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Defeating Anxiety in the College Application Process

Jason Lum

by Jason Lum, IECA Member (Minnesota)

With yet another application season behind us, it’s important to reflect upon what is happening around the country. In working with students around the nation as an independent educational consultant (IEC), I continue to find sky-high anxiety afflicting many families when applying to colleges. Much of this is driven by external pressures (e.g., getting into a “name” school, impressing relatives). That anxiety usually gets much worse in the excruciating wait that families experience to see if colleges have accepted, denied, or waitlisted their children. Add to that other parents and students bragging on Facebook and Twitter about their college acceptances, and you can imagine what it is like for students who have not heard anything from their colleges.

Application anxiety, of course, is nothing new. But the difference between now and when I started consulting over a decade ago is that it has gotten significantly worse. It’s been startling to see just how many parents have become obsessed with schools that rank in the U.S. News & World Report Top 25 list. Many of the clients that I work with initially want to apply only to Ivy League schools or colleges with both a name brand and national prestige. The usual suspects are not going to surprise anyone: Stanford, Duke, Washington University in St. Louis, all the Ivies, and the prestigious state universities such as Michigan and Berkeley. Many families prioritize colleges that will visibly validate the hard work their kids have accomplished in high school and will impress classmates, relatives, and—hopefully—employers and graduate schools. I understand that impulse; I looked to many of these same schools, for those same reasons, years ago. But a family can apply to the prestige schools so long as it is tempered with a dose of reality; Harvard and Stanford, for example, each had a acceptance rate of less than 6% this year.

My advice to families is that the anxiety that has overtaken the college application process can be lessened significantly. Let me offer a few tips I offer to my families that usually help to keep the process enjoyable by minimizing anxiety.

Lesson One: This is not a “winner takes all” game. The days when a student gets into every Ivy League school is largely a thing of the past. Even students who score perfect or near-perfect on standardized tests, have perfect GPAs, and do seemingly unlimited amounts of community service can and often do get waitlisted or denied at some selective colleges. But I always remind my clients that no one will ever ask you in your lifetime how many colleges accepted you and how many colleges waitlisted/denied you when you applied to college out of high school. I liken applying to colleges to playing professional baseball. In baseball if you get a hit one out every three times you go to home plate, then you’re on the All-Star Team. Who cares if you didn’t get into every school you applied to? No one in your lifetime will.

Lesson Two: Don’t expect patterns. Some families aggravate their existing anxiety by trying to establish patterns of schools that accepted their kids and schools that denied or waitlisted them. It’s human nature to want to figure out patterns in decision making. However, I tell my families to don’t even try. I’ve had students this past application year who got into Stanford but were waitlisted by Harvard, and vice versa. I had a student who got into Stanford and was waitlisted by Washington University in St. Louis. There is no explanation for this craziness except to say that every school makes their admissions decision in a vacuum. They have no idea what other schools are doing regarding their decision-making. On top of that, some admissions offices might have unique needs or goals they seek to accomplish which may have nothing to do with the merits of a given student’s application. So to use a cliché, expect the unexpected. Why bother trying to make sense of a process that is inherently subjective and dependent, to a large degree, on the personalities of the people reading a given application.

Lesson Three: Diversify. I tell students that I work with that every single school they apply to should be a school that they should be happily prepared to attend for four years. I do believe that a number of schools on every student’s list of colleges should be “safety schools,” and I certainly don’t mean that as a negative term. A safety school for me is one that accepts many students but still has superb academics. The good news is that there are many schools like this. If a student has chosen his or her schools intelligently, and has applied to some schools that are tough, reasonable, and safeties, then they should have a good experience in the process. Students who follow this approach usually don’t dread going to the mailbox in March and April to retrieve their decision letters.

Final Point: Keep some perspective. There are thousands of four-year public and private colleges and universities in the United States. The vast majority of these schools accept the majority of people who apply there. This is very good news for students that are petrified of not getting into any school. Another point that often goes unnoticed in this conversation: most students today, at least the ones I work with, don’t plan to stop at a bachelor’s degree. They are going to graduate school or professional school. One of the most important things in considering a college, in my view, should be whether that school gives you superior academic training and boasts a reputation that carries a lot of weight with top graduate schools. So long as students have chosen wisely based upon these criteria, they should do just fine.

I fully understand why anxiety is soaring in this country regarding the elite handful of schools that are heavily clustered in the Northeast. However, with so many wonderful options all across the nation, there really does not need to be the almost paralyzing anxiety that seems to affect students, especially those at or near the top of their classes. This should be a positive and reassuring experience, and with the help of a competent and compassionate independent educational counselor, this should be a wonderful journey.



One Response to Defeating Anxiety in the College Application Process

  1. Dan Hanson says:

    Good points. As a parent myself, I’m stunned by the sort of anxiety that so many other parents feel. Much of it really is self-imposed. So many great schools are out there, but it seems that only a small slice of the pie really appears on students’ radar screens. It all comes down to matching the student with the best overall fit, which I think the author does a good job in emphasizing.

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