How to survive the high anxiety of college admission decisions


Photo: Justin/Flickr

Some high school seniors and their parents are feeling a little tense right now. The regular admission deadline for college applications was around the first of the year; that means many students applying to highly ranked colleges receive word of acceptance – or rejection – in March and in April.

When a young person feels like their entire future hangs in the balance with a college decision, this is often an emotionally fraught time for families.

Parents can have a broader perspective and guide their child to do the same, says Kate Sheehan, a licensed clinical social worker and managing director of the UCLA Center for Child Anxiety Resilience Education and Support. Sheehan has some survival tips for navigating the wait.

Don’t confuse your past with your child’s future. You may regret not getting to attend your dream school, or think you would have been happier or wealthier if you had. Don’t project those thoughts onto your child, Sheehan says.

“If we do that, we’re making assumptions about what sort of future a particular school will provide for them,” she says. “And we just don’t know.”

Avoid all-or-nothing style thinking. Your student may be imagining an overly dire result of not getting into their top college choice: a lousy job, less income, embarrassment among their peers. However, parents can help prepare them by discussing the advantages of their other college choices and emphasizing that the negative impacts are not as bad as they imagine.

“There is a tendency toward black-and-white thinking,” Sheehan says. “All or nothing. I’m either going to get into every school, or no school. And my whole life depends on it.” Parents can help teens notice unusual paths to success in their friend circle or among high achievers like Albert Einstein or Bill Gates.

Discuss best-case and worst-case scenarios. We tend to imagine catastrophe. Your child might think that not getting accepted by their No. 1 college choice means they won’t be able to get a job, support themselves or have a family. The parent might say, “Maybe you will get an offer from your top college. Or maybe you’ll go to a different school and find an area of interest you didn’t even know about.”

Voicing the worst-case scenario we have playing in our head can take away some of its power, while naming the best-case scenario can help us recognize wants or needs we may not have articulated before.

Remind your teen who they are as a whole person. Help them focus on their strengths, as talented photographer, a mentor to a young relative, etc. That’s what they’ll be building on wherever they go to school. Their worth shouldn’t boil down to a GPA or an SAT score.

Practice daily stress-relieving skills – for yourself. Go on regular walks or runs, do yoga or practice mindfulness techniques. Encourage your child to do the same. A parent labeling their stress relief as such can help your child build their own toolbox for managing her own stress.

“The more everyone can keep their eyes on the big picture, and keep the waiting period into the context of their larger life, “ Sheehan says, “the easier it will be to maintain a bigger-picture outlook when they hear back, especially if there’s a disappointment.”