College Applications Stress: A Parent-Teen Guide with 14 Essential Tips

One of the most exciting times in a teenager’s life is senior year during the college applications process. For most seniors, the conversation surrounding college began years ago with questions from your parents or friends: “Where are you thinking of applying?” “What programs are you looking at?” “Are you considering an urban or more traditional campus setting?” For some students, the conversation started as early as the third or fourth grade when they fell in love with a sport and became competitive, participating in travel or club teams. Students in the performing arts may have started early with dance and voice lessons or garnered professional experience, leading them to consider studying the arts in college. For others, they only gave it a little thought in junior year when their guidance counselor mentioned it to them at a meeting. No matter when you finally sit down to make a list, schedule campus visits, and genuinely consider attending a specific university or college, the process can be both exhilarating and daunting.

It’s important to prioritize self-care and minimize stress during your senior year to stay focused on selecting the best college fit for you. Here are some helpful tips for navigating this exciting journey!

Set Reasonable Expectations for College Applications

Setting realistic goals can reduce the stress associated with the college applications process. Additionally, it is essential to remember that there are many different paths to success and that attending a less prestigious school does not necessarily mean your future is doomed. We’ve all heard stories of doctors who didn’t get into a single undergraduate school of their choice or CEOs who flunked out of Harvard. Getting caught up in the excitement of applying for college with your friends is easy. Still, it’s important to remind yourself that “success” is never defined by just one thing and certainly not by where you go to college (ask your parents!) or if you even go to college at all (yup, we said it).

Take Time for Self-Care

During the life of a busy high school senior, self-care is likely the last thing on your mind. Between college applications, making sure you graduate, participating in activities – sports, plays, concerts, etc., working (if you work outside of school), and late nights with your friends, self-care can easily fall by the wayside. And no, watching movies with your friends in their basement until 2 AM is not self-care. Self-care includes taking regular breaks from studying, getting enough sleep (sometimes you have to say “no” to your friends!), exercising regularly, eating healthy meals, and engaging in activities that bring you joy and relaxation, such as reading, listening to music, or spending time with family. Taking time for self-care can help reduce stress and improve your mental health during this busy time.

Ask for Help When Needed

It is also essential to ask for help when you need it throughout the college applications process. This may include asking teachers or guidance counselors for advice on which schools to apply to or asking family members or friends for help with essays or applications. Asking for help can make the process less overwhelming by allowing others to share some of the burden of applying to college. There are so many things to keep track of during this process, and relying on others to do some of the heavy lifting can take at least one thing off your list.

Utilize College Resources

You should also utilize the resources available through your prospective colleges when applying. Many colleges have dedicated staff members who can provide information about financial aid options, admissions requirements, campus visits, etc. Taking advantage of these resources can make the application process much easier and less stressful, as they can provide personalized assistance with any questions or concerns you may have throughout the process. Remember that colleges must fill their yearly roster so you aren’t “pestering” them. Contact the Admissions department if you have a question. They need you as much as you need them.

Make A Plan for College Applications Tasks

Creating a plan can also help manage stress while applying to college, as it will give you something concrete to work towards each day and give you a sense of control over your destiny during this uncertain time in your life. The plan should include tasks such as researching schools, writing essays, filling out applications, requesting letters of recommendation from teachers or counselors, etc., with specific deadlines attached so you can stay on track throughout the process.

Stay Organized

Staying organized is another critical component of managing stress while applying to college. Keep track of all your documents and deadlines in one place so you don’t miss anything important. Plan to look at it every day. This can be a spreadsheet in Excel, a Google Doc, or an online calendar system like Google Calendar. Staying organized throughout the application process will ensure that everything gets noticed, which will help reduce stressful situations such as missing documents or missed deadlines.

Connect With Others Applying to College

Connect with others who are going through similar experiences while applying to college. Join online communities explicitly dedicated to helping people navigate the college application process; it is even better if you can find online communities of students who are pursuing a similar program. Talking to your peers who are also going through it or venting about it with your close friends can be incredibly beneficial during this stressful time. Having someone else who understands what you’re going through can provide invaluable support during this period of uncertainty.

