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Teen Edition: 5 Ways To Cope With College Application Anxiety

Updated: Oct 17, 2022

Your parents are nagging you about refining your college list. Your friends have gotten in all of 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 really writing about that for your essay??? Your eyes glaze over and you begin to notice how annoying people’s voices can be. 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 in your life. You are excited for senior year and all of the activities that come with it; you can see the finish line in the distance. High school is coming to an end and you will begin a whole new chapter. It’s exciting, but at the same time, completely terrifying.

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 response to stress, and it 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 middle of the woods and came upon a bear, a surge of adrenalin would help you to literally 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 going on 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. Here are five ways you can deal with stress and anxiety during the college application process:

1. Breathe

Yes, I know you are breathing, You are alive and taking in oxygen every moment. But 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 supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the system that relaxes you and brings about a state of calmness so that your body can perform the functions is 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 plan that is manageable and 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, and there are plenty of people who want to help you but might not know how. Figure out what you need and who 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 who you have become close with, such as a teacher or coach. Sometimes just talking something out with someone helps to give you a fresh perspective. If you need help with concrete tasks, don’t be afraid to ask. 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- come up with 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. Take a look at that list when you are feeling overwhelmed or anxious, and tap into your own self-confidence.

5. Take time to play and relax

Okay, don’t escape into tik-toks 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; watch a movie. Give yourself the space and time to enjoy life and to 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’s time 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.

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