5 Ways Parents and Teens Can Cope With College Application Anxiety

It’s crunch time. Your kid’s email box has been flooded with unopened college recruitment notices, deadlines are fast approaching, forms are half-filled out, and there’s still that pesky essay they need to write.

Are their SAT scores good enough? And should they send them now that most schools are continuing a test-optional policy? Should they add it to their college list? Will they get in anywhere??? Your kid is stressed and doubting themselves. Your anxiety is peaking now, and you are questioning what you’ve done — or haven’t done — to prepare your child for this process.

The college application process is overwhelming

Breathe! The entire college application process is overwhelming – for the student and for parents. Parents think, when I did this, it was easy. I picked out two or three colleges, filled out a few handwritten applications, and sent in my deposit.

It’s so complicated and stressful today! The landscape has indeed changed, and the whole process is more competitive. But it’s still about growing up, exploring possibilities and nurturing dreams. And it doesn’t have to create undue anxiety.

Parents and students can turn down the heat on the college application process. (Twenty20)

5 ways to reduce stress and anxiety this fall-parent edition

1. Take a step back

They can sense if you are panicking about deadlines and worried that your kid isn’t doing enough. They are probably just as stressed as you, and every time you remind them of the mountain of tasks that need to be done, they feel inadequate.

Teens tend to shut down when feeling overwhelmed – their brains can’t handle all the input! A hallmark of anxiety is avoidance, and if you find your child is avoiding tasks, you can bet the anxiety is at an all-time high. It may seem counterintuitive but pull back a bit. Let them take the lead.

2. Listen to your child

Letting your child take the lead means listening to them. Ask them how they feel and give them the space to talk. Don’t respond right away or try and “fix” things for them. Find out what their expectations are – and compare them to your own. Your kid’s desires and expectations may be different than yours. Or they may have once been aligned but now are taking different paths. Make sure you are both on the same page. Sometimes your child needs to feel supported and heard.

3. Create small, manageable goals

Once you are on the same page, sit down and create goals together. Make a list of tasks that need to be done to accomplish these goals. If you are in the thick of application season with a high school senior, create specific weekly goals to help work towards deadlines.

If you are the parent of a junior, look at things monthly, and focus more on research and prep for your student. The key here is to make a list of tasks that can be easily achieved and instill a sense of accomplishment and, thus, confidence. It is this confidence that will help to ease anxiety and stress.

4. Communicate

Talk to one another. Check-in and continue to make sure you are on the same page. Continue to listen to your child and make space for dialogue. Ask open-ended questions. Instead of “why haven’t you done your extra-curricular list yet?” ask, “what do you think you’ve been most passionate about? What were some of your favorite activities?” and have a real discussion about their interests and achievements, allowing them to identify these on their application than more readily.

5. Take time to play and relax

Make sure you — and your kid — are making time for fun and relaxation. Both you and your child should things for yourselves — make a conscious choice to put away all things college and go for a walk, spend time with friends, and see a movie.

Do things with your child completely unrelated to college prep activities. Plan a fun family outing! Remember to be present and breathe. Take time to find your joy and help your kid find theirs. The rest will come.

Remember, this process is supposed to lead your child to a place where they will learn, grow and thrive. Set the tone for that. Your child will eventually find their “fit,” and this process will be a distant memory. Try your best to step back and implement these tips, and you may even enjoy it!

5 ways to cope with college application anxiety-teen edition

Your parents are nagging you about refining your college list. Your friends have gotten in all their applications early (or so it seems). Everywhere you go, there are questions:

  • Where are you applying?
  • Have you done your college essay?
  • Did you take your SAT?
  • Your ACT?
  • So you’re writing about that for your essay???

Your stress level is at an all-time high. You know you have so much to do but don’t know where to start and just want to dive under the covers and binge-watch Grey’s for the 13th time.

