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No matter what you think of teens these days — whether you think they’re spoiled with participation trophies or they’re earnest, tech-loving world-changers — there’s no question that they’re much different from the generations of teens that preceded them. St. Edward’s University Dean of Admission Tracy Manier, who oversees the efforts that bring thousands of prospective students to campus each year, shares what she’s noticed about today’s generation of teens.

They’re desperate for authenticity.

In a world of Kardashian-style celebrities and filtered Instagram selfies, kids may seem interested in seeing and presenting only the perfect, Photoshopped version of themselves and others. But Manier says the exact opposite is true. “Students are drawn to places where they feel like they can be who they are, and people will appreciate them for that,” she says. “They see an inauthentic world — they live in it — but that doesn’t mean they’re not seeking out something more genuine.”

They depend on their parents’ guidance more than previous generations.

Twenty years ago, first-year college students might talk to their parents in a once-a-week phone call. Today, no matter how far they go from home, students are never more than a text message away. “There are kids who will literally let their parents know what they had for breakfast,” says Manier. “They’re not sure when or how to cut that off.”

They’re attuned to — and suspicious of — marketing in a way previous generations weren’t.

Years ago, teens were absorbing the messages of television commercials and billboard ads. Today, that’s just the start. Marketers hawk their wares through product placement in their favorite shows and subtle ads in teens’ go-to social networks. But kids remain a step ahead. “They have much greater levels of sophistication about the machine that’s trying to influence them,” says Manier. “They’re aware of it, and they’re skeptical of it.”

They’re fearful of making bad choices, and it’s making them anxious.

With college tuition up and more pressure than ever to get a strong return on investment, students are leaving their options open: Nearly a third of all college students applied to seven or more colleges. “This is a generation that strives for perfection, but they don’t always have the confidence they’re making the right choice,” says Manier. “They’re actually giving themselves too many choices.”

They’re eager for truly personal connections.

Students receive mass emails with their names on them, ads served up based on their previous web searches, and customized marketing based on their interests — but what they really want is a human connection. “We know that calling students on the phone and writing handwritten congratulatory notes matters,” says Manier. “That kind of personal attention makes a difference.” Teens want to feel like individuals, not like a marketing segment.

Erin Peterson is a freelance writer.

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