Applying to college is taxing, from the first college visit until the final decision is made. Perhaps no time in the process is more stressful than ticking through these cold weeks of December, politely dodging questions of aunts and cousins, waiting for a stranger in an office to decide what your next four years will look like.
Dr. Sonia Lupien of the Center For Human Stress Studies has a clever acronym for our top stress buttons, and waiting for our college application letters pushes them all. Ms. Lupien notes that what makes people NUTS comes down to:
T: Threat to Ego
S: Sense of Control (A lack thereof)
New situations can be fun (never seen that cool shirt before) but also stressful (never seen that kind of math problem before!). I am confident that applying to college is (for most every kid anyway) new. So, yeah, it’s stressful.
Think of arriving at an airport and learning your flight is cancelled. Ugh. But, you hear, “We have you on the next flight.” Phew! Vs. “We may be able to get you on the next flight.” Double Ugh! Arguably, few things are more unpredictable than applying to college. If you knew you were in, you’d relax. If you knew you weren’t getting in? Well, you’d get to work applying elsewhere. Being in between is hard. Your brain is trying to prepare for both outcomes at once.
Threat to Ego
Well, that’s kind of a no-brainer. To the degree you feel you are being judged in this process, the stress of rejection ratchets up.
(Low) Sense of Control
Research suggests this is the most stressful of all. We can tolerate the first three stressors if we feel we have some measure of control, that our actions matter, that are things we can do to improve the situation, to escape the situation, or to mitigate the stressors. However, if you feel there is nothing you can do, your nervous system will head towards the DEFCON 4 level of the freeze-flight-or-fight response. We cannot always avoid stressors. But, the feeling that we have some control in stressful situations makes them, well, less stressful.
What Can You Do?
Consider hibernating and waking up to warmer weather and college decisions made. Barring that, here are a few other ideas:
Frank Bruni’s book “Where you Go is Not Who You’ll Be,” is a terrific antidote to the fear of rejection and identity questions that threaten college-bound egos. Yes, there are advantages to selective colleges. They help you get your first job. You’ll meet remarkable and interesting people. But, that’s not true of only the “best” colleges. Think of all of your friends. Do you know all of their ACT/SAT scores and GPAs? Do you rank them because of it? Of course not.
Have a Plan B
Dr. Lupien explains that this may be among the very best things we can do, mostly because it gives us a sense of control, and a solution to the first three stressors. If your options are Ivy League or the unemployment line, that’s tough. If your dream is Harvard, but Plan B is Haverford, well, at least you’re not living in your parents’ basement for the next four years. If Haverford falls through, consider Hamilton. Ideally, you have a good college plan that has you reaching for a top school or schools but also a Plan B with a series of incrementally more secure choices. It’s like rock-climbing with clips every few feet. Falling five or ten feet is not the same has falling to the bottom. Knowing you’re safe makes you able to stretch for “reaches” and deal with setbacks because you have “safeties.”
When we are really stressed, when we are in a freeze-flight-or-fight response, our thinking is by definition unreasonable: The reasoning parts of our brains go offline. In advance of the college result, rehearse both a celebratory party and how you will handle the setback of a denial or deferral. If you feel “you will just die,” well, that’s stressful! Taking time to visualize a “disaster preparedness” plan with the belief that you can survive the setback increases your sense of control and lowers the stress.
Ask for Help
Lastly, if the people around you seem as stressed as you are (or more!) look for someone who is “a non-anxious” presence. Research shows that stress is socially contagious. Talk to teachers or your college counselor for whom this process is not novel. Talk to friends in college, who will almost without exception tell you that they got through this process and are doing well, whether they were initially accepted or not.
Focus on What You Can Control
Notice when you are feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. Those are perfectly normal feelings. But don’t believe your brain if it tells you you’re helpless. Help yourself by making a Plan B, visualizing how you will handle good or bad news, spending time with people who know life beyond admissions decisions, and knowing that you are much more than where you do or do not get into college.