When is it OK to Answer a Question with a Question?

This time of year, a lot of families and students are asking questions. I hear so many questions from clients, friends, and even from people who just know what I do professionally who are not shy about asking (please do!). They are all asking a question about questions, specifically, “What should we ask when they go on college tours?”

Typically, I can provide a quick list right off the top of my head, including some important questions such as these (in no particular order):

  • Do you guarantee housing for all four years?
  • What type of internships do students participate in?
  • What percentage of the students go abroad?
  • What percentage of the students participate in Greek Life?
  • If I am accepted to the School of Arts and Sciences, can I transfer to your School of Business/Engineering etc.?
  • When do I have to declare my major?
  • Are you test optional?

But the more I think about it, the better answer to that question is, “What do you think are the important questions?” The best questions to ask are the questions that are important to you, not what I think are the most important questions.

In my counseling work, I used to hand out a veeeerrrry looooooong handout about visiting colleges for students to review. I asked them to read it and pick out some questions (from the hundreds I had listed) that they thought they might want to ask when visiting schools. If I were a betting woman, I would have put money on maybe 20% of those former students opening the document and then 10% reading through the questions.

As I met with them before their tours,I would remind them to ask about the dorms or ask about the food or ask about internships. However, those parts of college life might not be what’s truly important to them.

So now, I start to flip the question back to the students and their parents.

When someone asks me what questions are important to ask, I will start my response with, “What do you think is important for you to know about the school? Is it about the cost? Or do they offer merit scholarships? Is your question does the school have off for the Jewish holidays, and if not, what do students do if they want to take time off for a holiday?” Those are the questions that I would ask because those are the issues that are important to me, but they might not be to my students.

If they are stuck, I will, of course, offer them some suggestions, but only after they offer me a few first. When you are trying to wrap your head around something new and slightly intimidating, get in touch with your needs, your values, or your goals. Get curious with yourself. You’d be surprised how often it’s okay to answer a question with a question.

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