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How to Make Applying to College Less Stressful

A student laying down, surrounded by textbooks, study electronics, and notebooks as she holds her head in stressful frustration.

Applying to college is undeniably stressful. The process comes at an intense time in a student’s life, with schoolwork, clubs, athletics, music, volunteering, and more, to say nothing of the emotional and psychological work of being a teenager. Add to that the social, familial, and cultural pressures of wanting to get into the “right” school, the prospect of living away from home for the first time, and the closing of a major chapter in your life, and it’s enough to make anyone freak out.

While it may be impossible to make applying to college completely devoid of stress, there are definitely ways to make the process manageable. By both having a clear plan for the various steps of the process and giving yourself mental space away from it, you can find ways to alleviate the stress and anxiety of applying to college.

How to Manage the College Application Process

The first way to make applying to college less stressful is to make sure you have a clear plan and give yourself enough time, so that you don’t get caught scrambling to complete tasks at the last minute. By having a clear idea of what you need to do and when you need to do it, you’ll feel less anxious that you might be missing something or not doing what you need to be.

Make a Timeline

The best thing you can do for yourself to manage college application stress is to have a clear timeline of everything you need to get done between now and your first application deadline. When will you take (or re-take) your standardized tests? When will you visit campuses? When will you interview? When will you write your personal statement? Your supplemental essays? Which schools will you apply to early, and which ones regular?

Having a list of every single thing that needs to get done with accompanying dates can look a little overwhelming at first, but it’s the best possible tool for managing stress.

Start Visiting and Researching Colleges Early

Visiting colleges is one of the most crucial steps in the process—it will help you figure out what you like and don’t like, you’ll demonstrate your interest to schools, and you’ll learn information that you can use in your school-specific essays. However, visiting takes time and planning, even if you’re not traveling out of state. Do you have to register for an info session or tour ahead of time? Will you interview on campus? Can you talk to any professors or students?

Giving yourself plenty of time to start visiting colleges during your junior year will help alleviate stress and help you focus better on the visits themselves.

Plan Out All Your Application Essays

Writing college applications is extremely time-consuming, which can stress out even the most capable and talented writers. This kind of writing is new to many students, and many don’t realize just how many school-specific essays they may actually have to write. For that reason, students are often scrambling to finish their essays and applications in the fall, when they already have a million other things to do, which leads to immense anxiety.

To ensure this doesn’t happen to you, make a careful list of all the supplemental essays you need to write once they’re posted on the Common Application in early August. Then, identify the order in which you’ll write them on your comprehensive timeline.

Work on Your Applications over the Summer

Because the regular decision deadline at most colleges and universities is January 1, many students put much of the college admissions process off until the fall and winter break of their senior years. This is a mistake! Not only will this strategy lead to increased stress and flimsier applications as you rush to do everything at the last minute, but it also threatens to detract from your senior-year academic performance.

The better strategy, therefore, would be to get as much of your application writing done over the summer as possible. You might not finish everything, especially if you have a busy summer planned, but having a bunch of it out of the way will make the fall much more manageable.

How to Stay Sane While Applying to College

At the same time, having a clear plan for the application process and getting as much done ahead of time as possible isn’t the only way to minimize the stress of applying to college. It’s equally important that you take care of your mental and physical health to ensure that you can approach any unexpected hiccups calmly and with focus.

Don’t Fixate on a Single School

Many high school students cause themselves a huge amount of stress by obsessing about getting admitted to a particular school. The myth that there is only one college that is a good fit for someone can make college applicants crazy with worry. Ultimately, though, while you may have a favorite school, the truth is that there are many places where you would be happy during your undergraduate career, and with a good, balanced college list, you’re guaranteed to end up at one of them.

This advice applies to parents, too! The fact of the matter is that there is uncertainty in this process, as there is in life, even for the most talented and prepared applicants. By being open to a variety of futures, starting with your choice of college, you’ll set yourself up for long-term success and beat the stress of admissions season.

Take Care of Your Health

Stress is one of those things that builds up even when you’re not actively adding to it. If you’re worried about something, you may find yourself eating more junk food, sleeping too little or too much, skipping the gym, and otherwise falling into bad habits that actually make stress worse. If you’re not sleeping and eating well, you’re likely to find yourself in a bad mood with low energy, which will make it harder to get what you need to do done.

Throughout the process of applying to college, you can fight stress by making sure to sleep well, eat right, and take care of your physical health in the best way for you.

Talk About Other Things

For high school students, the process of applying to college can become all-consuming. Because you and so many of your peers are all going through many of the same challenges and facing many of the same anxieties, it can be easy to let “college” become the only topic of conversation. While it’s fine to compare notes occasionally or just to vent, fixating on applications and college-related stress all the time often makes students feel worse.

If you find yourself or your friends constantly turning to talk of college admissions, try to pull back and find something else to talk about. Taking your mind off the application process will give you a clearer headspace and remind you it’s not the only thing in the world.

Let Your Parents In

Believe it or not, your college application process is extremely stressful for your parents, too. Not only do they want you to go to the best school for you, but they’re also facing the prospect of you leaving home after eighteen years! Because of that, the application process can put parents on edge, and as a result, you may feel like they’re nagging you more than usual. As much as you might want to shut them out in these situations, doing so would just increase their anxiety, creating a negative feedback loop.

If your parents start to panic or to push you more than you’d like, take a deep breath and remember that this process is hard for them, too. That doesn’t mean you have to share everything with them, but it will make your life easier if you let them into your thinking and the actions you’re taking a little more than you might naturally be inclined to do. They have your best interests at heart, and they may be able to help you with parts of the process, too!

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, there’s no way to make applying to college completely stress-free. There will be moments of anxiety, nights you’re rushing to finish a draft, fraught campus visits with your parents, and other frustrating or difficult experiences. However, by managing the process and taking care of yourself, you can get through it all with your sanity intact!

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