The Anxiety-Free Guide to College Applications

It’s that time of year – yes, it’s back-to-school season – but for high school seniors it means that it’s time to buckle down and fill out college applications. As anyone who has had a student go through this process can attest, just the mere mention of the college application process can bring out high levels of anxiety in students.

“The college application process can be daunting, because going to college is the largest investment any of us is going to make outside of purchasing a home,” says Pat Walsh, associate director of admissions at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. “There is so much pressure placed on the student at this time. They are asked ‘Where are you going?’ ‘What are you going to pursue?’ ‘What are you doing with your life?’”

There are deadlines to meet and so much to do. Most college applications require academic records, including high school transcripts, SAT or ACT test scores and a personal academic statement. “This is where much of the anxiety about the college application process is,” says Walsh. “The student is trying to figure out what to say in the essay and what the college or university is looking for. It might be an open-ended question, such as ‘tell us about yourself,’ and they have to figure out how they are going to put their best foot forward.”

The good news is that filling out college applications doesn’t have to come with a side of angst. Here are some tips to quell some of the nervousness that students feel at this time of year:

Start early: Anxiety often starts over meeting deadlines, so students should start the process early. “It’s important for students to start the process when the applications open at the beginning of senior year,” says Walsh. “A lot of anxiety can come when they feel like they are behind other students who are receiving admission decisions and scholarship offers, selecting housing and making a final decision.”

Find a support system: Need help filling out forms, or advice on whether your essay is any good? “Find someone at your high school – a college counselor, a mentor or an English teacher – who can walk you through the process, and give you feedback on your essay,” says Walsh.

Depending on the college or university to which the student is applying, the essay or academic statement might prove to be one of the most important factors. “We determine a student’s writing ability and their interest in getting into Illinois State University, and we learn more about them—things we wouldn’t have gotten from the transcripts,” says Walsh. “For example, maybe their parents have been divorced, they were injured playing sports or they have someone in the family going through cancer treatment. The essay tells us more about the student and can help explain aberrations in their academic performance.”

Ask questions: Walsh also suggests getting to know the admissions counselor at the school to which you are applying. “We’re not going to tell you what you should write in the essay, but we can talk about the application process and answer any questions you may have,” he says. 

Most importantly, he urges students to stop focusing on others’ ideas of the best schools. “Focus on finding the best school for you,” he says. “Where would you be most successful? Where would you most enjoy your college experience? When you’re excited about the school you’re applying to, it makes the application process that much easier.”