Not all high school students will go on to college.

Some will make this decision early on, and you can strategize with them about trade classes to take now or if they will attend a technical school. But many others will be on the fence about whether college is the right move for them. 

Sarah Langford, an independent educational consultant and college counselor at a performing arts high school in Chicago, has encountered many students who doubt their college plans. “When a student suddenly changes their mind, there’s usually something that’s unrelated to college driving the doubt,” she says. “Look for things going at home, at school or in their social life.” 

Of course, that won’t be true for every student — college simply isn’t for everyone. To figure out what’s really going on is good old-fashioned talking. To drive the conversation and determine if college is, in fact, the right choice for a student, Langford recommends hitting these five points.

1. Figure Out If it’s Just Nerves

If a student who’s been on a college track suddenly expresses doubt — especially the summer before or early in the fall of senior year — it’s often nerves or a reaction to the intensifying application process. “They hate everything about applying to college and they just shut down,” Langford says. “That’s when I say, ‘Okay, I get it. This is awful. However, college is awesome.’” If this technique gains traction, you’ll want to remind the student that college is still a year (or more) away, but they need to apply now if they want to have the option later.

2. Recommend a Gap Year

A technical “gap year” is not waiting a year to apply to college; it’s applying senior year, getting in, requesting permission to delay matriculation and paying a nonrefundable deposit. While anyone can request a gap year, Langford says they work especially well for students who are younger than the typical freshman, were sick or hospitalized during high school, are experiencing mental illness or are particularly burned out. Whatever the circumstances, students will need to tell colleges their plan to do something meaningful, such as interning, living in another country, volunteering or taking a year-long photography course. 

3. Discuss the Realities of Waiting to Apply

If a student simply wants to delay applying to college, discuss what it will be like to shift the process by a year, two years or longer. Besides becoming logistically more complicated once the student physically leaves their high school, relationships with teachers — who are likely to be their recommenders — will not be as strong. “If you’re not in the building seeing teachers every day, you very well might move to the bottom of their priority list,” Langford says. “That doesn’t mean a teacher won’t write a recommendation, but it will be tougher to arrange. And if they do write one, they may not remember the student as well as they would have when they were in their class, which means the recommendation might not be as strong.” 

4. Get Real About Life After High School

If you’re still not making inroads, start talking specifics about life after high school. “I might pull stats on something like earning power for people without college degrees versus those without them,” says Langford. “I’ll also ask them to consider what they’ll do for money next year and where they will live. Many parents will say, ‘That’s okay if you don’t want to go to college, but you’re not living here.’ I work to make students consider what not going to college will look like and encourage them to ask themselves if it truly makes sense.”

5. Recommend Community College

Community colleges can be a good alternative for the right student, which is why Langford suggests them in certain circumstances. “If a student doesn’t have the grades they need but has begun to show improvement, I will recommend community college,” she says. “But I only do this when it’s clear they will not yet do well at a four-year school or they won’t receive much-needed financial assistance at one.” 

Every student is different, and your knowledge of them and experience will be your most reliable resources. Ultimately, the best thing you can do is figure out where a student is emotionally in the process and meet them there.