Parents: How to Manage the Stress of the College Application Process


For many parents, the stress associated with their child’s prospects of getting into and going to college begins at conception. In fact, pregnancy tests might do well to include the projected cost of a college education right on the little stick next to the response window.  Now, while children in utero are, hopefully, not experiencing this pressure, it is not long after they enter the world that stress begins to rear its ugly head. 

Kindergarteners taking a foreign language; 6 year olds being shuttled from school to soccer to piano; 7 year olds going to sleep in their University of Michigan pajamas – all of these things are done innocently by parents to keep their children stimulated, engaged and happy. There is no doubt, however, that parents are also trying to give their kids a head start on getting into a good college.

By the time high school comes around, parents and students are really feeling the pressure of not just getting into a college, but getting into the best college. Students in the surrounding areas of Washington, DC may be particularly vulnerable to stress, because they are exposed to such richness, and I’m not just talking about money.  The DC area is full of history, culture, diversity and intellectual stimulation; students desire to become a part of it, and they see college as their way of getting there.  So what can parents and students do to manage the inevitable stress that accompanies the college application process?  Before addressing this question, it is important to understand something about the nature of stress itself.

Stress is often viewed as a bad and dangerous thing that we need to rid ourselves of, but actually, stress is a natural part of life with strong biological roots.  The “fight or flight” phenomenon is one of our natural instincts. In response to a perceived threat, our bodies create stress that mobilizes us to either fight off the threat, or flee from it.  Thousands of years ago, the threat was likely a large animal charging after us. Today, it’s applying to college.  The point is, whatever the challenge, we need some stress in our lives to motivate us to accomplish our goals and face our problems effectively. The problem comes when our stress becomes so great that it overwhelms our coping strategies and inhibits our ability to function – in other words, when stress becomes distress.

So, the goal during the college application process should not be to eliminate stress completely, but to make sure stress levels feel manageable. The following are four things that parents and students can do to avoid college distress:

1.  Sit down as a family and talk about options, expectations, limitations, and so on, before applying to college. Discussing things after the fact creates stress, not to mention feelings of anger and resentment. Take the student who invests a great deal of time and energy into applying to a school in California that she really wants to go to, only to find out later that you, as parents, can’t afford the tuition or have no intention of letting her go that far from home. Discuss issues related to finances and travel restrictions proactively, and be honest with each other while keeping an open mind.

2.  Maintain a healthy attitude about college. Colleges are like shoes –  when you look in your closet, you generally have several pairs of shoes that you like and that fit you well.  Sure, you might have your favorite pair, but if you left that pair at a friend’s house, you’d still be happy in any of your other shoes. With about 4,000 colleges in the United States, not to mention all of the international options, there are many, many schools that could be good fits for you.  Putting all of your hopes into one school, particularly a reach school, is a very limiting and stressful course of action.

3.  Start the application process early and break it down into small, manageable steps.  Creating and sticking to a timeline is a tremendous help in preventing the stress that comes with procrastination. The summer following junior year of high school is often an ideal time to complete applications and write college essays. 

4. There are no guarantees in life, so have a backup plan.  Talk as a family about what the options are if no college acceptance letters arrive in the mail. Students can work, volunteer, take classes at a community college, or take a gap year.  All of these things build both resumes and character and will likely give students a much better chance of getting into college the following year. Talking about and planning for the worst case scenario is imperative for reducing stress, should the worst actually happen.

Applying to college can be a wonderful and exciting endeavor for students and their families but, just like getting married or buying a new house, even wonderful and exciting things bring their share of stress. Accept and even embrace the stress you feel – you’ll need it to help you accomplish the huge task ahead of you.  At the same time, do what you can to manage your stress effectively so it doesn’t begin to work against you.  By doing so, you will find applying to college an enjoyable and distress-free experience.

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