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How To Tell Your Parents That You Aren’t Picking Their Dream School, From An Expert

Deciding which college you’ll attend is never an easy thing. After all, you’re deciding how the next few years of your life will turn out: it’s scary, but at the same time, it’s full of possibilities. But what happens when your future is already mapped out for you by your parents? And what if you don’t want that? How do you tell your parents you’re not picking their dream college?

It’s common for parents to impose their own dreams onto their children as a way to live vicariously through them. Some parents may want their children to follow in their footsteps regarding hobbies or interests, but when it comes to attending their “dream college,” the future may seem more daunting — having to reject a parent’s dream sounds like a difficult conversation no one wants to have.

Luckily, for those stuck in this dilemma, I spoke with Dr. Iris Berkley, Ph.D — an educational consultant, nationally certified premier SAT/ACT instructor, and UCLA-certified college counselor — about how students can best approach having this conversation with their parents. 

“The right time to discuss college decisions with parents is as soon as you’ve made a well-reasoned and well-researched decision,” Dr. Berkley says. “Ideally, this conversation should happen right before any final decisions are made, giving you and your parents plenty of time to discuss the reasoning behind your choice.” 

She also notes to avoid any high-stress situations or family functions; with these circumstances, the emotional charge and activity might lend itself to an equally haphazard conversation and an ill-considered decision. To conduct this conversation, the atmosphere should be calm so as to create a distraction-free environment: constant chatter, heated arguments, and rushing to get ready are just some things that will only make you anxious — and we don’t want to add to our worry list, do we?  

Establishing a time and place for this discussion should be relatively easy (depending on your circumstances), but it’s starting the conversation that tends to be the tricky part. “Starting the conversation requires a plan to communicate clearly and empathetically,” Berkeley comments. So, here’s how you might approach this. 

Acknowledge your parents’ support.

You should always be thankful for what your parents do for you, but make sure that they know that vocally. “Begin with appreciating your parents’ support,” Dr. Berkeley says. “For example, ‘I really appreciate how much you’ve helped me with my college applications.’” Simply leading on a positive note can quickly steer the conversation toward an open and supportive direction, fostering a sense of ease and well-being. Most likely, your parents will feel validated by the fact that you’ve recognized their aid, and they will be more likely to agree with you, or hear you out, at least. 

use decisive statements.

Make sure you know what you want, and that this is clear to your parents as well. When they see how assertive you are when it comes to your preferred college, they’ll understand just how serious you are. “Explain your decision clearly and confidently,” Dr. Berkeley notes. “For example, ‘I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I’ve decided that [Other College] is the best fit for my goals and interests.’” 

The right amount of confidence will help you face any obstacle in your way (or your parents, at least), and in doing so, it allows you to take control of the conversation. 

Let them know your reasoning.

“The next part is the most important step,” Dr. Berkeley says. “You’ll want to provide reasons and evidence as to why your alternative choice is better suited to your career goals, personal growth, or financial situation.” Providing valid explanations for your preferred college heightens your credibility, but also, creates a convincing argument. 

“In my experience,” Dr. Berkeley adds, “parents genuinely want what’s best for their children, so if you can provide solid data on why the college you want to attend is a better fit for you and your future, they’ll listen.” 

Make sure to remain calm and cool while you explain yourself, too, and remember that this might be unexpected news for your parents; they might need some additional time to process your wishes, because, after all, you’re rejecting their dream school. Be patient with them as they think it over, then be prepared for any questions they might throw your way. 

Body language and delivery are important, too.

It’s about how you present yourself, so just relax and remain confident, and if your parents react in a negative way, allow them to “express their concerns and acknowledge (validate) their feelings without agreeing to change your decision.” You want to be gentle yet firm when you articulate any other points you might have, and if this still isn’t quite convincing, Dr. Berkeley suggests that a neutral third party can help mediate and provide an objective perspective on the matter. 

“Remember that 70%-93% of all communication is nonverbal,” Dr. Berkeley advises. “So, be mindful of your posture and physical body, which will help demonstrate that you value their feelings and opinions even as you assert your own needs and goals.” 

Parents may want their children to become mini versions of themselves and live out their dream college experiences, but you should vocalize your own concerns and aspirations rather than suppress them. Otherwise, imposing their ideals onto you — and in turn, forcing you to live out their broken dreams — is more harmful than it is fulfilling, as Dr. Berkeley says “undermining your ability to make decisions can impair your development of independence and self-confidence.” When this happens, emotional turbulence can materialize into repressed resentment and strain within the family, leading to the corrosion of one’s self-esteem. 

Suppose someone is limited to the narrow path their parents have outlined for them. In that case, it’s not surprising when children grow up struggling with their identities: their interests, beliefs, and even talents are lost, bent beneath the weight of their parents’ expectations and pressures. It’s important that parents keep in mind that their children are separate entities rather than an extension of themselves. When it comes to feeling like you need to follow their unmet goals, it’s important that you’re able to express yourself freely and confidently when it comes to what you aspire for. Remember: this is your future, not theirs.

Sofia is a third-year Writing & Literature major at UCSB. In her free time, she enjoys watching anime, playing video games, and drinking chai tea.