Help Your Student Determine What College is For: Ask Powerful Questions

Megan G. Bernard, PhD

 Founder, Kairos College Success Consulting

You can help your child thrive in the complex, sometimes overwhelming college environment. Asking questions can create space for them to articulate what matters to them, why it is important, and how their experiences in college can relate to those priorities. Intrinsic, personal motivations for pursuing an education are positively correlated with college persistence, learning, and graduation; when students explore their reasons for attending college and studying particular subjects, they are better prepared to overcome obstacles.  

 Thoughtful, open-ended questions can support students as they work to define the meaning and value of their education. 

Here are a few suggestions to help you begin a conversation that will start them thinking:

  • How have you changed in the last year?
  • What aspect of yourself makes you feel proud?
  • Who do you admire? What is it about them or their life that impresses you?
  • Who was the best teacher you had? What did they do that made them so good?
  • What difficult thing have you learned in the last year? How did you learn it?
  • Who are you looking forward to meeting/seeing/hanging out with?
  • What do you know about [city/town] outside of your campus so far? What do you want to explore there?
  • Do you have places you want to travel to or study in your lifetime? What is it about those places that interest you?
  • What qualities do you want to be known for? Why are those significant to you? 

These questions are tailored to elicit certain productive habits of mind for your student. When you seek insight rather than dictate obligations or offer advice, you position your student as the expert in her own life and position yourself as a curious supporter. You are like an interviewer, making her the star of the story that she chooses to tell about herself. 

Tips for Asking Powerful Questions

  • These open-ended questions should be posed lightly, over coffee or on a walk.
  • Select one topic to raise at a time so that you don’t accidentally slip into an interrogation.
  • You can help extend the discussion by offering a brief, previously-untold story about your own college experience; I recommend you reveal a mistake and how you changed as a result. Disclosing new things about your past shows that you recognize their independence.
  • Accept that they may not answer your questions directly or deeply. That’s fine—and normal. Even if she does not engage in a dialogue on the subject, you have planted seeds in her mind that can encourage her to recognize that she has authority over what happens next.

Thoughtful and supportive coaching like this can guide college students to articulate their hopes for their own futures and make real strides toward realizing them. Practicing self-authorship helps young adults develop confidence and persist when college gets difficult.