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Coping with College App Anxiety

College or Bust: Bypassing College App Woes

The academic year ended earlier this month in Broward County, likely with the same fanfare in every school: an explosion of loose-leaf notebook paper to celebrate the final bell. Sweet freedom! Unless you just completed your junior year of high school and are a college-bound senior, in which case Do Not Pass Go and head straight for several months of imprisonment in College App Jail.

Weston schools boast among the highest percentage of college-bound students in the country. Cypress Bay High School, the city's public high school, was listed in Newsweek magazine’s 2013 report, “America’s Best High Schools,” which showed that 92% of CBHS graduating seniors were accepted to college. Sagemont Upper School, a Weston private school, reports a 100% rate of college enrollment, according to its website. Those are impressive numbers on their own. Even more so when compared with the national average college acceptance rate of 70 percent. So while other Weston kids enjoy the summer sunshine overhead, our town's 16- and 17- year olds have the dark cloud of college application deadlines casting a shadow over summer plans.

Add to that the reality that the number of students applying to colleges has swelled at an astronomical rate in recent years, and you have the Perfect Storm of anxiety for kids preparing to fly the nest. Fly the friendly skies indeed. The numbers bear this out. Data compiled by The National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NCAC) shows the number of students applying to seven or more schools ballooned from a 9 percent increase in 1992 to 28 percent last year. More applicants = more competition. Uh-oh.

While it's true that college apps generally aren't due for submission until the end of the first semester of the academic year, students who choose to begin the process during the summer months are less likely to fall victim to the menace of anxiety. It's this group that anticipates the grind of senior year, which realistically requires a full course load of challenging Advanced Placement classes to boost the all-important high school resume. Who needs the added stress of completing college applications on top of hours burning the midnight oil for that "A" in APUSH? (That's Advanced Placement US History, for the uninitiated.)

Planning ahead is the ultimate end-run. Otherwise these hopeful applicants can sabotage grade point averages. For the college-bound, even a fraction of a percentage point can mean the difference between a Yea and a Nay. In any case, strategies for avoiding anxiety range from the practical to the psychological.

First, the practical. One of my clients shared that her daughter was overwhelmed last year, despite having made the wise decision to start her apps over the summer before senior year. Feeling the pressure of matching the success of an older sister, this girl had begun to suffer panic attacks, freezing on exams and then fleeing in tears to the restroom. Though the client’s daughter knew the material inside out to the extent that she tutored classmates, when test time came her own scores were abysmal.

How to help? The mom and dad worked together, learning to “chunk down” the process for their daughter by breaking it into small, manageable tasks. Research universities? Check. Make selections? Check. Complete short-answer sections on the apps? Check. Write essays? Check. And so on. Suggest that your teen get an old-fashioned paper monthly calendar and tack it to the bedroom wall. Each time your young applicant grabs that black Sharpie and crosses off a task, he will boost his confidence.

Number one on the check-list above was researching the universities and the criteria for admittance. Much of this information is readily available on the Internet. Friends who are a year ahead and already have successfully navigated the process also are a great source of helpful tips and pitfalls to avoid. Parents can reach out to their own friends whose kids who already are in college. The ultimate goal of the research is to identify universities that are a good “fit” for your teen. As an added bonus, your hopeful applicant can pare down the sheer volume of time and effort involved by narrowing his choices to the realistic ones.

Another elements to consider include whether your teen has the necessary GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and accomplishments regarding extra-curricular activities. The last thing any parent wants to do is set up a child to fail by applying to a university that is beyond their scope. If you think anticipatory anxiety is bad, shoulda- coulda- woulda- regrets are far more prickly. At the same time, many of the kids like to go for a single “Reach School” that isn’t likely to accept the application, or is too expensive for the family budget. He gets bragging rights if he “gets in” to this Dream School, even if he has no intention of going there. If the school rejects his application, he’s already told his friends that this was his Reach School, and the unspoken rule among teens in this scenario is it’s a No Shame Zone.

Fun & games aside, it’s wise to coach your teen to ponder what she’s looking for in The College Experience. Traditional campus life with football games and Greek Life (fraternities and sororities)? A university smack dab in the middle of a bustling metropolis? An Ivy? Or maybe a non-traditional school offering a specialized curriculum in a particular area of interest like art or graphic design?

Also important: how many of these post-secondary institutions used the "common app," so she can kill an entire flock of birds with one stone. (Most kids apply to more than two birds. Um, schools.) Some universities require a one-off app, while others have supplements involving additional essays and such. Naturally, this ramps up your teen’s workload, not to mention the blood pressure. Let's not forget to consider which colleges are affordable as well. Looking forward to a mountain of debt from college loans tends to push the stress-o-meter to the red zone.

Now for the psychological aspect. Parents: Put the helicopter in the hangar and communicate to your teen the message that you have confidence in his ability to complete the task. At the same time, keep the lines of communication open. Ask her how often she would like you to check-in on her progress. Also, inquire just how much of your assistance is preferable, and in what areas. Of course these points are negotiable, and healthy parenting requires that the negotiations are in the form of a dialogue, as opposed to a dictatorial mandate.

That said, it's okay -- advisable in fact -- to voice your concerns. Notice your aspiring collegian's good judgment (when it is present), and remember to communicate to him what you noticed. By all means let her write her own essays! And when (or if) you check them over, approach your criticism from a positive angle. What might that sound like? "I'm wondering if considering XYZ topic might give you the opportunity to showcase your strengths." This kind of phrasing, in the form of a question, empowers your teen. Whereas straight criticism -- "This essay isn't going to cut it. You should write about ABC instead." Not so much. Remember, colleges admissions officials want a snapshot of your child, not a portrait of you.

Finally, be mindful that rejection is a very real possibility. Teens tend to “globalize” things, meaning any setback equals the End of The World as He Knows It. If that happens, whatever you do, don’t try to talk your teen out of the feelings. Listen. Comfort. Sometimes all that takes is sitting on the edge of the bed while he sobs into (or punches) his pillow. Later when the time is right, offer a compassionate Reality Check. That might come in the form of sharing some of your own crash-and-burn moments, then pointing out how you survived and thrived. Next step: Reframe. Remind your teen that, Hey, the First Choice is no longer an option, But (with a capital “B”) you now have lots of other exciting choices to make. Let’s turn our attention in that direction.

Most importantly, celebrate your teen’s accomplishment. And yours. You just turned a potential disaster into a teachable moment that will serve your teen for years to come.

Think your teen may be struggling with anxiety about college apps -- or anything else? Let's talk. Call 954.494.3848 e-mail vzaffos@aol.com

Valerie Zaffos is a licensed mental health counselor at Self Empowerment Counseling in Weston Town Center, Weston, FL, working with teens, adults offering individual, couples and family therapy. She also is a certified hypnotherapist.

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