how to apply to college

How to make Picking a College Less Stressful for High School Juniors

As the calendar turned from 2013 to 2014, a new wave of juniors around the country began to feel the college application process accelerate. In addition to looming deadlines, many high school juniors are stressing about how to pick a college that suits their needs. This year, your junior will write all of his essays and all the drafts that go with it. He’ll sit for an SAT or two, or three. He will build his college list from scratch, narrow down his choices, add a handful of new schools at the last minute, eliminate some old favorites, and finally settle on his ideal list. You’ll find yourself on school campuses here and there, taking notes on tour guides, critiquing their grace as they introduce you to their school while gesturing wildly at campus monuments and walking backwards. In one year, the majority of the application process will be over, whether it’s handled flawlessly or imperfectly. But there are a few things you can do to help save some stress around your household.

Think broadly, and don’t narrow your options too quickly

There are over four thousand colleges and universities in the United States, and there are many schools that would be terrific educational experiences for your child. I like to encourage my students to stay away from the phrase “first choice” until they are well into the fall of the senior year. Students who become obsessively focused on a single institution tend to focus all of their college energies on that one school, which can limit their ability to discover other, equally compelling opportunities.

It’s also important not to rule out a certain kind of institution before you really investigate what it has to offer. Many students eliminate small schools out of hand because their image of college is big with a capital B, with football teams, hundreds of academic departments, and tens of thousands of students. Those opportunities will be there in November, and visiting a small local private school in the meantime can help students to see what life in a close, cohesive community might be like. It’s okay for students to cross schools off the list, but it’s important for them to know why they are crossing a school off the list.

Don’t treat college applications as a chore

It’s true that there’s a lot to do between now and the end of the year, but students respond much better to things they’re excited about than things that make them stressed or anxious. Instead of asking how college applications are going, ask questions that help inspire your students to think about the next four years. Talk to them about potential majors, or subjects that they find interesting in high school. Provide them with an interesting tidbit you heard from a family friend, or a clipping from an article you read in the paper. Students are much more likely to get excited about new ideas about college than to respond to due dates, especially early in the process. If you begin the conversation about college in a way that allows them to develop some excitement, you’ll find a much more manageable child when crunch time arrives in November and December.

Let your child drive the process

This piece of advice will work better for some students than for others—I know that there are students out there who have trouble getting motivated, even with looming deadlines. But the more you can figure out a way to help your son your daughter take ownership of the process, the happier you’ll all be in the end. If you play your cards right, you’ll also be able to use this whole experience as a learning opportunity for your child. Ask your son or daughter to call the admission office to set up the campus visit. When you’re on a tour, encourage them to be the one to ask the questions, and hang to the back so that they can connect with students and admissions officials. When it comes time to write essays, edit fairly but stay away from the heavy hand. You want your student’s voice to come out through this process, and the more ownership you give them from the start, the more independence they’ll feel throughout. In the end, an empowering college admissions experience can set the student up for success as they strike out on their own for the first time, as a new freshman.

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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College. Visit our website to learn more about Ian Fisher.