Each year, it feels as if the college admissions process gets increasingly stressful. Lately, we’ve had the Varsity Blues scandal and several other admissions scandals. The College Board and the ACT have had issues administering their tests, and more and more schools are now test-optional, which creates more anxiety about whether or not to submit your scores.
And each year college gets more expensive. Student loan debt in the U.S. now totals over $1.4 trillion (with a “T”). The average student holds nearly $36,000 in student loan debt. With costs that high, you need to make sure the decision to go to college is not a $100,000 mistake.
So if as a parent you’re stressed, that is understandable. Parents and counselors often contribute to this stress by raising expectations that a teen will attend a particular college, or that they should have their career plan all worked out before they graduate high school.
But college admissions don’t have to be extremely stressful. High school can be a time when students start learning about the adult they’ll soon be, and finding a good-fit college can come naturally out of that process. With a little planning and by taking advantage of the resources at your disposal, parents and students can make an excellent choice for their lives, and reduce the amount of admissions stress they experience.
Nine Tips to Lower College Admissions Stress
Start as soon as the summer before junior year, or even during sophomore year. As a student, think about what you might want to study and use high-school to conduct some experiments that will allow you to confirm or reject those choices. If you think you’d like to study engineering, for example, make sure you take calculus. It’s hard to excel at engineering if you don’t like calculus. If you want to study medicine, take A.P. Biology. No matter what everyone else says or does, don’t overload your high school years with A.P. courses unless you genuinely enjoy the work. Use A.P. and Honors courses to explore your interests, challenge yourself, and learn essential college skills (like A.P. English).
Take Virtual Tours Before Visiting
Traveling to visit a dozen schools might seem tempting, but it is expensive. Before you go, check out virtual tours so you can travel while still home. You’ll get a great sense of whether you want to study at a big school or a small one, a university with a particular religious affiliation, or a college for a specific group (like a Historically Black College), a small-town institution or a big-city school. On LifeLaunchr, you can use our College Match to find schools, and then explore virtual tours for the ones you think you might like.
Understand Why You’re Going to College
Spend time talking with family and friends about your goals for college. Do you want it to expand your horizons, or do you already know what you want to study? Are you trying to find yourself, or looking for a leg up with a career? Do you want personal connections with the professors, or would you like to access the resources of a large research university? Taking the time to understand your goals will lower college admissions stress.
Build a Short but Meaningful Resumé
Many students spend their high school years rushing from one activity to another, creating a long resume that is full of things in which they only have a passing interest. You’ll find it much more useful (and way less stressful!) if you build a short resume filled with activities you genuinely enjoy. Maybe it’s volunteering at a food bank, or playing water polo, or teaching drums. Focus on building an extracurricular resume that represents you. One student I coached recently has created a career as a photographer, while he’s still in high school! He’s done it without a lot of stress because he loves to take pictures.
Find Great Colleges That Aren’t Way Out of Your Reach
For many students, the stress of high school comes from seeking to go to a school that’s just too selective for them to get into. Honestly, chasing the top-ranked U.S. News & World Report schools is a disastrous idea. If you focus on finding and pursuing your interests, you’ll find a school that fits you. And finding a good fit is much more important than a college’s rank. So don’t chase after a perfect GPA or a perfect test score.
Don’t Follow the Crowd
We all love our friends and community. But leaving high school is also an excellent opportunity to build new friendships and a new community for college. The college that fits your best friend (or significant other) may not be right for you. They may need to go to a large school, and you may need to be in a small town. That is ok. Many high school counselors are most familiar with in-state universities, private schools nearby, and Ivy League schools. But if you broaden your horizon, you can find a place that offers an excellent education, value for money, and fits your needs. And the entire process will be less stressful.
Find a Mentor or a Coach
Doing this alone is very hard. And parents (I know, I’m one) can’t always be a teen’s best coach. So, if you’re a parent, encourage your teen to find a coach. It may be a professional or a teacher or counselor who has the time. If you’re a teen, find someone you can talk to about this that has an informed adult perspective.
Give Yourself Enough Time to Write Your Essays
One of the hardest things about college is writing all the essays you need as part of the process. Unlike essays students write in school, personal statements for college applications need to be authentic, compelling, unconventionally written, and polished. For most students, that is a tall order. And reading all the “successful” Ivy League essays that are always published each year just makes the whole thing harder. But really, writing an outstanding essay is a craft, not a miracle<. It takes time because the first draft will not be good. So you have to allow time to revise, edit, and get feedback. So start early. Taking time will allow you to write a better essay and lower admissions stress.
Build a Scholarship Search Into Your Process
Every year, thousands of scholarships go unclaimed because not enough people applied. There are many myths about scholarships: that they are only for people with financial need; that they are only for academics or sports; that they are only for people who have overcome some extraordinary adversity. None of these myths are correct, and by spending just a few minutes each week, you can find and win scholarships to make college much less expensive. >
The complexity of the college application process has taken the joy of learning out of high school for many students. But there are a lot of great choices for college, and you can find one that meets your goals while lowering admissions stress!