Managing Anxiety in the College Application Process

Emily Allen, Director of College Counseling at CCA
It’s probably not a surprise to you to hear that student angst is often on my mind. I am a college counselor after all. Over the course of the past 25 years, I have worked with students in independent schools (i.e., private schools), in one capacity or another, in the USA, Morocco, China, Jordan, and Italy. One thing I’ve found across cultures is that in the college application process, students experience a good amount of anxiety. Being compared to their peers, worldwide, for their achievementsputs a lot of pressure on them. Sometimes they feel like the personal improvement they have demonstrated over the years is ignored, and the happy times they may have experienced, learning, are disregarded. So they feel some anxiety, naturally. No kidding, right?
 
The choices used to be about whether or not to attend college at all, or about which to choose among the handful in the region. Now choices have quadrupled, admission has become more competitive, and both applying to and paying for college have become more complicated. And so, teenage angst increases. Is it possible to avoid anxiety in the college application process? No, I think not, but perhaps the more extreme forms of anxiety can be avoided. The extreme forms tend to come from any one of a number of sources. The sheer increase in options can cause stress. Sometimes, the difficulty is trying to “get in” to the most selective colleges in the world when you have less than stellar grades. Other times, students cling to the notion that they have to find the college that fits them perfectly; yet we all know there is no such thing as a “perfect” fit; rather, there may several “good” fits. Sometimes, the reality of finances surfaces too late in the game.
 
To ameliorate the anxiety, I recommend focusing on good process rather than on the end result. What does that mean? It means that while you may not have the power to choose your college (because you have to wait for them to choose you, after you apply), you can choose your attitude. You can make a conscious choice to get excited about the options you have rather than about the options that are out of your reach for whatever reason, and you can choose to immerse yourself in the process rather than focusing on an idealized goal that may be partly out of your control.
 
Good process in the college-application realm is the same as good process in any meaningful endeavor: It involves a certain amount of hard work and a point where you have to do what’s difficult—push yourself through your own comfort barrier. It can get embarrassing, frustrating, scary, and that’s exactly where you suddenly grow and see the world from a new perspective, one in which you realize that you do have the confidence, you have realized your potential, you can do more than you think you can. That moment is when you begin to appreciate, even enjoy, the process as opposed to rushing through it in a state of elevated anxiety just to get to the end. The process of learning about individual colleges, talking to their staff and students, even answering their application questions can be interesting and fun.
 
So do the hard work: conduct research into colleges, make charts, keep notes; write rough drafts of applications early on and revise, revise, revise. Push yourself past your comfort barrier: Ask questions when college representatives visit campus or when you visit their campus. Don’t worry about what you sound like—ask what you want to know—just ask, anything; engage them in conversation. Show your rough drafts to a friend, a teacher, and of course, your college counselor. Don’t worry if you are not sure what to ask, or what to write—just do it. Doing this hard work early on and taking the risk of making yourself vulnerable to others by asking questions and showing your writing to some key people make for good process.
 
Remember that while making an informed suitable choice is important, simply making a choice and attending college is a good thing. Don't allow yourself to get caught up in thinking that you must get into the best college. Avoid fixating on one place as the perfect one. Sure, you want to try hard and be ambitious in your applications. You hope that you will get into the best college you can, but keep in mind that there are thousands of good colleges out there. There are many, not just one, where you could have a great experience. What you do while you are there in college is what matters most. Taking advantage of all the resources of the college; including professors, visiting lecturers, other students, and the career advising office; makes for a more satisfying experience and good prospects after graduation. Wherever you go to college, you have control over your attitude. The quality of your life depends on how you live it.
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Cape Cod Academy is an independent college preparatory day school for grades K through 12.