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College application season is not a time for grieving, though your admissions anxiety is a clue that this time may come soon enough. Nevertheless, the emotional rollercoaster you’re forced to ride right now can look a lot like The Five Stages of Grief: Stress Edition.
Do you really need to go to college? I mean, sure, you’ve pushed yourself to be your very best your whole life, but maybe that was never the right call. Maybe your true calling is to abandon this whole college quest and live a quiet life in the mountains.
Well, probably not. But it’s tempting to entertain those escapist fantasies sometimes. Sometimes the college application process can just be too much to wrap your head around. There are so many choices to be made.
First, you have to choose the schools you’re applying to. Then, you have to choose the strengths you’ll showcase in your application and how you’ll put them on display. You have to pick a teacher or two to write recommendation letters. You have to decide among fifteen different ways to tackle the essay for each school. And finally, you’ll have to choose each and every word you put into that essay!
And so you might ask yourself, “Is all this really necessary?” “Why am I putting myself through so much stress?” “Will it be worth it?”
When the stress and uncertainty and pressure get to be too much, it can be a lot easier just to pretend the whole thing isn’t happening. You probably won’t actually convince yourself you don’t plan to go to college, but you might pretend for a while.
Or you might tell yourself a different, more dangerous lie. You might tell yourself it’s not that big of a deal. And on one level—the de-stressing, chilling-out level—you’re right. Life will go on no matter what happens on the other side of admissions.
But one thing you shouldn’t deny is how much your future matters to you. You shouldn’t have to pretend you don’t care about something just to get by. Yes, you’ll survive either way, but you have a right to place value on a school you really want to get into. You have a right to work hard explicitly for an outcome you really want.
Don’t shortchange yourself by denying what a college acceptance means to you. It might be hard to bear the truth, but your commitments and your courage will benefit from it.
If you’re going through the college admissions process, chances are you’re going to get angry. Why? Because it’s difficult, it’s nerve-wracking, and a lot of the time, it seems a little unfair.
You’ll get angry at essay prompts for daring you to be different but not telling you how different is too different. You’ll get angry at having to highlight all your strengths and accolades without seeming pompous. You’ll get angry because you have no idea if all this energy and anger is even going to amount to anything.
Anger isn’t fun. It makes you feel trapped, and makes it hard to think clearly. You might not even realize you’re angry. You might be sitting in front of your computer, seemingly unruffled, and out of the blue you’ll realize how discontented you are with the half-finished essay in front of you or with the English teacher who’s taking six weeks to write your recommendation letter.
Don’t feel bad if you get angry. More importantly, don’t let your anger make you feel worse. That will just set a vicious cycle in motion that will be almost impossible to break.
If you can’t get over your anger right away, try to channel it into something positive. You’re a different person when you’re angry, but that person isn’t all bad. Maybe you have some qualities on display when you’re angry that would normally take a backseat, like realizing you deeply value timely communication.
Because another important function of anger is to show us what we value. If you’re angry at the college admissions process, maybe it’s because you value security and are upset to see it being threatened; maybe you value your personality but are frustrated at not being able to express it as favorably as you’d like.
If you’re discouraged with yourself or the situation and don’t see any way forward, don’t fault yourself for taking a break. A lot of the time anger is just there to (aggressively) show us what we need. Listen to it by giving yourself what you need and taking care of yourself in stressful times.
With all the contingencies at play during this time in your life, bargaining is an inevitable part of the equation. “If I submit this paper ahead of the deadline for once, I’ll gain an Integrity Point that will shine through in my application and help me get into Harvard!”
No one said your deals had to make sense. When you’re scared and desperate during admissions season, you’ll come up with any reason to feel better about the unknowable fate that awaits you and the difficult struggle that takes you there.
Most of the bargaining happens in your own head, since you can’t exactly go to an admissions committee meeting and make your case to them directly. And this is an important point to note: that part of the process is almost completely opaque to you.
The only thing you can really be sure of is the effort you put into your own work. You can speculate at the sentiments and standpoints of the admissions committees, but at the end of the day, you have no idea what they’ll think about anything you have to say or any bullet point on your resume. Which is exactly what makes this ordeal so scary, right?
But part of the reason it’s scary is because it can be empowering. You get to own your self-portrayal and the impression you make on the group of strangers who will “decide your fate” (although, really, you’ll be the one doing that).
A college acceptance is a fickle, elusive creature for many of us. Sometimes stellar applications slip through the cracks for no apparent reason, while objectively weaker applications seem to perform better. It all just proves that what goes on after you submit is as good as magic.
There are no bargains to be made with anyone except yourself. Make a deal with yourself that you’ll do your best, and that if you do, you’ll hold your head high no matter what.
You can get a little down as application season wears on. It can be difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, or to believe there’s even a light there at all; the tunnel might end, but what if what’s on the other side isn’t what you wanted after working so hard?
But there’s no sense in getting pre-discouraged by the possibility of a rejection. If it comes, you should deal with it then, but until then, there’s nothing you can do about it. Being sad that all your work might not be “good enough” isn’t going to do anything.
That’s not all that helpful, though, is it? Because when you’re feeling down over college admissions stress, there’s not much rational about those emotions. It’s not something you can talk (or bargain, or deny) your way out of. And the knowledge that it won’t last forever is almost more daunting than it is comforting—because after this, what’s next? What if that’s more depressing?
Well, there’s more certainty after it’s all over. Then you’ll have something concrete to feel good or bad about. Everything you’re worried about now is basically just an abstraction, or simply put, a lie. Once point of real truth and certainty is reached, more options than you’d ever previously imagined will solidify in front of you.
But you’re totally right to be stymied by the fact that those options aren’t apparent right now. You can only see over the hill once you’ve come to the top of it. And climbing a hill is hard work, hard work that makes you feel bad sometimes. Don’t worry. It’s part of the process, and no matter what the admissions results are, you’ll see a million more possibilities when they come.
Acceptance won’t come right away. It might not even come until you’ve reached the top of the hill and seen all the opportunities that you couldn’t see before. They’ll be much easier to accept than the struggle that brought you to them. But you can take steps to accept the struggle, as well.
Take time to be mindful of which stage of stress you’re in at any given moment. What is it telling you about yourself? What can you learn about how to tackle challenges, accept yourself, or see the big picture?
This won’t be the last time you’ll have to put yourself out there, with your future on the line, and allow circumstances and others’ decisions to share the weight with you of deciding what happens next. This probably feels like the most important decision of your life thus far—and some would argue it is—but no matter what happens, you will get more opportunities to succeed and reach for your dreams.
And if you want those opportunities to run a less stressful course, learning to accept them as they come is a good place to start.
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