With college admissions season rapidly approaching, it can be easy for students to feel stressed. All of a sudden, they’re competing with their peers, trying to get into that perfect dream college. On the other hand, students are also facing a whole bunch of unknowns: how do I fill out the FAFSA? Should I take the SAT? What do I even want to major in?
As someone who’s been a college admissions counselor for over a decade, I always want to make sure that students feel as little stress as possible. Yes, college admissions are important, but students' mental health always comes first. With this in mind, I’ve made a list of my top 3 tips for reducing student stress during college admissions season.
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#1: Start Early (Unless You Can’t, in Which Case, You’ll Still be Totally Fine)
A big stressor that many students report is feeling like they started the admissions process "too late." Many students in their senior year often feel like they have too many things to do, too many decisions to make, and not enough time to tackle their college admissions to-dos.
Starting early is the best way to avoid this. The earlier the better.
I like to think of Freshman and Sophomore year as an exploratory time. Aside from working towards good grades, students should try out extracurricular activities they enjoy. No matter what your student is interested in, there’s a club, organization, or team they can join!
Many students get stressed during college admissions because they don’t know what their interests are; if a student knows their interests, or at least has a fuzzy idea, finding that perfect fit college and/or major will be easier later on.
Of course, the goal is to reduce student stress, so students shouldn’t overload themselves with extracurriculars either.
But what if your student is starting to think about college during Junior year?
There’s still plenty of time. Students who start to think about college during Junior year still have time to explore their interests; to reduce stress and cover a lot of ground, students can meet with a school counselor or a private college counselor for additional insight into possible majors, career paths, and life goals.
But what if your student is starting to think about college during Senior year?
No need to worry! Although starting early is always preferable, rest assured: it is never "too late." Students can accelerate their interest exploration by using aptitude assessments. In addition, students can still meet with their school counselor for ideas and guidance regarding their future plans.
Admittedly, starting in Senior year can be overwhelming for one person. This is why I recommend that students talk about their college goals, dreams, and ideas with their parents, guardians, or some other supportive figures. Researching colleges can even be a family effort on a day off. You can even throw a family pizza party and make a day of it! Two, three, or more people can cover more ground on a free Saturday than just one person.
While your student will be the one attending college, the college admissions process should always be a collaborative family effort, no matter when your student starts thinking about college. However, this is especially the case if your student is starting their college search later on in high school.
Which leads to my next point…
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#2: Discussing Expectations and Wants
Another stressor that high school students feel during college application season is uncertainty. Nobody likes uncertainty, especially at such a key moment in life.
One source of stressful uncertainty is unclear family expectations.
Students might not be sure if you, as the parent, have specific expectations in mind about their college experience. Do you expect your student to contribute to the cost of college? Is your child free to attend any college regardless of price, or would you prefer that they attend a more affordable institution? Are there certain standards that you’d like your student to keep in mind – such as post-college employability, years spent in school (four years vs. five years), or meeting a certain minimum GPA every semester?
Letting your child know what your expectations are is key – the fewer unknowns there are in your student’s college admissions experience, the fewer stressors there are.
However, expectation-setting is only one half the picture.
I believe that all parents should let their students voice their wants in regards to their college experience. Is your student interested in a particular major? Does your student want to go to an out-of-state school? Would your student like to go to a college with certain non-academic qualities (think social scene, style/aesthetic, values, etc.)? People feel like their voice matters when their wants are heard, and the same applies to students. This sense of empowerment and active participation can make the stressful parts of the college experience less stressful for your student.
With that being said – what if you and your child are in complete disagreement? What if your student wants to study out-of-state but you want them in-state? What if your student wants to major in a field with low job prospects but you want them to major in a high-earning field? What if you want your student to go to a good school but your student isn’t super enthusiastic about college? Here is where compromise comes in. While you, as the parent, have the final say, coming to a reasonable middle ground with your student can be a way for your student’s college goals and your expectations to be more in sync. So, instead of your student and you disagreeing about out-of-state schools vs. in-state schools, maybe, as a compromise, your student can go to an in-state school that’s a little further from home. If your student wants to study a major with low job prospects, maybe you can require them to also major in something with strong job prospects: a double major can be the middle ground that provides the best of both worlds. If your student isn’t super enthusiastic about college, maybe they can take a gap year during which they work or do an internship.
I get it: compromise is a word parents may not think of when talking with their children about academics. On the other hand, however, college is a very important time where your student will be rigorously studying and laying the foundations for their successful future. It’s easiest for your student to do this in an institution where they are content to be and you are content to send them.
Discussing expectations and wants with your student will definitely bring peace of mind. Consider stressors squashed!
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#3: Be There
This tip is simple, and yet there’s so much to discuss! Obviously, as parents, you want to be there for your child. But what does "being there" for them mean?
Ask any parent of a high schooler: teenagers don’t always communicate when they need help. On the flip side, when teenagers need a bit of room to be independent, they may not feel like they’re allowed to ask for such a thing.
What I’m getting at is this: some students need a lot of guidance during the college admissions process. Others only need a little bit of guidance, and then they’re happy to apply to colleges on their own with minimal outside help. Other students are in-between. And honestly? All three approaches are valid.
But odds are, your student won’t tell you how much help they need (or don’t need) unless you ask them.
Knowing how much help your student needs is crucial because if there’s a mismatch in the parental feedback they want and the parental feedback they’re getting, the end result is a miscommunication. Miscommunication only leads to stress.
Being there for your student has other meanings as well. The college admissions process is daunting, and sometimes even demoralizing. Encouraging your student, and reminding them that you’re proud of their efforts, helps provide those esteem-boosting reminders that help guard against the negative self-talk and self-doubt that often plagues students during applications season.
Celebrating with your student when they get into a college on their list, and being a shoulder to lean on when they don’t, is so incredibly valuable during such high-stakes times.
Family support is such a huge benefit to students. Of course, family support is only one part of the puzzle.
A common expression is “it takes a village to raise a child.” Maybe this is true, maybe it isn’t, but if there’s one thing I know – it takes a village to navigate college admissions.
In my next post, I’ll be talking about what you, your students, and their other allies can do to get through this exciting, if slightly turbulent, time.
Joyee Lin is the Head Instructor at Thinque Prep, an academic advising service specializing in college readiness, tutoring, and SAT/ACT preparation. When Joyee isn’t helping students navigate high school and beyond, he enjoys making college resources available to as many people as possible.
Got a burning college question? Give Joyee a call at (949) 563-1009 or drop him a line at office@thinqueprep. Interested in what the experts have to say about college admissions? Looking for insider tips? Click here!