As a clinician who works mainly with adolescents and teens, I frequently treat juniors and seniors in high school who are feeling immense pressure and anxiety about the college process. This time of year, my senior clients are typically out of the thick of it and are looking forward with excitement/worry to graduating and their future. But juniors are growing increasingly nervous about what’s ahead.

There is no way around it, applying to college – writing essays, taking standardized tests, sticking to deadlines and making decisions about the next four years – is stressful. Most young people report putting a lot of pressure on themselves and many feel pressured by their parents and other adults and peers about applying and getting into the “right” schools.

For students who already struggle with mental health issues like anxiety and depression, the fall of senior year can feel overwhelming and sometimes paralyzing. That’s why I start working with my clients before senior year on developing a healthy perspective about the college process and practicing coping strategies that will help them in the fall.

By creating self-care routines that you can stick with over the next year and making progress in bite-size increments on college applications, you can start senior year feeling more confident and less fearful.   

Here are some self-care things you can start doing now:

  • Make exercise a habit – Add some exercise to your daily routine. Low-impact, but high-stress-relieving activities include walking, swimming and yoga. Research shows that time in nature is also an effective stress reliever. So during the warmer months, consider choosing outdoor activities to remain physically active. If you get into the routine over summer, it will be easier to keep it up in the fall.
  • Practice Mindfulness – Learn at least one simple mindfulness exercise that you can practice daily.  A good starting point is the Box Breathing Exercise (watch the video below). You can also try guided meditation using an app like Calm, Headspace or Insight Timer.
  • Block out no college time ­– Set aside 30 minutes or an hour every day when you commit to not talking or thinking about admissions. Use engaging activities that you enjoy and find relaxing as distractions. Sticking to this may be a challenge once your go back to school in the fall, but even a short break will help.

There are parts of the college admissions process you simply can’t control.

Use your free time over the summer to start working on the parts that you can:

Create a summer calendar. For some people making a detailed schedule and ticking off boxes reduces stress. Other people, feel overwhelmed when they see a packed schedule. Do what is going to help you most.  

Add your healthy routines to the calendar and then tasks you can realistically work on in a timeframe that is not stress-inducing. For example:

  • Build an initial list of 10 – 15 colleges that you are interested in. Spend 30 minutes every Monday, until you have completed the task.
  • Schedule standardized tests and work on test prep. Put in a couple of hours every week.
  • Register for online accounts and resources: Common App/Federal Student Aid. This should be relatively quick work that you could complete in one session and feel like you are making progress.
  • Complete at least a first draft of your college essay by end of summer. Consider putting in an hour or two every week.
  • Visit a few colleges. Make it a fun adventure, just to get a sense of the campus.
  • Keep Fridays open.

Take personal inventory to help build your college list and fill in your applications.

  • Make lists of your interests, experiences, achievements and the activities you participate in. College counselors often recommend creating your resume. Having gathered this information in one place will help greatly when it comes time to fill out applications.

Get organized. This may involve expanding your summer calendar into the fall. Download applications for the colleges you are interested in. Create a spreadsheet of application requirements and deadlines for each school (add deadlines to your calendar). Start collecting the required materials.

Think about letters of recommendation. Teachers write the best letters of recommendation when they have time to do so. Make sure you contact them at least 30 days in advance of an application deadline. Ask them in person, if you can, and provide a copy of your resume and grades. Make sure to send thankyou notes for letters of recommendation.

Get your Federal Student Aid ID so you can fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid in the fall.

Register for your Common App account. There are a lot of great resources on this website even if you aren’t ready to look at the application yet.

Schedule standardized tests and practice. Both the SAT and ACT offer everything from free practice tests to individualized test prep tutoring programs. Make a realistic test prep schedule that works for you. There is no need to overdo it. Test results are only one factor that college admissions officers consider. There are several opportunities to take both the ACT and SAT in the summer and fall. Keep in mind, many college applications are due on November 1, 2022. If you have testing anxiety and typically don’t do well, consider looking at the growing number of schools that do not require test results as part of their application.

Write at least a first draft of your college essay(s). Many students consider the essay the most stressful part of the application. Think about how accomplished you will feel if you don’t have to worry about it in October! The Common App website has released essay prompts for the 2022-2023 application season. Start thinking about the topics and brainstorming with family and friends. Use Common Apps helpful guide for getting started.

Ask for help. Students are frequently hesitant about asking their parents to review their applications and essays. However, having someone look over your materials before you submit them is crucial and will help you feel more confident.

As you start the college process, remember there are so many good options. There isn’t just one “right” school or group of schools or even one best path to a bright future. An increasing number of students are taking a gap year after high school or enrolling in community college for a few semesters to alleviate some of the financial stress. Keeping an open mind — and understanding that taking an unexpected turn in the road doesn’t mean failure — will relieve a lot of pressure.

If you are feeling overwhelmed to the point where you can’t make progress, tell someone and consider reaching out to a mental health professional for help.

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