In my nearly 25 years in the college admissions field, I have worked with many students and parents who were in a mild state of panic about the college process. They come to my office with lists of questions about standardized tests, college visits, extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, the Common Application, high school classes to take, and more. Students feel like they need to start a new club or small business so they can convince colleges that they’re leaders. Parents worry that their children won’t get jobs after graduation if they don’t go to name-brand schools.
Unfortunately, this overwhelming anxiety can spoil a process that can be informative and fun. It can also create a hostile home among children and their parents. One of my roles as a college counselor is to provide students and their families with practical strategies for navigating the college admissions process. Equally important is my role in reducing the stress in the household surrounding the topic of college.
Here are some of my favorite tips for keeping the stress level down:
- I remind the student and parents that there are about 4,000 colleges in the country. A student who wants to go to college and is willing to put in the necessary work can absolutely find schools that would love to have him or her. My daughter Amanda, co-author of Love the Journey to College: Guidance from an Admissions Consultant and Her Daughter, who recently went through the college application process herself, wrote “getting into college does not have to worry you because if you apply to several schools—including schools below your academic range—you will get into college.”
- Designating one hour per week that the family can devote to college admissions talk can help. Sunday afternoons from 3:00PM to 4:00PM tend to work well. The rest of the week should be kept off-limits, meaning that parents are not to mention “college” at any other time, unless the conversation is initiated by the child. That way, the child doesn’t need to worry about being bombarded with questions, especially in moments when she or he is trying not to think about college.
- For rising high school seniors, I highlight the need for them to set aside time to get some rest over the summer. Junior year can be extremely challenging, with standardized tests, AP classes/ exams, and college visits, and students need time to recharge.
- While taking a break is important, too much rest and relaxation over the summer could set students up for an unnecessarily heavy workload during the school year, with regular school work, finalizing college lists, and completing college applications and essays. On the other hand, rising high school seniors who make a significant dent in his or her college applications and essays over the summer definitely lightens the load for senior year. There needs to be a balance between taking time to have fun and relax, and getting some college admissions work done to make senior year a bit easier.
- With respect to extracurricular activities, I always encourage students to remain authentic and not get caught up in what “looks good” for college. Some students think that particular activities are regarded more favorably by colleges than others, so they participate just to make their resumes look good. Or, they avoid participating if they think they won’t be a leader in the group. It is certainly nice if you can land a titled leadership position such as president or secretary when you are more senior in high school, but it is far more important to make a significant contribution to the club. Titles do not actually mean that much; it’s more than fine if you are a “quiet leader.” My suggestion is that you find a niche in a few clubs that you enjoy and make a real, visible difference.
- Students should be open to looking beyond rankings and the list of 30 colleges to which everyone they know applies. You can have an amazing college experience at a school you’ve never heard of, or at a school that doesn’t usually receive applications from your high school. Colleges try to create diversity by accepting students from all over the country and the world, so you only help yourself when you distinguish and differentiate yourself from students within your own high school.
I strongly encourage students to embrace the journey to college as a period of maturation and self-exploration, with an honest assessment of skills and interests, and to remain authentic throughout the process. Rather than being stressful, the journey to college can be manageable and even exciting.