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5 Ways to Make the College Application Process Less Stressful

High school student uses a laptop to research college options and build her college list.

By Victoria, IvyWise Master College Admissions Counselor

The college admissions process isn’t perfect, so it’s no surprise that many students feel anxiety and stress in their senior year when it comes to applying to colleges. There are about a million things to get hung up on and another million things that seem totally out of your control. However, this journey doesn’t have to be this stressful. There are ways to take some of the pressure off during this application season.

With each school on your balanced college list comes more research, more essays, more deadlines, and more application materials to keep track of. This can cause a lot of anxiety and sleepless nights but it’s important to remember that you are not alone! Almost everyone who has gone through the college application process has felt stress or had their own anxieties, including the admissions counselors who will be evaluating your application! However, it’s important to know how to manage that stress and instead channel it into positive experiences during the admissions journey.

As a college counselor I see a lot of anxious college-bound seniors, and here’s my advice on how to combat college application stress.

1. Plan Ahead and Get Organized

To most applicants this will seem self-evident, but for some it can be hard to properly plan ahead and actually to stick to those plans. Senior year is a busy time filled with social obligations and rigorous coursework in addition to all of your college application work. Planning ahead and getting organizing can help you understand exactly how much you have to get done and when it needs to be done so that you can appropriately pace out your work load and avoid unnecessary stress. When you grasp how much work you have left to do, everything seems a little easier to handle!

Everyone has their own organization methods. The key is to find what works best for you. I recommend that my students keep their deadlines and application work organized through whatever method they find most helpful. For those who prefer to use technology I recommend starting an Excel spreadsheet that catalogs each school you are applying to, their deadline, and the items that are required for the application. I have students make columns for the various parts of their applications like the school’s deadline to apply, number of supplemental essays, test scores required, number of teacher recommendations required, school materials required etc. I also have students assign themselves a personal deadline to complete their application and a school’s supplemental essays before the school’s official deadlines. It is easy to assign yourself a weekly deadline, like drafting one college’s application per week. In this way, students can plan out completing 8-12 college applications on their list in a steady fashion rather than waiting until the last minute — which can add a lot of stress!

2. Don’t Believe Everything You Hear

Many students come to me stressed out because they feel they are “the only one” in their grade who doesn’t have a concrete plan. They worry that because they don’t have a perfect school picked out or a perfect career path planned out that they are somehow not going to get into any college or that they are never going to get a job. Often this worry stems from other people saying that they have it all figured out or flouting their aspirations for the dream school and how they “know they can get in.”

Students trade stories and experiences during the college admissions process, but don’t let someone else’s experience or notions about the process influence your mood or confidence.

Many students who say they have it all figured out are trying to cover up their own insecurities, as they have worries too. They may have an idea of a career they like or a college they like but it is very unlikely that they already know the outcome of their college decisions or that they have their whole career path planned out.

Students also fall prey to hearing stories about other people’s college applications and thinking that just because something happened to one person means it might happen to them. But every application is different and is evaluated holistically, in the context of where you are coming from and what your overall story is. So just because your cousin’s boyfriend’s sister applied to College X with an essay on leadership and got in, does not mean that you need to re-write your personal statement to be about leadership too. Learn to filter out the noise, and turn to your college counselor for the real truth about the admissions process.

3. Be Honest and Realistic

One of the hardest things to do in the college application process is to be honest with yourself and manage your expectations. Many students fall in love with a dream school and often those dream schools are very selective. If a school has a low admit rate, even if you are a very strong student, it will be a reach and it’s okay to apply to a reach school! But don’t do this without understanding your chances.

Consulting your counselor about your balance college list is important and there is a certain level of honesty you’ll have to have with yourself and others to build a balanced list. There is such a thing as an “out of reach” school, meaning the school is very selective and your profile is too far below what an average admitted student’s profile would be. Applying to an out of reach school over a feasible reach school would not be to your advantage. Similarly, if you are applying to some reach schools, you want to be sure you have a balanced list with best-fit target and reach schools. Work with your counselor to find that balance and become comfortable with the idea that a reach school is often a reach for most people, and know that, with a balanced list of best-fit schools, you will end up somewhere you’ll be happy even if it’s not that super selective top choice school you’ve loved for years.

It can be stressful wondering when or if you’ll get in somewhere, but if you do the legwork of balancing your list with your counselor beforehand, it shouldn’t be so stressful. You’ll know that you have covered your bases and all there is to do after submitting your applications is to wait!

4. Embrace the Unknown

One thing that students always want to know when building their college lists is their exact chances of getting in if “this” happens or if “that” happens. The frustrating thing is that it is impossible to know. Admissions is not an exact science and schools review applicants in a holistic way, evaluating both quantitative and qualitative aspects of applicants, so subjectivity is a big part of this process. There are things you just can’t control as an applicant. Colleges and universities have institutional priorities they must fill each and every year and you won’t always be aware of what they are. Aim to put your best effort into your academic work, explore your academic and extracurricular passions, and spend quality time writing genuine and authentic college essays.

5. Take Time Off from Thinking About College Applications

Some students tell me the worst part of the college applications process is after you hit “submit” and you have to wait six weeks or three months to hear back from a college. The best way to combat this is to refocus your energy on your passions and your academics. In fact, even while you are working on applications it is always good to take some time off for yourself!

Take time to recommit to the things you love. Play more games with friends, read that book you’ve wanted to read, go to a movie — carve out some time to just be yourself and enjoy being in your last year of high school. College is a fun adventure, but this year is your last to be at home with your family and friends from high school.

Also, don’t be afraid to set boundaries to allow you to take time off from thinking about this process. If friends or family want to discuss college applications, aspirations, or results and it stresses you out or causes anxiety then consider telling them that you don’t want to discuss it. Or come up with a standard response like “I’ve applied to some really great places and I’m just waiting to hear back!” Feel free to change the conversation. Don’t feel pressured to talk through every worrisome detail.

Managing college admissions stress can be hard, but as along as students are prepared, set realistic goals and expectations, and stay organized, they will find success in this process.

At IvyWise, we work with students to help alleviate the stress commonly associated with the college admissions process and guide them to submit the best applications possible come senior year. For more information on our team of expert college admissions counselors and our college counseling services, contact us today!

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