Feature image from avidcollegeready.org.
First I’d like to give a little disclaimer and say that at times, my strategies for relieving the stress of the college admissions process might have actually stressed me out more. It was a lot of trial and error, much like most of my misadventures in high school and eventually college itself. In the end, though, I think it worked—because by “it” I mean every single strategy you could possibly dream up.
The most salient device I used was a piece of notebook paper upon which I’d drawn a grid. I drew this grid about a month and a half before the date when I expected to hear back from my first-choice college. Each row in the grid represented a day. And each square represented an hour. And every hour I would take out my soon-to-be-well-worn chart and color in another square. After a few weeks of this I began dividing each already-tiny hourly square into ten- or fifteen-minute subsections, which of course I could color in at greater frequency.
See what I mean about stressing myself out more? It’s too bad I never had a cold case or something to direct my obsessions at. As decision time came nearer, though, I weirdly grew more rational. During this time I actually developed a few good coping strategies.
First, I acknowledged that I was allowed to want what I wanted. That was the hardest thing to do, but in my opinion, one of the most important. I wanted to get into my first-choice school. For weeks I’d been convincing myself that I didn’t care, that it didn’t matter that much—and in the big picture of my life, it probably wouldn’t. I kept giving myself sage advice like that when what I really needed was not to squash my own wants because I was afraid of not achieving them. I needed to acknowledge that, yes, if I didn’t get into my first choice school, I would be upset. But only by accepting that fact could I both 1) prepare myself for recovering from disappointment, and 2) prepare myself to truly enjoy success if it came my way.
Because as I kept telling myself that my dream school “didn’t matter,” another worry overtook me: What if it didn’t matter? What if I didn’t care about the school at all, as I’d been telling myself? What if I got accepted and couldn’t get over the lies I’d been telling myself and what if I’d actually trained myself to hate my dream school only to get accepted and live the rest of my life/the next four years, at least, in disillusion?
That worry was probably a little far-fetched, too, but it did lead me to the important conclusion that I had to be okay with wanting something so hard it would hurt not to get it. Telling myself that I didn’t care one way or another would prevent me from personal growth in the event of either a rejection or an acceptance.
Which brings me to another “coping strategy” I used: mirthful clarity. It’s not so much a strategy as a state of mind and mindfulness that I tried to enter once in a while just to keep myself grounded. I knew that this whole ordeal, the infamous gauntlet of college admissions, was a learning experience, and that I would one day tell stories to fellow college students, parents, even my future children and grandchildren. I would catch myself furiously shading in those gridded boxes and chuckle, knowing how ridiculous it would sound when I told someone else someday. I knew I was ridiculous, and I accepted that this kind of situation makes people ridiculous, and that’s okay.
However, knowing and acknowledging that something is okay doesn’t mean it always feels okay. So I took concrete physical measures to ensure that I was in the best possible state of mind with regard to both my present and my future. I had two folders full of photos: one of my dream school, and one of all the other beautiful schools I’d applied to. I made two playlists: one full of triumphant, pump-up music and the other full of motivational music with a few California-themed songs, since that’s where a lot of my other schools were located (being from Michigan, I could hardly call going to college on the West Coast a loss, dream school or no dream school). I also made sure that, on the day I got my decision, I had all my favorite foods and drinks, my cat, and my favorite show queued up on Netflix. I even made two videos of myself talking myself through either outcome. I had a plan.
But plans don’t always go the way you want them to, which is a lesson I feel like everyone learns in the college admissions process, regardless of how well they fare in it. In the weeks and months preceding my decision, I hardly told anyone I had applied to my dream school, because I didn’t want to have to tell them that I hadn’t got in. It wasn’t that I was secretive—I’d tell people if they asked—but I just felt more comfortable letting as few people know as possible.
It was tempting, though. I really wanted to rant to anyone and everyone, constantly, about how stressed I was, and just vomit up words and force the people around me to weather my anxieties for me. Looking back, I probably could have struck a balance between clamming up and opening the floodgates, but I think I’m happy with erring toward the quieter side. You might think that sharing the load would decrease your stress, but a lot of times people around you can add to your nervousness by asking questions or sympathizing too much. “Wow, you must be soooo nervous. If I were you, I’d just go to sleep and never wake up.” (Yes, thank you for the support. I’ll take that under advisement.) The thing is, if you don’t know how to deal with yourself when you’re stressed, chances are other people might not either. If you’re comfortable telling everyone your plans, great! But if you’re feeling a little stressed, share the burden with a few people you can trust.
My doing exactly that is what caused my “plans” to go awry, but it was also what made my college acceptance one of the most memorable moments of my life. I wasn’t alone. My best friend insisted that she be there to witness (and record) the event. And although she might have contributed a little to my stress, she made my excitement increase tenfold. She was almost more excited for me than I was when I read that I had been accepted. And thanks to her, I can replay that moment again and again, forever.
You can’t “beat” admissions stress. Anyone who tells you they have the secret is lying. But it does help to know that the stress means something. It means you care. It means you have people rooting for you. And it also only means as much as you let it; it’s perfectly fine to let it go.
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