How to be Okay—Dealing with College Application Stress

Sometimes I write about things I am an expert on. I’ve written stories for the Franklin Post about the correlation between grades and sports, memes, political rhetoric, and the fact that all Nebraskans are shape-shifting lizard people (which my editor censored into a fake-news story about raising the minimum wage). Every month, I pitch a story to our newsroom that I have more knowledge on than most people. Then I research some facts and figures, learn a thing or two, and present the whole package to our faithful readers. This issue, I’m changing the game. This story, for the first time, I’ll be writing something so foreign to me, it’s like the idea of not wearing a bow-tie to Tucker Carlson. I’m going to explain how to avoid stress when applying to college. 

Of course, I had to get some help from two college app pros. Lucy Benoit (12) applied early action to every school on her list that offered it, meeting all the deadlines, like an absolute boss. “I knew I wanted to be finished with the college process as soon as I could,” she says, rubbing my face in the looming deadlines in front of me. I also got some tips from Lucinda Drake, a student at Brown-RISD—in case you’re keeping track, that’s an Ivy League school AND one of the most prestigious art programs in the country (or world). She applied to college two years ago and got into every school she wanted.

The process of college apps starts early, before your junior year. “I highly recommend keeping a note page either on your phone or on paper of things that you have done and are proud of: jobs, extracurriculars, volunteering, awards, projects etc,” says Lucinda. The earlier you can start on essays, resumes, and especially letters of recommendation, the better set you are for avoiding the mad-rush of a busy senior fall. You’re going to hear that you should ask at least three weeks or a month in advance, but the only way to guarantee they’ll be written is to ask months ahead of your deadlines. Teachers need time to write a letter for you, and they get a lot of requests. 

Be thoughtful when asking for a letter of recommendation. Normally, you would ask in person, and sending an email would be pretty rude. But this year, sending a thoughtfully worded email is definitely okay. Tell your recommender why you’re asking them; what makes them stand out in your head. How did their class change you or make you grow? Complimenting someone’s class doesn’t hurt when you’re asking for a favor.

Narrow your list early. If you’re researching info about fifteen schools when you’re only applying to seven, you’re doing twice as much work as you need to. Each school’s admission process is different, so the earlier you can start focusing on the intricacies of every school’s application, the better. “Trying to cement my list of schools before this school [year] would have been really helpful,” says Lucy, “but that’s definitely easier said than done.” If you can, this will make your life a lot easier.

But none of this helps me. See, I didn’t apply early, and I didn’t do all the looking ahead these two nerds did before they were seniors. I’m a good old fashioned procrastinator with twenty essays to write, three papers due tomorrow, and a different fire coming up every minute. How is “start your essays early” going to help me right now? 

Well first, calm down. Lucinda says, “ … universities will understand if grades have dipped or your essays are not as polished as they might be at another time.” So relax, maybe make a cup of tea, and then I’ll tell you a few things you can do to finish your apps while not having a nervous breakdown.

Make a schedule. When Lucy saw all the various due dates for all the various parts of her many applications, she froze up. “It seemed really overwhelming, but it ended up being super beneficial for planning out my workload.” So pull up Google Calendar, your phone, a spreadsheet, or even  just pen and paper, then figure out when each deadline is and mark it down. For my spreadsheet, the massive array of color-coded rectangles completely freaked me out, but it lets you know when you really need to worry about a deadline. 

If you haven’t done your essays, do them. Lucinda advocates for a stream-of-consciousness first draft, with one doc that has all your essays on it. Your essays don’t need to be good at first. She says “go back later and see what [was] ok and what was flaming garbage.” And think of it like the allegory of the pot … 

A pottery class gets split up into two groups. One of them is told that they have the whole year to make one, perfect pot, and they can only make one. They research pottery techniques, classical pots, watch videos about clay throwing, fill notebooks with sketches and plans of their one, single, perfect pot. The other group is told to make as many pots as they can. Big pots, small pots, every color and shape and function, they make it. At the end of the year, the people who made many, many pots make better pots! Making pots is the only way to get good at making pots, and writing lots of essays is the only way to end up with a good essay. Write five, write fifty. Pick out the best one, then refine it.

Get your friends to look over your essays. The more eyes there are on your essays, the better they’ll be—it’s not enough for them to be good to you, they have to make sense to other people. Lucinda had “essay edit parties,” which might be harder to pull off now, but will still work. Get some other applying friends on a Zoom call, share your screens and read your essay out loud. Or get your siblings to read it, or your uncle, or your neighbor. You don’t have to accept every suggestion, but make sure people see it. As Lucinda says, “ask everyone in the world to look over your work.”

Honestly, the most important thing is to lower your expectations of yourself. You aren’t perfect, the admissions office doesn’t expect you to be perfect, so don’t try to make your application perfect. Other people really are struggling, from me, a guy who is clearly not made for a process like this, to Lucy Benoit, a schedule-making, early-decision champion of dealing with school. “It’s been really hard,” she says, “to juggle the rigor of senior year classes––especially this year’s semester stacked with AP classes––with the stressful and daunting college process.” 

It’s a hard time, and struggling is ok. I can’t tell you to take a long break, or to start meditation and journaling, both because they won’t help you get applications done, and also because they’re not things I’ve taken to heart. But I’ll tell you what really makes me feel less stressed and worried about applying: other people are stressed too, they’re worried, they’re having a hard time. Lucy is, Lucinda was when she applied, so are all my friends who I’ve talked to about this. Let yourself be okay with the fact that this is a high mountain, and you’re allowed to be out of breath.

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