Last Updated: Oct 26, 2020
If I’m being honest, when my school counselor handed me a checklist of everything I needed to complete in order to apply to college, my eyes nearly popped out of my head. At that point, the summer before my senior year, my “dream school” list was 37 schools long in about 10 different states. I hadn’t the slightest idea where to start, even with a step-by-step checklist sitting in front of me. My future, the thing my counselor had just deemed extremely important, was an intangible question mark. But I managed, like so many other seniors, to complete the college application process (and get accepted to a couple schools along the way). I know you’ll get there too, no matter how stressed you are along the way. It’s a lot more fun to search for colleges and fill out applications when you’re feeling good and confident in yourself! Here are some tricks I learned during my college admission process that help make things a little less stressful.
Get organized before you do anything
You bet that the first thing I did when I got home from the meeting with my guidance counselor was tackle that list. I figured out when each part was due and wrote it in my planner so I wouldn’t forget. Thinking and planning ahead both eases your mind and prevents future stress. If you know exactly what steps you need to take and when before you do them, you won’t have to frantically rush to complete them down the line.
Related: College Search Spreadsheet Template
Don’t let the college search take over your life
While obviously finding the right college is extremely important, spending hours searching on the computer for the “perfect” school isn’t smart. There are thousands of colleges and universities out there, so letting the Internet pull you into the black hole of schools will just make you stressed out. Instead, spend one day making a list of schools you like, and other days looking into one or two schools at a time, crossing off the ones you don’t like. Spread out the work! This way also gives you more time to focus and process each school separately, not to mention decide if you can really picture yourself at that school.
Apply to at least one “safety” school
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a safety school is a college or university you are very confident you will be admitted to. It all depends on your academic profile. For some people, this might be their state public school, local private college, or a community college. Applying to a college where you have a really good shot at being accepted is always a smart move—just don’t treat the school like a “throwaway.” There are some serious advantages to thoughtfully choosing and applying to at least one safety school. One is simply the peace of mind it can bring, which can help reduce college search stress. Also, receiving that first college acceptance letter is an extreme confidence booster and can help you feel less stressed come decision day. You might even consider applying to a safety that has rolling admission so they’ll get back to you quickly, sometimes as early as two weeks after sending your application.
Talk to your school counselor/college advisor
If you need help, ask! It’s your school counselor/college advisor’s job to support you in your search for the right college. Even just talking out loud to someone else about what you’re thinking for decision can help you overcome stress and evaluate your choices more clearly. (Mentors and even trusted friends and family can be really helpful for this too.)
Make other plans
Understand that college isn’t the only option after high school graduation. You can travel, volunteer, or participate in a formal gap year program; join the military; get a job; or anything else that’s meaningful to you! It can be helpful to explore college alternatives, whether or not you’re accepted into school. Even if you’re set on going to college, having other plans to get excited about can make the admission process seem less daunting. A fun summer adventure, perhaps? Choose a country you’d want to travel to, or find a campaign to volunteer at. Set some goals and make some plans!
Remember you can always transfer
It’s normal to be nervous that you didn’t pick the right college for you. First off, no matter where you go, you will have fun. You will meet awesome people and learn awesome things. And you would never know what your experience would be like if you went to your alternate choice. But, even if your college experience isn’t super cool, you can always transfer to another school! It’s not like you’re chained to the campus. Transferring also isn’t as hard as it seems, and a lot of students do it.
There's no hiding it: college shopping is stressful. It’s a lot to think about for a teenager. But, it can—and should—be fun. After all, you’re deciding where you’re going to live for the next part of your life, and while that is scary, it’s also really exciting too. Good luck in your search! You're at the beginning of a beautiful ride.
For more college search advice (but a break from reading articles) check out the advice our student vloggers have on the CollegeXpress YouTube channel!