choices today, particularly for international students who speak multiple languages and are exposed to different cultures, are immense. With a working environment constantly in flux, students and parents may need more guidance as to what the best options for their children are.

The varying, and often contradictory, opinions that we now have access to, are only fuelling our indecisive brains. “Follow your passion if you want to live happily ever after!” “Don’t follow your passion if you want to have a satisfactory career!” “Do good!” “Follow your dreams!”

Let’s face it. Most teenagers don’t even have a passion to follow or to ignore. They have been living their formative years in snippets as offered by different media platforms. And while this may have allowed them exposure to many careers, it has more often than not left them clueless. This inability to decide is making them–and sometimes more their parents–feel very insecure.

There is one question that may help you get the conversation started so that you may help your child navigate this testy next phase of their lives.

Why are you going to university?

It all starts with why. While future students may not know what they want to do, it is important to know why they are doing it.

Are they going because they want to learn something?

If so, what would they like to learn? What are they curious about? What do they see? What does the world look like to them? Do they have an artistic or scientific enquiry they would like to pursue? A dream they wish to fulfil? Do they see any problems in the world hey wish to solve? Is there anything they would like to change?

Are they going because they want to improve their job prospects?

If so, is there a particular kind of work they would like to engage in? What do they enjoy doing? Are they honing their skills for a family business? Are they aware of what future (soft or hard) skills might be useful in the marketplace? Are they willing to learn them? Must they go to university to do so? With the plethora of online courses today, do students really need to go to university to learn stuff?

Are they going because it is a natural path after school?

Because everyone else in their social circle is doing it? Because they wouldn’t know what to do if they didn’t go? Because they want to explore a new way of living? This may be the answer you will get more often than not and at this stage it is a fair one. In that case, what experience are they looking to have? Would they like to live in a big, global city or a small provincial campus? How do they imagine their life in the next few years? Who would they like to meet? Would they like to be with like-minded international students or do they prefer a more immersive cultural experience? If they are unsure, would they consider a year out to explore their options? (And would you accept that for them?)

These are deceptively simple questions that are not necessarily easy. And while you may not get a satisfactory answer immediately, it is perhaps a way to get a conversation started with your child or student and an opportunity for you to understand a little better what your teenager is thinking (or not). Just remember that this is a journey, as much for us as for them. I have encountered several families who see the acceptance at university as an objective, and end-point. While university is a deeply enriching experience in many cases, it is but a stepping stone on what will hopefully aver to be a fruitful future. Education is a path. If we can help our children see it as such, and if we can remain open-minded about the process, then it may ease a lot of the tension and the pressure that sometimes accompany these difficult conversations.