Are you and your kid stressed out because of the college application process?  You aren’t alone, but you sure can feel like it.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the fall of 2011, a record 19.7 million students were expected to attend American colleges and universities. This is an increase of about 4.4 million since the fall of 2000.  Consider this: You’re 16 years old. You’re a full time student with tons of homework. You are probably on a sports team or in a music group, plus you like to hang out with your friends all of the time.  Add the college application process to an already full teenage life and it can feel hardly survivable for the student or his or her family.  Stress increases, communication reduces, and anxiety runs high when placement tests, online forms, perfectly written essays, and campus interviews and visits inundate your life.  What’s a family to do? Consider these de-stressing strategies: 

First, as Schoolhouse Rock says, “Knowledge is Power.” And it’s true.  If your child understands the steps for what he or she is trying to accomplish, then there’s one less thing to worry about. You can help your child by first understanding the process yourself so you can answer questions when they surface.  If you have time, you can increase knowledge by reading books or finding helpful websites for you both to check out.  Invite a college freshman from your neighborhood over for dinner—one who has just gone through the application process.  They’ve survived application stress ---and I bet they won’t turn down a home-cooked meal!  That success story may just offer hope to your family and normalize the craziness for you a bit, too.

Next, stay organized.  This may be a challenge, particularly for those who are already challenged by organizing daily life.  Help create checklists and filing systems that rein in the many details needed to complete each application.  Reducing tasks to a single list will help the process seem less overwhelming.  Keep the checklists or systems visible at a glance if possible.  That may mean posting them on a wall or large bulletin board somewhere in your home.

Third, discourage multitasking.  Multitasking ratchets up stress levels and frankly, is inefficient. The brain responds to task-and-information overload by pumping out adrenaline and other stress hormones that contribute to the feelings of agitation and edginess. Scientists estimate that each time you switch from one task to another you more than double the time it takes to complete either task. As a result, performance quality takes a nosedive. The memory of what you were doing is weakened, which leads to shallow learning. Even after you cease multitasking, splintered thinking and lack of focus can persist. Encourage your child to focus on a task through completion, or at least for a productive amount of time, before moving on to the next task.

Lastly, make sure your child has a way to de-stress. Whether that’s a mandatory weekend of no-college related conversations around the dinner table or a spontaneous family trip to the movie theater, seasonal activity, or mall.  Helping to manage the stress through diversion and variety is an important factor that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Here’s my last bit of advice: Remind your kids that applying to college does add more stress to their lives, but with a lot of effort and a fair amount of determination, it’s going to be worth it.  Most everyone finds a college that they enjoy.   Feel free to share some of your tips here.  I’d love to hear from you.  You can also watch a video about what you just read here, use any of the variety of the free resources on my website at or grab a copy of The Winner’s Brain, a book I wrote about brain science and success.

About the Authors

Jeff Brown, Psy.D., ABPP
Jeff Brown, Psy.D., is co-author of The Winner’s Brain.
Mark Fenske, Ph.D.

Mark Fenske, Ph.D., is co-author of The Winner's Brain and is an Assistant Professor in Psychology at the University of Guelph, Ontario.

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