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It may be hard to know what the college applicant in your life needs, because they might just be too stressed to communicate it, or they might have trouble articulating it, period. Here are a few ways to understand prospective college students without having to understand, in detail, all the details of their lives.

Understanding means respecting silence.

It means realizing that maybe someone doesn’t want to talk about how stressed they are, or how overwhelming their options are, or how little sleep they’ve had in the past week. Some students just don’t talk about their college applications – it’s how they cope.

If you think it might be a cause for concern, still don’t pressure them; you might just make it worse. Just let them know you’re there for them and maybe offer them an ice cream cone. Even if they aren’t being quiet, offer them an ice cream cone. Please just always offer a college applicant an ice cream cone. They deserve it.

It means not asking loaded, close-ended questions.

“Oh my gosh, aren’t you stressed?” “Are you worried you won’t get in?” “Did you stay up all night putting the finishing touches on your application?” “Are you sick of having questions asked of you that set up expectations for your entire experience?”

Seriously, though. So many times during my admissions season, I heard people ask me or my friends questions that they could only answer “yes” or “no” to… And when it came down to it, one of those two options was usually eliminated, too.

The questions I heard were often pretty close to rhetorical. People expected to hear a certain answer, because they expect certain things of college applicants. And they might feel like they’re being understanding or lighthearted or even giving the applicant a chance at commiseration with someone who’s going through the same thing.

More often than not, though, these questions just make college applicants feel even more boxed-in than ever. Giving them space to breathe isn’t just about whether you talk to them, but how you talk to them. Give them the opportunity to say what they need to say.

But understanding also means asking questions.

Wait, what? It’s a little contradictory, but every applicant needs something different in terms of support. Plus, the issue with questions isn’t the fact that the applicant is being asked questions, it’s the weight and stress put on their answers.

One of the most stressful parts of being a college applicant is knowing you’re going to be asked questions, and knowing, by a few keywords, what those questions will generally be.

For that reason, it’s an intensely strange time in a person’s life. All our lives we suffer through small talk when we see people we know but haven’t spoken with in a while. We talk about the weather and our weekends.

But for college applicants, small talk is suddenly, somehow, agonizingly vague and uncomfortably specific at the same time! They can tell that the family friend who’s over for dinner for the first time in months doesn’t know all that much about them, but they know the student is applying to college, and they’ll eat up that information faster  than they’ll eat mom’s meatloaf.

Applicants know the questions are coming. It’s like walking down the street and seeing someone with a pamphlet making a beeline for you. It’s a common scenario but I don’t think anyone has really figured out what to say.

Maybe the high school senior in your life really doesn’t know how to express just how stressed they’re feeling when even their answer has pressure on it. So ask. But don’t ask what’s wrong and don’t ask a ridiculous close-ended question.

Ask what you can do to help. Ask what you can do to alleviate their stress. Ask if there’s anything they need – it’s probably best if you don’t mention the stress at all, because believe me, they won’t forget it.

And after you establish trust and support, you can start asking more explicit questions. Ask how the college experience is treating them or whether they feel like they’d benefit from relaxation. Ask them questions that will help them focus on things they’re excited rather than nervous about.

Understanding means patience.

To be honest, college applicants are grumpy. They’re excited and vivacious, but they’re grumpy. They’ve got their eyes on the prize and their toes on the starting line, but they’re grumpy. And that’s okay.

Try to remember that 1) the stress will be over soon for the applicant and, indirectly, the people around them, far sooner than they realize. And 2) they have every right to be stressed. They deserve it. You’d probably be just as off-put if they weren’t.

Being stressed during college apps is a fact of life.

But understanding doesn’t mean colorful visual interpretations of stress.

Even though that’s what expert advice-givers on the internet do. No infographics. No themed board games. (Although CollegeBoardGame Night is a bit of wordplay that’s kind of hard to pass up.) No surprise party that gives them the heart attack they’re already on the brink of.

Understanding doesn’t mean taking their problems and externalizing them into your own experience. It doesn’t mean trying to “relate” or to help them express anything. It just means letting things run their course, and knowing that you’re not supposed to be able to fix everything.

Otherwise there would be a University of Fixing Everything that you could stress about getting into. But there is no University of Fixing Everything. There’s not even a University of Vaguely Figuring Stuff Out. I’ve heard that there’s a College of Making Life Decisions but I decided not to go there.

There are “professional” organizations out there that will give a college applicant much better advice than you ever could – it’ll even include infographics. And even that usually isn’t enough to alleviate stress.

The truth is, there’s not really any way to change the college application process and make it less stressful and more applicant-friendly. College applicants are usually vaguely and painfully aware of that, and it can be frustrating.

It’s important for the people around them to realize that, too. Applying to college is an inherently stressful process because it is meaningful. And people don’t go through it alone. Sometimes that can be a really annoying thing, but if the people around the applicants take the time to understand how they feel, it can be invaluable.

Sarah Chandler

Sarah Chandler is a junior at Cornell University studying Performing and Media Arts and Psychology.As much as she loves writing for CollegeVine, she'd rather be astral projecting or watching The Office. She has too much fun writing bios like these for her own good.