• Dr. Thom

Moving From Passenger to Driver: an antidote for college search procrastination


Photo by Lo Sarno on Unsplash

I remember the exact place and time that my father told me I was getting a car. Sitting at the family dinner table, I was 14 years old when I learned that I would be inheriting mom’s old 1985 Dodge 600 ES convertible. Black exterior, maroon vinyl interior, with almost as many miles on it as holes in the convertible top.


I knew, though, that my parents had expectations of me before the keys would be mine.

  1. Get my learner’s permit. Easy enough.

  2. Take driver’s ed.

  3. Spend every other Saturday with my dad driving all over town, including learning how to drive our Ford Bronco stick shift, because you never know when you’ll need that skill.

  4. Learn how to change the oil and fix a flat.

  5. Pass my driver’s test.

  6. And finally, don’t be a jerk during that whole process.

I didn’t care. I was going to do whatever it took. It was a V4 ticket to freedom and autonomy, with white wall tires.


A metaphor we use a lot at Golden Educational Consulting that works well to set the proper familial mindset for the college search process is learning how to drive. It works for several reasons:

  1. Roles are well defined: The student is in the driver’s seat and the parent is in the passenger seat, (obviously). The driver is the learner, the passenger is the teacher. It doesn’t really work without this arrangement. Roles need to be well defined in the college search too. Who is doing what?

  2. The student driver is responsible for what happens to the car: but they are also receiving guidance from the adult passenger. It wouldn’t make sense for the parent to reach over and take care of the blinker for example. Junior needs to do that, just like they need to take care of details in their college applications.

  3. Everybody knows the setup: At some point, the parent is getting out of the car, and it will be the young person’s job to make sure the car, and everyone in it for whom they are responsible, stays out of the ditch. The college search is a dry run for adult decision-making in a similar fashion.

There is yet another reason the metaphor works. There is a very real incentive to follow the “learning to drive” prep process: the wonderful sense of freedom and accomplishment that comes from mastering an adult skill. For me, the thought of driving myself to school and tennis practice on a warm spring day with the top down was all the motivation I needed to blow through any hoops my dad set out for me.


In the college search, there is a similar list of preparation that is required: from researching colleges, to selecting the right courses, to getting your application materials prepared, and all the minutiae that comes with applying to college. The payoff though is pretty stellar, as the college experience, particularly at a school that really fits the student, is a real adventure.


So, if you are experiencing a high degree of hesitation from your teen, or they are experiencing maturation fits and starts, perhaps a shift in mindset (for you and your teen) would help. Chances are, they are leaning away from the stuff they have to do because that is all they can see. They do not know what is on the other side of it. They just see the work and not the freedom it secures.


My dad loved driving. He would roll his windows down on a sunny day and turn up the radio and sing. His arm hung out the window so often, that as he aged, his left arm hair was a fine shade of white. As the driver, he got to pick what happened in the car, what music was on, and which route he would take. He called it “driver’s choice.” Driving is a facet of life that most adults take for granted. It’s just something you learned how to do. But I had the pleasure of watching my father enjoy this earned privilege of adult life. And he absolutely expected me to earn it.

My father, Bill Golden, teaching car engines to a 1995 version of me. He passed on Oct 17, 2014, on his 66th birthday.

How much time have you spent discussing how much you enjoyed your college years with your teen (appropriately of course, they don’t need to hear everything)? What were some of your favorite aspects of college? What were some of your biggest triumphs and growth moments during college? Have you ever told your teen about them? For those parents who did not attend college, talk with your teen about that too. Offer your perspective, your decisions, and what you learned.


Likewise, have you explicitly told them what you expect of them in the college search? Without that, their default will likely be that you will shuttle them around everywhere, just like they did for so many years as a child, as a passenger.


Yes, moving from the passenger seat to the driver requires work and it puts teenagers on the hook where the car ends up. But along the way, they get to pick the music, and how much wind they want in their hair, and how loud they want to sing. Driver’s choice.


Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.

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