fb-pixel Skip to main content

College counselors offer advice to minimize stress

There is no getting around it. Applying to college is stressful.

And right about now, when high school seniors who applied for early decisions are hearing from admissions offices, and others are finishing up applications due Jan. 1, the stress level hits a peak, according to those who work with students.

While it is unrealistic to think a few magic steps can lead to a stress-free process, there are things that can be done to make it easier on students and their families.

First of all, according to guidance counselors, tutors, and college-search coaches, it is important to recognize that the application process is hard, and not brush aside the stress involved in writing essays, keeping up grades, making choices about where to apply, dealing with rejection, and perhaps having to wait until spring before making a final decision.


At Malden Catholic High School, about 70 percent of the seniors applied for early decision or early action this year, according to Cindy Jacobs, director of the school’s guidance department, who said she likes to see students have at least one acceptance in their hand before the year’s end.

“It allows them to exhale a little bit,” she said. “I feel like a lot of them are holding their breath.”

Like others who work with students, Jacobs said, guidance counselors and teachers work hard to keep them from feeling defeated by a college rejection.

“If it was a deferral, which feels like a denial to many students, we try to focus on the positive, perhaps gather more information and keep them actively engaged in the process,” she said.

And, Jacobs said, she emphasizes that there is no shame in being denied admission.

“Hopefully they are hearing the chorus from the guidance counselors, from teachers, from parents, that they have done the best they could, that they will be fine, and that this is not personal,” she said.


“We can’t control the waiting, or the disappointment, but we can control how we are affected,” said Alan Houghtaling, founder of Evolve Tutoring in Belmont, and who has worked with adolescents for nearly 20 years.

“Literally, take a deep breath,” he said. “We’re not talking deep meditation here, just take a breath and half a step back to remember why you are doing all of this, put a little bit of perspective on the situation.”

And, as experts who work with students trying to get into college say over and over, remember that virtually every student who wants to go to college will get accepted somewhere, and that the “best” school is not necessary the best school for you.

“Once you come to grips with that, it can really reduce the stress,” Houghtaling said.

The key in this unpredictable acceptance climate, they say, is to shift the emphasis from a single “dream school” and concentrate instead on finding several places where you could be happy and successful, and can afford.

The list of a student’s possible destinations should be well balanced, according to the experts, and include so-called reach schools as well as ones that regularly accept students with similar grade-point averages and transcripts.

Instead of being excited about going to a particular college, which can just add to the anxiety, start getting excited about graduating from high school and going to college, they say.


“The likelihood is that getting into your first-choice school may not happen, and that’s OK,” said Elizabeth Heaton, an admissions expert at College Coach in Watertown.

“There may be a dream school, but everyone will be calmer during the process if there are other schools on the list you’d love to attend.”

Shannon Mastropoalo, who is in her 10th year as a guidance counselor at Needham High School, agrees.

“It’s a tough time, there’s no question,” she said. “But we encourage students to hold their head high, it will all work out.”

Mastropoalo said this point in the process can be especially difficult for students who didn’t get early acceptance at their first-choice school.

Not only do they have to deal with the disappointment, but they have to quickly regroup and make sure their applications are ready to send out to other colleges.

To make it even more difficult, students who have been accepted start wearing gear from their college, often while sitting in the guidance office waiting area next to students who were rejected.

“Those are difficult meetings we have with students who didn’t get admitted,” Mastropoalo said. “Most of the time they were very qualified. We acknowledge the grief, allow them to work through it, and then move on to the next step.”

And it is important to remember that the rejection is not personal.

“In most cases they haven’t even met the student,” Heaton said.

Houghtaling said he tries to persuade students not to take a college rejection letter as a sign of being unworthy.


“It is personal to you, but it really isn’t personal,” he said. “This isn’t a science. I’ve seen kids get rejected from their so-called safety school and then get into their reach.”

It is exactly these situations where the experts say starting the process early and staying organized can make the difference between enjoying the holiday school break, and spending the vacation in a wound-up frenzy trying to finish up essays and applications.

“We push hard to have students get everything done before they hear from an early-action school,” Heaton said.

When a student hits the send button, it will be easier to wait for a response if the process was well thought out, and not rushed through just to finish.

The summer before senior year is also a good time to take a look at the common application, and even get a jump on writing the essay to alleviate a rush to edit and rewrite while trying to keep up with class work once school starts.

Doing all the right things, staying organized, getting everything done early, and applying to a wide range of schools you would be happy to attend may not prevent the stress for students and families in waiting to hear their decisions, but it can help.

While it is important to keep up grades, the experts say, this is also the time to enjoy being a senior.

“Go watch your friends play a winter or spring sport, be a fan,” Mastropoalo said.


Heaton suggests starting a basket for collecting college supplies.

She said she clearly remembers that even before she had been accepted to college, her mother casually started buying extra shampoo, deodorant, extra-long sheets, and other things she would need to pack, and setting them aside for her.

“Start believing it’s going to happen,” she said. “Start getting excited.”

Parents, meanwhile, should not suggest a college that realistically is out of reach for their child. Houghtaling said it is important for parents to make sure that their children’s expectations are in line with reality, and that they are not projecting their own expectations onto their child.

“They are already burdened by the process,” he said.

The best thing parents can do to help their kids through the process, the experts said, is to really listen to them.

“We are often quick to give out advice, and to make things better for our children,” Houghtaling said. “Well, you may not be able to make this better. So listen. Be incredibly empathetic, and be aware that they may be going through a tough time.”

And, he said, apologizing for “getting all touchy feely,” parents should stress to their children that whatever happens, they love them, and are proud of them. “This is the time for a pat on the back,” he said.

And the time to remember that there are things more important than your undergraduate alma mater.

“The character of who you are as a human being will count more than the name of the school on your diploma,” Houghtaling said.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.