How To Manage College Application Stress, According to Therapists
Therapists share why applying to college is so stressful and how best to manage your mental health and college application stress while applying to college.
By: Sarah Fielding
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
September 14, 2023
Table of Contents
It’s that time of year again when students are narrowing down college lists and writing first drafts of college essays. College application season is here, and with it comes tremendous stress and uncertainty. It can feel as if your entire life has been leading up to this moment, all the hard work and determination bringing you toward being a college student.
While college admissions are undoubtedly important, the all-consuming stress accompanying them can seriously affect your mental health if not dealt with properly. “The process can be a source of extreme anxiety and take an emotional toll, as students feel pressure to excel academically, achieve impressive standardized test scores, and fear rejection from a dream school,” says Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and founder of Take Root Therapy.
Although the college application process can feel high stakes, it shouldn’t be the time when you develop high blood pressure and see your stress level skyrocket. Ideally, it should be an exciting chance to explore what you want from the next chapter of your life. With that in mind, we spoke with mental health professionals about how to cope with college application stress and what factors make the process so stressful for many.
How to manage the college application process
With the right mindset, systems, and support, you can limit the stressors associated with the college application process. Here are some therapist-approved tips for managing your mental health during the college application process.
Break down college application tasks
Make a checklist
Write down application deadlines
Set aside specific times to work on college applications
Apply to a range of colleges
Be kind to yourself
Seek out mental health support
Break down big tasks
It can be overwhelming when you’re staring at one big project—like a college’s entire application form—trying to decide where to start. Instead, break down the college application process into smaller, manageable tasks, like picking an essay topic or making a list of people to ask for recommendations.
Make a checklist
Lurie says that once you have all your big tasks broken down into smaller, more doable ones, it can help to write them down. Seeing the college application tasks all listed out leaves your brain free to think of how to do them versus keeping track of them. It also gives you the satisfaction of checking each off when you finish it.
Write down deadlines
Mark exactly when each application is due on your checklist or on a calendar that you’ll regularly look at. It’s all about knowing the application deadline and sticking to it. Just make sure you triple-check the deadlines before writing anything down to avoid missing one.
Set aside specific time to work
Start early and pick specific times of the day or week to work on your college application. It’s unsustainable to always work on your college applications, and this scheduling system can reduce guilt when doing other things like relaxing or spending time with friends and family.
Make realistic goals
Yes, you might get into every school your heart desires, but you might not (and that’s alright). Reduce your stress by applying “to a good mix of upper, middle, and safety-tier colleges to avoid disappointment and to ensure a spot,” says Dr. Rashmi Parmar, a psychiatrist at Mindpath Health. “Remember that some applications may be rejected, and accept it as a part of the process. It is not going to define your potential and worth.”
Be kind to yourself
Applying to college is a stressful process, and whatever your goals are, it’s important to give yourself credit for how hard you’ve worked, Parmar adds. Integrate habits into your life that reflect care and love for yourself. “Practicing self-care techniques like moving their bodies, meditation, hobbies, and spending time with loved ones are all activities that can help students recharge and briefly take their minds off the application process,” Lurie recommends. “It’s beneficial to give yourself positive affirmations and focus on your efforts and worthwhile qualities instead of on outcomes you can’t dictate.” This also means distracting yourself while you wait for application responses and, most importantly, not conflating your self-worth with your college application results.
Seek out support systems
Whether it be your parents, teachers, school counselors, peers, or online communities, there are many avenues of support to pursue while going through the college application process. Seeking out therapy can also be a good idea if you’re struggling to manage the college application stress independently—something that is normal for many people.
Join the Charlie Health Library
Get mental health updates, research, insights, and resources directly to your inbox.
You can unsubscribe anytime.
What causes college application stress?
There are a range of factors that could be causing you stress as you embark on applying for college. “The college application process involves significant life decisions, complex logistics, and high stakes for the future,” says Lurie. Here are some of the main sources of college application stress to be aware of.
College application stress can begin even before you sit down to complete your first application. There’s stress to have a perfect academic record, hit the best scores on standardized tests, and do lots of extracurriculars, says Parmar. Sometimes, it can feel like you’re competing with high school peers and students worldwide. The limited spots available for each school (and for financial aid) don’t help matters.
Lack of control
There is never a guarantee of how your application will be received, and that uncertainty can be overwhelming. At the end of the day, all you can do is try your best and prepare for all outcomes.
Sometimes, family can act as a support — other times, they can add to your stress. “Some students may additionally encounter pre-set cultural and family expectations of adopting a particular career path by getting accepted to a specific college, complicating the picture,” says Parmar. Additional stresses might come from being the first in your family to attend college or applying to schools far from your hometown.
According to U.S. News & World Reports, in the 2022 to 2023 school year, the average public college cost students $10,423, and the average private college cost students $39,723. These numbers are for tuition alone—room and board add to the price. Finding and receiving opportunities to lower the cost of college is another stress in and of itself for many students, adds Parmar. Lurie adds that navigating the scholarship and loan systems can be very challenging, especially when students don’t have a knowledgeable person to walk them through it.
Sometimes, a student or their parents might not speak fluent English, which can add to the stress of applying and going to colleges in English-speaking countries, like the United States. “Students with language or cultural barriers may feel stressed about their ability to keep up with language proficiency in academic courses and communicate effectively with staff and peers,” says Parmar. “International students may have additional worries on their plate like visa applications, arranging for accommodations, and adjusting to a new environment.”
Physical and mental health concerns
Living with physical and mental health conditions that require accommodation can also add to the college admissions stress. “Unfortunately, many schools are not ADA-compliant, so students with disabilities can experience a great deal of anxiety around picking a school they will be able to navigate easily,” says Lurie. “Those with mental health conditions may have become adept at managing them at home, where things are familiar, but entering a new setting and going through a significant transition can exacerbate symptoms and cause stress, too.” Then there’s the additional stress of needing to disclose these conditions to colleges in the first place and apply for appropriate accommodations, adds Parmar.
Managing college application stress with Charlie Health
If you’re struggling to manage college application stress, you’re not alone—Charlie Health is here to help. Our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) combines group sessions, individual therapy, and family therapy to provide holistic support for young people who need more than once-weekly therapy to manage their mental health—including those for whom the college application process raises underlying mental health concerns. At Charlie Health, therapists are equipped with the experience and training to support young people through challenging moments, including college applications. Fill out this short form to learn more about Charlie Health.