By Sean Nyhan

When we asked Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at the Derryfield School (NH), what students are most worried about, his response was: “What aren’t students worried about?”

It’s true the college admission process warrants a certain amount of anxiety. As they continue with their regular coursework, students schedule visits to colleges, take standardized tests, monitor application deadlines, write essays, etc. But college counselors also worry about other factors outside of the traditional steps to college admission—some they have no control over—that adversely affect the student psyche.

One of the most common pitfalls, counselors say, is the search for the “best” college instead of the best-fit. College rankings, media coverage, and social media all play roles in shaping student perception, but students can easily drown in college admission anxiety once they let others identify their choices. “I have some students who won’t even look at smaller, regional colleges near us because those schools don’t have a reputation that the student, or parent, is aware of,” says Michael Dunn, director of college counseling at the Aim Academy (PA).

Of course, these influencers have always existed, but there are other societal trends that make today’s current climate unique. Students, counselors say, are far more focused on results. In other words, they want to know that the college they attend will guarantee them a job after they graduate. Perhaps this is due in part to the financial crisis of the last decade, or maybe the rising cost of tuition has students worried about future debt. Either way, the traditional view of higher education is changing. “We try to emphasize the liberal arts, as we see them providing the most solid foundation for the ambiguous future job market, but our students are more interested in pre-professional programs,” Dunn says. “These feel more tangible and directly leading to specific jobs.”

While it is important to consider financial obligations and future job prospects into the college search, it can lead students to erroneously believe only a select few schools will provide those opportunities. Dunn says his students often think only “good” colleges result in “good” jobs. But they fail to realize that their definition of good may be flawed. To correct their misconceptions, it’s helpful to flip that model. Instead of starting with the perceived results, counselors recommend walking back the process to the beginning. In other words, figure out how you got to your list of colleges in the first place.

Taking a break in the middle of a busy admission season is easier said than done, but according to counselors like Dunn, it is crucial. He recommends several strategies for reducing anxiety and approaching the process with a clear mind:

  1. Previewing – Because it becomes more difficult to address stress when we’re in full-blown panic mode, college counselors recommend using a tool called “previewing.” This just means setting up a stress-relief plan ahead of time, so that it becomes easier to implement during a crisis.
  2. Get Outside –Successful stress relief methods vary from person to person, but there are some common methods that typically work for anyone. Going outside, whether to exercise or just sit and enjoy a local park, is one healthy remedy. “Our students, like many, are inside cats,” Dunn says. “They are connected to devices all day long, and don’t tend to venture outside for much unless forced to do so.”
  3. Get Your Work Done Early –Finishing essays and applications well before the deadline is critical, especially before senior year kicks off in earnest. Some high schools offer summer programs to help students get started early.
  4. Talking to Your Counselor –Counselors are often an under-utilized resource, and students should seek them out whenever necessary. However, it’s especially important to check in at the various application process benchmarks (test results, application deadlines, decisions). “I’ve found that students can feel like they’re going through the college process alone, so having their counselor there to talk to them is critical,” Dunn says.