Asking someone about their education might seem like a common and simple thing, but the big question is whether you are doing it right.
Education encompasses different elements like one’s level, background, and degrees. Whenever you are asking someone about any of these educational components, you have to be careful to use the right language. It’s imperative to be polite so that you don’t bring out the perception of being rude.
Essentially, this is where context comes in.
It could be in a business context, which is more formal, or a private setting, which is more social. Therefore, understanding the context of your conversation and responding in the right way is essential in helping you to be courteous as you inquire about someone’s education.
An interviewer in a business context could say “What is your educational level?” while in a private context you would be more informal by saying “You seem to know so much about this topic; what did you study in college?“.
Here is how you should ask about someone’s education in respect to the two contexts:
I. Business Context
As you already know, when you are in a business setting, your conversation has to be formal. Being casual can create a bad impression about you, thus you have to avoid it as much as possible.
The most common business context scenario where questions about education come up is during an interview. When you are in an interview and you happen to be the interviewer, there is a way you should ask questions about education.
An interviewer will want to capture all the details concerning education from an interviewee. For this reason, one has to ask the questions in the best way possible as this will form the basis of whether an interviewee gets a job or not.
Of great importance still, an interviewer should respectfully ask the questions to attract a positive response.
From the onset, it’s imperative to reiterate that such questions have to be formal. A business environment demands such. For example, as an interviewer, you can ask these two sets of questions:
“Which college did you go to?” vs. “Which college did you attend?”
While the two questions are correct and have a similar meaning, one of them is more formal than the other. Of the two questions, the latter one is the best one to use in a business setting.
When you talk of attending college, it brings out the picture of someone who took the process of learning in an educational institution. On the other hand, when you talk of going to college, it brings out a different picture. While it might bring the meaning of having been in college, it can be misinterpreted.
According to a 2019 publication by Harvard Business School, asking the right questions is essential in getting the best out of a conversation.
Therefore, for a business context, it’s prudent for one to ask questions that don’t leave room for misinterpretation.
Questions to ask about one’s educational background
The following set of questions is a guide that shows how one should ask questions about someone’s educational background in a business context:
Tell me about your educational background.
This question prompts the respondent to speak briefly about the specific course taken in college and how relevant it is in the prospective job opening.
As an interviewer, you have to be very direct so that the interviewee won’t start imagining how to respond. Since this is a business context, it’s prudent to ensure that your tone of inquiry is polite.
What influenced your choice of college?
Essentially, this question calls for the respondent to give the reasons behind the choice of college he studied at. It’s a formal way of inquiring about the educational attributes of a particular educational institution.
What was your major in college?
This is a polite way of asking the area of one’s specialization in college.
Why did you choose your particular major?
An interviewer will want to know from an interviewee the aspects that made one opt for a particular major. It’s a clear and direct question that an interviewee should not struggle with. It’s imperative to remember to maintain a positive tone when asking such a question to get a positive response.
Your major doesn’t relate to this job. Do you still believe you have what it takes to succeed in this job?
This is a formal question that requires an interviewee to justify whether his or her major can help in settling for a prospective job. Again, courtesy is essential when asking this question, especially because of the first part.
Questions to ask about one’s educational level
The following is a guide set of questions to ask someone about educational level in a business setting:
What is your educational level?
This is a clear and direct question that requires a direct answer concerning one’s highest educational level. An educational level could be college or university.
Would you consider going for a higher educational level?
This is a respectful question by a potential employer desiring to know whether an interviewee can upgrade his or her education in the future.
Questions to ask about degrees
What degree did you pursue?
This is a simple, straight, and a quite understandable question about the degree course one enrolled for.
Why did you choose your particular degree?
Again, this is a formal and courteous way of inquiring about a person’s interests in a particular degree course.
How will your degree help you articulate functions in this job?
An interviewer seeks to get a response regarding the ability of a degree course to align with the functions and demands of a job effectively.
II. Private Context
Having looked at the business context of asking someone about their education, it’s now time to check out the private context. Just like it is in the business setting, asking education questions in a private setting has its own rules.
The primary aspect that you have to take note of in a private context is that the questions have to be social and friendly. While in a business setting you have to be formal and direct when asking questions, a social setting requires one to be less formal and less direct.
According to the May-June 2018 Issue of the Harvard Business Review, if you appear to be very formal in your questions, you might create the wrong impression and, as a result, get the wrong response.
For example, if you’re at a party and you happen to desire to know more about one’s education, there is a way you need to ask such questions. Fundamentally, you have to avoid being very direct with your questions because chances are high that this might be interpreted as being rude.
Unlike a formal setting where an interviewer wants to know the educational information about a person to give him a job placement, you don’t demand response in a private setting. You have to be as polite as possible for you to get the answer you are looking for.
Information regarding education or work is highly sensitive, especially when speaking to a stranger you’ve met at a social event. That is why you should learn how to ask such questions courteously.
In order not to sound accusatory, you have to avoid being direct with your questions and, instead, use the lead-in technique.
For example, you should avoid asking this question in a private setting: What is your education? Without a doubt, it will be difficult for you to get a gracious response to this question. It sounds like you are demanding an answer to a very sensitive question.
Instead of being too direct, try to create a rapport between you and the person you’re asking a question about their education. This might require you to know how to introduce small talk in a conversation. This is particularly good in knowing what to say before you ask someone about their education.
The following examples of questions will guide you on how to ask a person about their education:
You seem to know so much about this topic; what did you study in college?
As you have already noticed, this question is not direct and formal. Instead, it is a friendly one and it has a lead-in.
Before you even ask about what the person studied in college, you create a rapport by acknowledging that he or she knows a lot about the subject under discussion.
This is a polite way of showing a person that you appreciate their vastness of knowledge and you would like to know what he studied in college.
Your English is really polished-where did you learn it?
Again, a lead-in plays out quite well here. Since you are not in control, you have to create the right environment for you to ask this question.
Yes, you would like to know where a person attended college or university. However, you can’t go straight and ask someone where they went to school, especially if you are meeting them for the first time.
Therefore, the first part of the question creates the basis for you to ask the question in a courteous way.
You speak very confidently-have you studied this topic?
Just like the above examples, this question brings out the picture of a genuinely desiring to know about a person’s educational background without being rude.
Questions about someone’s education can be sensitive and, as a result, require you to be courteous as you ask them. Whether it’s a private or business context, it’s prudent to know how to ask the questions in the right way.
Katie Haynes is a senior author at everyday-courtesy.com with over 15 years of experience in marketing and psychology. As a freelance consultant, she also supports companies and executives in overcoming communication challenges. Katie is a passionate digital nomad working on her first book on the art of communication.