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Last updated May 22, 2023

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Why is Applying to College So Stressful?

Key Takeaway

To say that applying to college is stressful would be an understatement. While the stress may be inevitable, there are steps you can take now to make your life easier. Plan ahead, control what you can, and use your resources (like this article!) to stay on track.

Are you stressed about your college applications?

You’re not the only one.

As a college applicant, you have a lot on your plate. You have to build your school list, write your essays, do your standardized tests, and more. AND you have to do all that while keeping up with your regular life.

It’s a lot to handle.

But the reasons you’re stressed are valid. A lot is riding on your college applications.

Thankfully, there are a few steps you can take to mitigate the stress you’re experiencing.

In this post, we break down why you’re stressed and what you can do instead to help yourself out.

5 Reasons College Applications are Stressful

  1. The stakes are high.

    You’ve been working so hard for so long that when it comes time to apply to college, it seems like everything’s at stake. Right now, it may feel like the trajectory of your entire future is riding on your college applications.

    And in some ways, it is.

    Where you go to college can affect what you’re able to study, who you meet, who mentors you, what resources you have access to, and who your alumni network consists of.

    Your peers, the media, and maybe even your family have likely communicated to you that the only way to be successful is to get into one of the top schools in the country.

    Even if these pressures aren’t completely true, feeling the entire weight of your future on your shoulders is a lot to take on. It’s no wonder you’re stressed!

  2. You ultimately have little control over the admissions process.

    Sure, you can take your time choosing schools and crafting the application of your dreams.

    But once you hit submit, the process is entirely out of your hands.

    Your application goes into the void of the submission portal, never to be seen by you again. It then makes its way to pre-review processes like GPA checks and eventually to an admissions officer’s desk. A quick read, 15-20 minutes max, can seal your application’s fate. Sometimes applications undergo review by larger groups of admissions officers. Some get reviewed by faculty partners for scholarship consideration. (Interested in application review? Read how admissions officers at selective schools process tens of thousands of applications.)

    The truth is that you’ll likely never know the journey your application takes. You have no say in who sees it, what background experiences they’ll bring with them as they read, or whether you’ll be application #1 of the day or #40.

    You also can’t control what’s in the past. That B you got in 9th grade chemistry, losing in the final round of the soccer playoffs, choking on the math section of the SAT—all of it is said and done.

    Realizing that you can only control a fraction of the application process makes applying to college twice as daunting.

  3. It’s a big financial decision.

    A college education is one of the first and biggest investments many people in the United States will ever make.

    There is a nuanced and ongoing national conversation about the cost of college in the US. But for now, the reality is that most students still have to figure out how to finance their education.

    Most students try to pay as little as possible for a college degree, and they try to get the best bang for the bucks that they do have to pay.

    Navigating complicated financial aid processes, figuring out how to get the most money possible, and weighing the pros and cons of taking out student debt adds a whole other layer to the stress of college admissions.

  4. You’re navigating a completely new process.

    You’ve never applied to college before, so how are you supposed to know how to do it?

    For a good percentage of college applicants, the college application process is the first big bureaucratic process they undertake.

    It’s also likely to be the first time you’ll write a personal statement and supplemental essay.

    Practice makes perfect, but unfortunately the majority of students don’t get a practice round of college applications.

    Think about it—you likely won’t get the first job you apply to, you probably won’t marry the first person you date, so it’s a lot of pressure to have to try to get into college on your first try.

    To make it even worse, you’re learning how to navigate the process in an extremely short span of time while also balancing school work and extracurriculars.

  5. There’s a lot of pressure to meet outside expectations.

    Whether we like it or not, a college degree isn’t just about the education you get.

    It also carries a lot of social importance.

    Applicants (and their loved ones) feel the weight of the college process as one that can make or break a student’s future social and economic success.

    The more selective the college you go to, many people reason, the better your life will be. (That’s not true, as we’ll discuss soon, but the belief itself is a scary one to wrestle with.)

    Applying to college with this mindset can raise the stakes even higher than they already are. If loved ones or peers are also putting this pressure on you, then those stakes only get higher.

