Have you ever had a nightmare about school? When you’re preparing for college and juggling all the accompanying stress, it’s not unusual to find that those daytime worries also show up at night. I’ve been out of high school for years and sometimes still find myself wandering the halls in my dreams, worrying that I’m going to miss a final exam or that I forgot my violin at home.


Whether you literally experience nightmares about school or not, you’ll likely agree that the college application process brings with it possibilities that are pure nightmare fodder. Everyone in your life is bombarding you with information and telling you that the choices you make now will shape the rest of your life, and the most difficult part is that they’re right.


Under this kind of stress, when every decision seems deeply significant, it’s easy to overreact to problems that aren’t really that serious. A small error might make you feel like you’ve ruined your entire existence forever and torpedoed every chance you had at having a good life. (That’s called catastrophizing, and it’s no good.)


Never fear! With a little creativity, flexibility, and determination, you can conquer your worst college application nightmares—or help yourself avoid them in the first place. As you’ll see, even if the worst happens, there’s always a way forward, a fact that may help ease your mind as you take the necessary risks to pursue your dreams.



You Forget to Bring Your ID and Admission Ticket When You Go to Take the SAT



Feared Outcome

You won’t be allowed to take the test, you won’t have the required test scores you need to apply to your preferred colleges, and your college dreams will be dashed.


Why It’s Not So Scary After All

It’s true that security is taken seriously at standardized test administrations, and identification requirements have tightened up over recent years. However, you’d be far from the first person to forget your documentation. You’re only human, and in such a stressful moment, people do sometimes make mistakes.

This is a situation where planning really can prevent the thing you fear. Do whatever you need to do in advance to improve your chances of leaving home with your documents in hand. Write a message to yourself in lipstick on the bathroom mirror. Set a series of alarms on your phone. Get your parents or friends on board to remind you. Be as silly as you need to be—it’s for a good cause. (Just don’t let your plans dissuade you from getting a good night’s sleep the night before the test.)

But what if you do forget your paperwork? Hopefully, you’ve arrived at your testing site with time to spare—if so, you might be able to run back home or enlist a friend or family member to help. Most likely, though, you’re not going to be allowed to take the test at this administration. That’s upsetting, but it’s also manageable.

Ideally, you’ve planned out your testing schedule well in advance, so this isn’t the last chance you have to take the test. Sign up for the next test administration immediately. If you miss the deadline, but you’re short on time, you may be able to get on the waitlist for that administration and take the test if space allows.

If you’re worried about how this will affect your applications, speak directly to admissions officers at your chosen colleges. They may be able to offer you some flexibility on the timing of your test scores. In the worst case scenario, some of them may even allow you to send test scores after your application. You might be surprised at how accommodating they can be.



You Absolutely Bombed in an Important Class


Feared Outcome

Your GPA will take a major hit, knocking you out of the running for academic recognition. Colleges will see the bad grade on your transcript and immediately reject you.

Why It’s Not So Scary After All

First of all, when it comes to your GPA and class rank, one lower semester grade among the dozens on your transcript isn’t going to make a huge difference to your overall average. That’s just math. A small change in GPA might affect your class rank if it’s a tight race to the finish, but it’s not going to knock you down from the upper echelons to the bottom of the class.

One bad grade in one high-school class definitely doesn’t disqualify you from getting into college, even a prestigious college. Sure, it won’t help your application, but no one is perfect, and there are ways to make up for it. If you’re still in your early years of high school, so much the better—you’ll have more time to show improvement.

Besides, while academic prowess is very important, being at the top of your class doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be admitted to a prestigious school—those schools have so many highly qualified applicants that straight As won’t make you stand out. Most top colleges have “holistic” admissions philosophies that take into account tons of other factors besides your grades.

Of course, you should do your best to avoid getting bad grades—choose classes that are appropriately challenging, ask for help if you need it, and address developing problems early rather than ignoring them and hoping they go away. If you do end up with a grade you’re not satisfied with, however, it won’t destroy your entire academic career.



Someone Else’s Mistake Causes Your Application Materials to Be Late or Incomplete



Feared Outcome

Your incomplete or late application will be rejected, your college prospects will be ruined, and you’ll have to live with the frustrating knowledge that it’s all someone else’s fault.

