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 exciting and nerve-wracking, and also a lot of work.

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.

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  • 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 essay topic from a recent experience. You’ll convey a lot more energy than an old story you don’t feel connected to anymore.

  • 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.”

  • Ask admissions officers and recruiters at your top schools for what they’re looking for in applicants so you can tailor your materials to be as appealing as possible.

  • 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.

  • Organize your deadlines in a document that your parents, counselor and you can access. It’ll keep you organized and minimize the number of questions you get asked.

  • If your stress level is rising, shift your focus to something that makes you feel good like a hobby, conversation with a friend or even hours of silly videos on YouTube.

  • 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.

  • Keep it in perspective and stay open-minded. Good things happen in unexpected places, and that can include colleges that aren’t your first choice but are ultimately the right place for you.

  • 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 From Recent Experience

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 Arzelia Williams, a senior at Michigan State University, cited the college essay as her biggest stressor. But, she has smart advice: If you’re struggling to come up with a topic, think about something you did in the last month or even the last week. “While it’s important that your essay reflects who you are as a person, it doesn’t have to go all the way back to freshman-year,” she says. “With the activity still fresh in your mind, you convey a new level of energy to those reading your essay.”

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. Know Exactly What Your Top Schools Want in Students

The admissions process can feel like a mystery, but recruiters and admissions counselors will usually tell you what they’re looking for if you ask. Take advantage of any opportunity to speak to the ones at your top schools. Ask what qualities they look for in a student, what they think makes an admissions essay stand out or how you can strengthen your application. “Become familiar with what your top colleges expect from you,” says Adrian Mendieta, a senior at Virginia Tech. “Then when you fill out your applications, you will have a sense of what a college is looking for.” You can tailor your materials to exactly what you know appeals to the school. 

5. 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?”

6. Organize All Deadlines in a Spreadsheet

Whether it’s to keep yourself organized or minimize the number of questions your parents and counselors ask, it’s a good idea to create a master file that all interested parties can access. “Create a Google doc or Excel sheet to share with parents so everyone knows when applications and other materials are due,” Elizabeth Telfort, a 2019 graduate of St. John’s University. It can cut down on unnecessary (and stressful) back-and-forth.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. Don’t Lose Sight of the Big Picture

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. “It always helped me to remember what it was I was passionate about outside of academics,” says Williams. “Sure, going to a school whose name is recognizable can be cool, but attending a college or university where you truly feel like you belong is even better.”

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2018 and 2019.

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