You know what you don’t need on top of your schoolwork, extracurriculars and after-school job?

A more stressful than necessary college application process. The whole thing can be soul-searching, it can be nerve-wracking and, let’s face it, it’s also just plain work — a lot of it.

Denise Pope, cofounder of Challenge Success at Stanford University, an organization that studies how to reduce stress in students’ lives, knows that the pressure to succeed can be stifling for students. (She, quite literally, wrote the book on it, and then she wrote another one.) If you think applying to college is harder than ever — especially compared to when your parents applied — she would probably back you up. Between social media, current events and the fact that admission rates continue to fall at top schools, she says there’s a lot to process, especially when piled on top of one of the most stressful things of all: being a teenager.

But with some preparation, organization and a few stress-management techniques, you can survive application season in one piece. Here, students and experts reveal nine ways to temper tension this year as you apply to college.


  • 9 Ways To Stay Sane While Applying To College

  • Don’t take the SAT® or ACT® exam over and over. The improvement in scores typically isn’t enough to warrant taking the test more than twice.

  • Brainstorm your essays earlier than you think you have to. It’ll save you time and stress later.

  • Apply to three schools you’re not only confident you’ll get into, but that you can also see yourself at. Think of them as “likely schools,” not “safety schools.”

  • Find common ground with your parents. Practice the Oreo Cookie Method, which requires a positive statement, followed by a declarative “I” statement expressing your feelings, followed by a suggested solution.

  • When your mood starts to dip, take a break and shift your focus to something that makes you feel good.

  • Find a mantra that resonates with you. It doesn’t have to be spiritual — it’s really just a way to reframe your thoughts when they start spiraling.

  • Remember that everyone’s application experience is different, so try not to compare yourself with your friends. Affirm yourself with an “I statement” and list out a few of your strengths.

  • Manage your expectations when it comes to your dream school. It helps to remember the other schools you applied to and genuinely like.

  • Keep an open mind. Good things happen in unexpected places, and that can include colleges that aren’t your first choice.

  • Now, take a deep breath (or three). It’s onward and upward!

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1. Don’t Take the SAT or ACT Exams More Than Twice

While there’s something comforting about knowing you can sit for the SAT® and ACT® exams again and again, that doesn’t mean you should. “Preparing to take and taking these tests more than twice is not a good use of your time,” Pope says, adding that there’s no proof it’ll help you get into a better school. “The difference we see in scores — beyond taking the test twice — is not enough to make a difference in admissions at particular universities.”

2. Brainstorm Your Essays Before You Write Them

There’s nothing worse than sitting down to write something and realizing you have no idea where to start. So it’s no surprise that Rachel Petty, a 2017 graduate of James Madison University, and Emily Schmidt, a sophomore at Stanford University, both cited the college essay as the thing that stressed them out the most about applying to college. “I would start brainstorming essay topics earlier,” Schmidt says when asked what she’d do differently if she applied to college all over again. “It took me several weeks to even decide on a topic, let alone write the first draft of the Common App essay. All that wasted time contributed to my stress.”

3. Apply to Three Schools You Know You’ll Get Into and Like

Identify three schools you’re as confident as possible that you’ll get into and at which you can see yourself. They might not be your dream schools, but they are places where you think you’ll be happy and productive. You might know them as “safety schools,” but Pope prefers to call them “likely schools,” a phrase she adopted from teachers and counselors at her children’s high school.

4. Set Boundaries with Your Parents

No matter how much your parents want you to get into a good college, they do not strive to be the source of your stress. Jennifer Fairchild, a therapist who works with girls and young women in Trumbull, Connecticut, encourages her teen clients to address issues with parents by using what she calls the Oreo Cookie Method:

  • The first layer is something positive: “I appreciate that you always want the best for me.”
  • The second layer is a declarative “I” statement that expresses how you feel: “I feel stressed when you ask me so many questions first thing in the morning.”
  • The third layer is a solution: “Can you please only ask me questions about school during our college power hour on Wednesday?”

5. Identify What Makes You Feel Good

A tried-and-true coping mechanism is to shift focus to something that makes you feel good the minute your mood starts to dip. Fairchild suggests writing in a journal, drawing in a sketchbook, talking to a friend who doesn’t interrupt or even just curling up with a cozy blanket and listening to music. Schmidt, who crocheted infinity scarves to manage her stress through application season, agrees. However, on the day she was waiting to hear if she got into Stanford, she defaulted to four straight hours of one thing: YouTube.

6. Have a Go-to Mantra

Mantras don’t have to be silly or spiritual; they’re really just a way to reframe your thoughts when they start spiraling. It’s something that William Meyerhofer, a therapist in New York City, finds works well so long as the mantra is true and resonates with you. His go-tos are:

  • I can only do my best, and if I’m doing my best, I’m doing a lot”
  • “There’s nothing coming that I can’t handle”
  • “It’s okay to be okay — it doesn’t tempt fate to enjoy my day”

7. Comparing Yourself to Your Friends? Stop!

You will probably grapple with how you stack up against your friends, and that’s only natural. But no matter how similar or wildly different their college application process is, almost nothing good can come of it. Fairchild suggests affirming yourself with an “I statement” the second you notice yourself starting to draw a comparison. It can be as simple as saying “I am unique,” and writing a list of three to four of your strengths.

8. Assume You Won’t Get Into Your Dream School

Not to be a downer, but chances are your dream school is also a whole lot of other students’ dream school. So, especially if that school has a sliver of an admissions rate, it’s best to temper your expectations. Schmidt always wanted to go Stanford University, but with the lowest acceptance rate in the country (4.65% in 2017), she knew it was a long shot. To manage her own expectations, she rarely talked about applying to Stanford or told people it was her top choice. “I made sure not to put all my eggs in one basket by finding other schools I liked as well,” she says. “I tried to tell myself that no matter where I ended up I would be happy, because I only applied to schools I could see myself attending.”

9. Keep Your Options Open

It might not seem like it right now, but no matter what happens with your college applications, this is just one stop at the beginning of your long life. Good things happen in unexpected places, and that includes colleges that aren’t your first choice.

For example, Petty applied early decision to Syracuse University, but when her application was deferred, she broadened her search and fell in love with James Madison University.When I eventually got rejected from Syracuse, it wasn’t as upsetting because I had found the school that was truly right for me,” she says. “I couldn’t be more thankful that I went to JMU.”

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