It’s college application season. Even if you’re usually chill, this is a huge turning point. You are excited for senior year and all the activities that come with it; you can see the finish line in the distance. High school is ending, and you will begin a whole new chapter. It’s exciting but at the same time, completely terrifying.

Anxiety right now is a normal response

Anxiety during this time is inevitable. The stress of expectations, the unknown, and a daunting to-do list can be overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to break you. Anxiety is a normal stress response that triggers the “fight or flight” response in humans. This has been with us since the beginning of our existence and has helped us as a species to survive.

If you were in the woods and came upon a bear, a surge of adrenalin would help you fight it off with all of the physicality you could muster — or run as fast as humanly possible to safety. The college application process is a bear of sorts — although it’s not an actual life or death situation, your body responds as if it is. So, you snap at your parents (activating the “fight’ mode) or sign on to Netflix for a few hours (engaging the “flight mode.”)

However, now that you know what’s happening, you don’t have to fall prey to your anxiety. You can pull back momentarily and take steps to make this process as painless as possible.

5 ways to deal with stress and anxiety during the college application process

1. Breathe

Focusing on your breath can be enormously helpful. It brings you back to your body. Taking deep, purposeful breaths helps you to relax and focus. Deep breathing increases the oxygen supply to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.

This system relaxes you and brings about a state of calmness so that your body can perform the functions it was designed to perform, like digesting food (ever wonder why anxiety causes stomach problems?) Becoming aware of your breath also brings you into the present — and you need to be present to curb anxiety.

2. Make a plan, step by step

Being in the present does not mean you can’t make goals for the future. But by centering yourself, you can create a manageable plan that will help you achieve those goals. Make a list of what you want. Then make a list of what you need to do to get there. Create weekly or monthly goals so that you are not overwhelmed. And check off each item as you complete it — and celebrate the small accomplishments!

3. Ask for help

This is tough to do all by yourself; plenty of people want to help you but might not know how. Figure out what you need and who might be best to help you. Maybe it’s Mom or Dad or another trusted family member. Maybe it’s a college advisor or another adult with whom you have become close, such as a teacher or coach.

Sometimes just talking something out with someone helps to give you a fresh perspective. Don’t hesitate to ask if you need help with concrete tasks. Not sure how to approach your activity list on the Common App? Find someone who has experience with it and ask for ideas.

4. Reflect on your accomplishments and positive qualities

Create a running list of what you have achieved that you are proud of. Did you persevere through a difficult class? Did you help a friend when they were in trouble? Focus on the good parts of yourself — develop 5 positive things about yourself that define who you are.

Put it in the notes section of your phone or put it down on paper and leave it on your bedside table. Are you kind? Athletic? Curious? Remind yourself of the unique qualities that make you worthy. Look at that list when you feel overwhelmed or anxious, and tap into your self-confidence.

5. Take time to play and relax

Okay, don’t escape into TikTok for 5 hours, but take time to do some fun things. Even if you know you need to spend the weekend working on your essay, schedule frequent breaks. Take time to do something fun with your friends and family. Get outside, go for a walk, and watch a movie. Give yourself the space and time to enjoy life and find your joy. The rest will come.

Remember, this process is supposed to help you find a place where you can grow, learn, and thrive. And in a year or so, you will be making new friends, new memories, and pursuing new goals. You will find your college “fit.” Focus on the exciting part of this journey and let go of all the rest.

More Great Reading:

12 Ways to Reduce Stress During the College Admissions Process

Do you and your teen need a Complete Timeline for College Admissions?

About Kim Galway

Kim Galway, MA, LCAT is a licensed creative arts therapist, independent educational consultant, and mom of three daughters - two in college and one in high school. She has been working with young people for over 25 years, and maintains a private psychotherapy practice and college consulting company. Kim also founded and directed two youth theatre companies and is a public speaker and published author of several journal articles and book chapters. This piece currently appears as two separate blogs on her website.

Read more posts by Kim

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.