Why It’s Not So Scary After All

You can’t control every aspect of the college application process, and clerical and personal mistakes on someone else’s part sometimes do happen. Whether it’s misdirected standardized test scores or a guidance counselor who forgets a question on an important form, a lot of colleges are prepared to cut you some slack for mistakes that are genuinely out of your hands.

These days, most colleges offer in their online application systems a way to track whether the various parts of your application have been received by the college. Keep an eye on this tracking system, and if you notice that a piece of your application that’s out of your control (like a recommendation letter) is missing past the due date, don’t be afraid to check in about it.

If you have to bug your recommenders to hurry up, be polite about it, of course, but do it. Even with people who are older and more respected than you, you’re allowed to exert some pressure—that person made a commitment to help you with an important task, after all.

You can enlist your guidance counselor for additional help in finding resources or putting pressure on the right people—that’s their job! Most importantly, let the college know exactly what’s going on and why. The admissions office can’t help you or make an exception for you if they have no idea that you have a problem.


Your Recommender Sends In a Negative Recommendation Letter  



Feared Outcome

Your college applications will crash and burn, and you’ll also discover that someone you thought you had a good relationship with actually hates you.


Why It’s Not So Scary After All

Negative recommendation letters (and similar assessments) are very uncommon, and in fact, are considered actively unethical in some cases. Most sources advise that if your recommenders don’t feel able to write a good recommendation for you, they should tell you so up front and give you the opportunity to find others. You can always ask potential recommenders about this directly—there’s no need to guess.

Your recommenders should know you well and have worked closely with you, so you should have no problem getting a sense of what they think of you. It’s highly unlikely that a recommender will turn out to have a totally different opinion of you than you expected, and even less likely that your teacher is running a long con by convincing you of their approval and then undermining your college ambitions. (Frankly, I don’t think most high school teachers have the time for that kind of scheming.)

If there’s a teacher who you think dislikes or distrusts you, don’t choose them to be your recommender, regardless of their status or what they teach. Just don’t do it! The best, most useful recommendations come not from the most prestigious recommenders you can find, but from those who really know you and can personally and honestly speak to your best qualities.

What if there really is a negative incident in your past that you’re afraid will come up in your recommendations? In that case, be prepared and be proactive, and never try to hide what happened. Use the space on your applications designated for disciplinary problems and special circumstances to tell your story—that will give you the chance to directly tell admissions offices how you’ve grown since then or why they should accept you regardless.



You Don’t Get Accepted to Any College on Your List



Feared Outcome

You won’t be able to attend college at all. Your life will completely change, and you won’t be able to achieve any of the goals you had previously set for yourself. You’ll be a terrible failure.

Why It’s Not So Scary After All

First of all, if it helps, it is a highly likely scenario that you will experience some rejection during the college application process. However, you almost certainly won’t have to navigate a full slate of rejections, especially if you’ve made sure to include an appropriate range of target and safety schools on your college list (as everyone should).

Even if it does happen, any reasonable observer will appreciate that it’s probably just a fluke incident rather than a realistic evaluation of your value or potential. Competitive colleges have to turn down many well-qualified applicants simply for space reasons, and a long string of rejections could very well just be a matter of bad luck.

On the off-chance you encounter this situation, what’s really important is what you do next. You will still have options, which we’ve reviewed at the CollegeVine blog in our post What If I Wasn’t Accepted To Any College?. In order for you to come up with a plan that will keep your goals (relatively) on track, you can’t let yourself get bogged down in despair, which will only hurt you.

Maybe you’ll attend a community college at first and save some money while preparing transfer applications. Maybe you’ll take a gap year and pursue your interests in a less traditional way, which can give you opportunities to really stand out when you reapply to colleges. What’s most important is that you do something worthwhile and continue to pursue your goals rather than just giving up.

Whatever path you take, you can make this work. You might have to adjust your plans somewhat to accommodate your new reality, but your goals are still in reach. Years from now, no one will even ask about the colleges that rejected you—what they’ll care about, in the end, is what you did do.


As you can see, even if bad things do happen to you during the college application process, it really isn’t the end of the world. Sure, it will likely be difficult and unpleasant, but it doesn’t mean that you’re cut off from having a happy college experience that prepares you to live an awesome life.


You can plan your college application process in ways that will minimize the chance of your worst nightmares coming true. Most importantly, if you keep a realistic perspective on what will actually happen if your worries become realities, it’ll help you to realize that no matter what happens, there’s still a way forward.

Monikah Schuschu

Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.