The Five Stages of College Admissions: Getting Close to the Final One

If you’ve ever taken a Psychology class, you probably have at least a vague memory of the Five Stages of Grief. Known as the Kübler-Ross model, and introduced by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, it offers a series of emotional stages experienced when someone faces an impending death.

Five stages of college admissions

It suddenly dawned on me this weekend, as the parent of a child mere weeks from making a final decision about college, that these stages are entirely appropriate for the whole college application experience as well.

No clever, little life hack exists for the tumultuous path of a teenager on their journey towards getting into college. And now more than ever, our instant-gratification teens are not at all happy when they realize that this process is complex, convoluted, expensive and exhausting – ditto for their parents.

Like dealing with a terminal illness or a divorce, it is a “Can’t Go Around, Must Go Through” trial by fire – where both students and parents frequently feel some scorch.

With reverence and tribute to Dr. Kübler-Ross, I offer up my 5 Stages of College Admissions experienced during the strange season of life known as applying to college, from the perspective of teens (T) and parents (P).

The stages, known by the acronym DABDA, are as follows:

Five Stages of College Admissions

Stage 1 – Denial

T: I don’t really have to fill out this ridiculously long Common App thingy, do I?

I am not gonna write 3 supplemental essays for seven different schools.

Nope -not taking that stupid SAT again!

P: I do not have a child old enough to go to college.

We won’t have to pay that tuition sticker price – my kid’s getting a big scholarship!

I’m sure my daughter will pick the school that’s only 25 minutes away.

[Read Next: 7 Ways Parents Can Help Their Kids with College Application Essays]

Stage 2 – Anger

T:  Wait, what? Their average accepted student GPA is a 4.0?

No, I refuse to apply to another safety school, Mom – LEAVE ME ALONE!

Screw college! I’m taking a gap year in Jamaica!

P:  That flippin’ school’s application fee is how much??

Put down your phone and finish that essay or you’re walking to school tomorrow!

Why hasn’t that teacher uploaded your letter of recommendation?!

Stage 3 – Bargaining

T:  I’ll walk the dog if you pleeeaasee edit my essay…

Can I go to the movies tonight if I promise to finish my Activities List tomorrow?

If I go to community college will you buy me a new car?

P:  You can go to the mall when you’ve done one more practice ACT.

I’ll bring you home Taco Bell if you text me a pic of that completed application status.

If you stay in-state, we’ll get you a puppy!

[College Application: What Happens to Your Heart After “Submit”]

Stage 4 – Depression

T:  Uhhh… I kinda missed that scholarship deadline.

I got waitlisted. This sucks.

How the heck did he get in?? My test scores were waaaay higher than his!

P:  Her first-choice school is 2,874 miles from home.

Honey, we got the FAFSA results…

My baby really is old enough to go to college.

Stage 5 – Acceptance


I’m good at that school, dude, those dorms aren’t that bad.

You won’t miss me at all – I’ll be home every break!


She’ll be fine, they have gluten-free options all over campus.

We’ll barely miss him at all, and Parents’ Weekend is right around the corner. Let’s book the hotel!

And remember, these stages don’t necessarily happen in order, and you may have to return to a couple several times to completely work through them. But the most important message is this: the harder you struggle and fight to resist that last stage, the longer you stay in denial.

Parents, try to move forward with as much bravery, grace and dignity as you can muster. And Pro Tip – a DABDA of wine along the way may come in handy.

More to Read:

College Decision Day: 11 Things to Do Now  

Graduation Party Ideas: How to Celebrate Your Senior’s Big Day 

How to Make a Graduation Party Memorable? Decorations, Food, Fun! 

About Marybeth Bock

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing - as long as iced coffee is involved. You can find her work on numerous websites and in two books. Find her on Facebook and Instagram

Read more posts by Marybeth

Want our FREE College Admissions Timeline?
Grab this guide to help your teen find colleges that are an academic, social, and financial fit.