Stay True to Yourself

Finally, not to be corny, but remember who you are. It’s easy to compare yourself to others and join in the gossip – “Omg, she’s applying where? She failed Physics 1!” or “What? How did he get into XYZ school?!” Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where anyone else is going or what anyone else is doing. This is your journey, your life, your potential career path, and beyond high school, no one else will remember where you went to school. But this experience will enrich and shape your future, so it is up to you how and where you want to go about it. And if things don’t go as planned right now – you have options. You can take a gap year. You can go to community college, get a few credits out of the way, and figure out your next move. Your whole life does not depend on any one acceptance or rejection. Trust us; it is one of many acceptances and rejections you will experience in your life. As they say, do your best; that is all anyone can expect of you. And don’t forget to have some fun and enjoy the process!

Tips for Parents

Teens aren’t the only ones experiencing anxiety and stress during the college applications and acceptance w-a-i-t-i-n-g process. If you have a senior applying to colleges, wait and see this holiday season how quickly the topic turns from Travis and Taylor to your child and where they’ve applied so far.

Here are a few tips for parents to make the process easier:

Lower the Pressure

While you might think you aren’t putting pressure on your child, you most likely are. According to developmental psychologist Richard Weissbourd, who studies teens’ social and emotional lives, “We need parents to realize that when it comes to achievement pressure, the problem isn’t ‘them,’ it’s ‘us.'”

  • Don’t talk about college every minute. It’s easy to get caught up in your child’s stress but try your best to bring up topics other than school, grades, and college.
  • Take at least one vacation that doesn’t include a college visit. Avoid thinking, “While we’re here, why don’t we look at…” – a vacation should be relaxing and fun, not work. Choosing a college is work.
  • If your child does want to talk about college – try to listen while being the “least anxious person in the room” – you’re the voice of calm, reason, and support. If you disagree with one of their choices, bring it up gently as a separate subject in person (not via text.)
  • Check-in with yourself about how much “pressure” you’re putting on yourself (and them) to ensure they “do it right.” Where your child goes to college is a personal decision they make about their future.

Handle the Stress in a Health Way

You might not feel it yet, but January – April will likely bring extra stress. You’ll be tempted to obsessively scroll through “Seniors Go!” Instagram accounts of every school in the area with proud postings of students in logoed sweatshirts as they start to hear results, call your best friend every single day with a play-by-play of exactly what the acceptance/rejection letter said, how much merit aid was given (or not), how much so-and-so got. You’ll wonder when you will hear from XYZ school and spend many sleepless nights thinking you should have been even more of a helicopter parent. You will start to question every decision you ever made as a parent (Why did we move in 7th grade? Why didn’t we force them to stick with baseball? Why did we let them give up the cello?).

Limit Your Social Media

Avoid or reduce your time on social media as much as possible. Put your phone away more often, leave it downstairs at night, etc. Any slight shift is helpful. And tread lightly with college forums such as threads on Reddit or the trendy forum College Confidential. While they offer potential benefits by incorporating the unique perspectives of parents based on their experiences, they also have the potential to exacerbate your vulnerability to self-doubt and fear. For instance, a simple question can turn into the following dialogue:

Parent 1 – “When do Boston University results come out?”

Parent 2 – “March 25”

Parent 3 – “Really? Last year, it was March 22, and we heard from financial aid long before then.”

Parent 4 – “What?!? We haven’t heard from financial aid yet. Do you think that means our son won’t get in?”

Twenty-seven comments later, you will be ready to lose your mind. Just tread lightly.

Keep Moving

Keep going to the gym; if you don’t go, now would be a great time to start. Take a yoga class, walk with a neighbor – force yourself outside and out of your mind. As the character Lou Bloom said in the iconic 2014 film Nightcrawler, “Get out of your head, it’s a bad neighborhood.”

Eat Healthy       

This is easier said than done, especially during the holidays. But eating healthy food will give you energy during this stressful time. Try a new recipe with your child or make winter comfort foods (think turkey meatloaf and chicken soup) to share with the family. Try a new grocery store. Anything that requires your concentration and time is excellent.

Enjoy the Process

Many parents look back on this time with great fondness, and, likely, you will too. While bittersweet, supporting your teenager in their college journey can be a bonding time before they officially leave home.

Whether you’re navigating online exploration of new schools or embarking on road trips, complete with hotel stays, the entire process can be an adventure for your family to relish. Discovering school colors and crests, the campus, the faculty, and the history of each college or university is a new experience. Savor this moment while it lasts, because soon enough your child will have been accepted to their perfect school, made their decision, and it will be time to settle the bill.



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