Applying to college is stressful for very legitimate reasons. It requires a lot of organization, effort, and mental and emotional energy. But many of these stressors are rooted in misconceptions about the college process. While it may feel like you’re on a roller coaster that’s spun out of control, taking a step back can help you realize that controlling what you can is the best way to ensure positive outcomes, no matter what happens on the other side of the application portal.

So how do I stop stressing about my college applications?

  1. Plan strategically so all outcomes are good outcomes.

    High stakes are high stakes. But you don’t have to surrender yourself to the whims of the college application process.

    So how do you safeguard yourself when the stakes are so high? You can take control and plan strategically.

    Start with the worst-case scenario: you get rejected from every school you apply to. A horror!

    Let’s avoid that.

    To ensure that you end up with at least a couple of options in the spring, make sure that you have enough surefire safety schools on your list.

    But surefire isn’t enough. Make sure they’re also high-quality schools that you’d be happy to attend.

    Letting go of the idea that you have to go to a T15 to be successful will help you fill your list with schools that work best for you.

  2. Control what you can.

    This is good advice in college admissions and in life.

    Since so much of the application process is out of your hands, you have to make the most of what you can control.

    Specifically, that means writing your essays and activities section with care.

    Your essays in particular are the one place where you get to lay everything on the table and tell an admissions officer exactly what you want them to know.

    Nowhere else in your application gives you such a strong opportunity to make your case, so be sure your essays are doing everything they need to do.

    Take control of your fate by looking to programs like the Essay Academy and our college essay and supplemental essay guides so you know exactly what admissions officers expect from you.

    If you put in the work, you can be comforted by the fact that you’ve done your very best at what you can control.

  3. Learn about financial aid, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

    Maybe you love looking at tax documents and reading about income thresholds. Or maybe even thinking about money makes you miserable.

    Either way, you’ll need to get comfortable with doing research, asking questions, and advocating for yourself.

    It’s easy to avoid dealing with difficult financial questions. But you’ll feel way better if you’re empowered with the information you need to make the decisions that are in your best interest.

    Talk to your support system about whether or not they’ll be financially contributing to your education so you can plan accordingly.

    Scour the internet for all the information you can about financial aid. Look up what in-state colleges in your area cost. See if you’re eligible for any specific scholarships. Search for lists of schools that offer loan-free financial aid packages or those that meet 100% of demonstrated financial need.

    Once you’ve been admitted, ask admissions counselors if someone can walk you through your financial aid package. If you have better offers elsewhere, see if you can negotiate (seriously!).

    You’ve got this.

  4. Use your resources to learn about how to apply to college.

    The easiest way to avoid the stress of doing something you’ve never done before is to do research and ask questions.

    The internet has answers to nearly every question you could ever have about college applications. Read guides, watch YouTube videos, and search through blog posts.

    Connect with other applicants and ask or answer questions on Reddit communities like r/ApplyingToCollege or r/CollegeEssays.

    Read what colleges put on their own websites, and, if appropriate, go straight to the source. Attend virtual information sessions, campus tours, or interviews and ask your questions.

    You’re not the first person applying to college, and you won’t be the last. No matter the level of support you have at home or at school, you don’t have to go it alone.

  5. Remember that where you go to college has nothing to do with your worth.

    Sometimes it’s too easy to get caught up in the game of prestige. This tendency is understandable. It’s good that you want the best for yourself.

    But where you go to college in no way reflects your worth or ability. Whether you go to a T20 or a T10,000, you are still you.

    Plenty of smart people go to unknown colleges. Some don’t go to college at all.

    While it’s sometimes true that a name-brand degree can help you get your foot in the door, it’s not a prerequisite to success.

    What’s more important is that you attend a college where you’ll be able to take full advantage of the resources available to you. The name on your degree won’t do the work—you will!

You’ll probably still be stressed this application season. But hopefully taking the steps to control what you can will make your life a little easier.

And if you create a school list whose outcomes are all good outcomes, then you only have light at the end of the application tunnel.

Good luck!

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