Five Ways to Embrace Sanity (Even While Waiting for College Decisions)

Applying to college is taxing, from the first college visit until the final decision is made. Perhaps no time in the process is more stressful than ticking through these cold weeks, politely dodging the questions of aunts and cousins, waiting for a stranger in an office somewhere to decide what your next four years will look like.

Dr. Sonia Lupien of the Centre For Human Stress Studies has a clever acronym for our top stress buttons, and waiting for our college application letters pushes them all. Dr. Lupien notes the what makes people NUTS comes down to

 N: Novelty
 U: Unpredictability
 T: Threat to Ego
 S: Sense of Control (A lack thereof)


New situations can be fun (never seen that cool shirt before) but also stressful (never seen that kind of math problem before!). I am confident that applying to college is (for most every kid anyway) new. So, yeah, it’s stressful.


Arguably, few things are more so than applying to college. If you knew you were in, you’d relax. If you knew you weren’t? Well, you probably would have just applied elsewhere. Being in between is hard. Your brain is trying to prepare for both outcomes at once.

Threat to Ego

Well, that’s kind of a no-brainer. To the degree you feel you are being judged in this process, the stress of rejection ratchets up.

(Low) Sense of Control

Research suggest this is the most stressful of all. We can tolerate the first three stressors if we feel we have some measure of control. Feeling helpless is the worst, and exacerbates novelty, unpredictability, and the threat to ego.

What Can You Do?

Maybe consider hibernating and waking up to warmer weather and college preparation decisions made? Barring that, here are a few other, more practical ideas for college preparation.

Keep Perspective

Frank Bruni’s book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, is a terrific response to the fear of rejection and identity questions that threaten college-bound egos. Yes, there are advantages to selective colleges. They help you get your first job. You’ll meet remarkable and interesting people. But that’s not true of only the “best” colleges. Think of all of your friends. Do you know all of their ACT/SAT scores and GPAs? Do you rank your friends based on their scores and grades? Of course not.

Have a Plan

Dr. Lupien explains that this may be among the very best things we can do, foremost because it gives us a sense of control and a solution to the first three stressors. If your options are Ivy League and the unemployment line, that’s tough. If you dream is Harvard, but Plan B is Haverford, well, at least you’re not living in your parents’ basement for the next four years. If Haverford falls through, consider Hamilton. Ideally, you have a good college plan that has you reaching, but you also have a Plan B with a series of secure choices in little increments. It’s like rock-climbing with clips every few feet. Falling five or ten feet is not the same has falling to the bottom. Knowing you’re safe makes you more able to stretch for “reaches” AND deal with setbacks because you have “safeties.”

Visualize Outcomes

When we are really stressed, when we are in a freeze-flight-or-fight response, our thinking is by definition unreasonable: the reasoning parts of our brains go offline. In advance of the college result, rehearse both a celebratory party and how you will handle the setback of a denial or deferral. If you feel “you will just die,” well, stressful! Taking time to visualize a “disaster preparedness” plan with the belief that you can survive the setback increases your sense of control and lowers the stress.

Ask for College Preparation Help

Lastly, if the people around you seem as stressed as you are (or more!) look for someone who people can serve as “a non-anxious” presence. Research shows that stress is, in fact, socially contagious. Talk to teachers or your college counselor, for whom this process is not novel. Talk to friends in college, who will almost without exception tell you that they got through this process and are doing well, whether they were initially accepted or not.

Notice when you are feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. Those are perfectly normal things to feel, and you may even look back on them with good-humored fondness someday. But don’t believe your brain if it tells you that you’re helpless. Help yourself by making a Plan B, visualizing how you will handle good or bad news, spending time with people who know life beyond admissions decisions, and knowing that you are more than where you do or do not get into college.