How to reduce the stress of college admissions

College freshman Hanna Briskin, second from right, with her friends at a Maryland football game. Photo provided
College freshman Hanna Briskin, second from right, with her friends at a Maryland football game.
Photo provided

One of the most significant steps parents and students can take to reduce the stress of applying to college may seem counterintuitive: They can view the process as an opportunity.

“For many students, this is the first time they feel like they’re fully in charge of their experience,” said Dana Ponsky, director of college guidance at the Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville. “This can be a validating experience for a lot of students.”

And, Ponsky believes, when students and parents recognize that this process is ultimately about the teenager, it goes a lot more smoothly.

“I think the most important thing to realize is that the student is the captain of the ship,” she said. “I like to say that the college counselor is the first mate and the parents are passengers. The parents shouldn’t be the person steering the ship.”

Hanna Briskin, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Maryland-College Park, agreed that the college application process last year was an important step toward independence and adulthood.

“You can take other people’s advice, but it’s up to you to do what you want to do,” she said. “This is your life and you’re applying for your future.”

Susan Rexford, director of college guidance at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, said that “it’s also important to have some agreement and concurrence” between the student, their family and the school. Similarly, Ponsky said it’s important for students to use the resources around them. “It takes a village to get through this process,” she said.

In addition to having the right mindset, there are plenty of practical steps students and families can take to reduce the stress of the college admissions process.

Both Ponsky and Rexford said that planning ahead is the most important stress reducer. “Please don’t wait until the last minute to complete your applications; this just leads to everyone being stressed,” said Ponsky.

Keeping organized also makes the process smoother. Briskin said that she made a checklist that helped her keep track of all the materials she had to submit to the four schools to which she applied. Ponsky uses a software system called Naviance to track her students’ progress and Rexford uses Google Classroom.

“I recommend that students make a spreadsheet with all their deadlines, application plans, testing requirements, essays deadlines and interview requirements, so that it’s all in one place,” said Rexford.

“Different students do have different ways to stay organized, so this isn’t a requirement, just a strong suggestion on my part.”

Rexford added that it can be helpful to make a timeline for the application process, but if the timeline becomes “too rigid” this can also be stressful.

Ponsky said that for students who do seemed stressed by the process, it’s important to continue to do the basic things that make them happy, such as spending time with friends.

Briskin found that it was very helpful to talk to her friends throughout the process, including some of her friends who live far away.

“Absolutely reach out to your friends,” she said. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have made it through without my friends. Having someone else your age who understands the stress of the process is so important. We didn’t lecture each other. We just talked until we felt more comfortable.”

Ponsky and Rexford cautioned that one of the most difficult times in the process can sneak up on students and their families: After the anxiety around submitting applications, deciding where to go can be even more stressful.

“I suggest that you go visit the college again,” said Ponksy. “Then you go with your gut, with that feeling that you get when you know. I ask students to tell me which school they think of first when they wake up every morning.”

For Briskin, the most stressful part of applying to college was having people repeatedly ask her about the application process. But it in the end, the process paid off.

“Coming to college here was the best decision of my life,” she said. “A couple of months of stress was worth it for where I am now.”

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