How to Work Through College Application Anxiety

By Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC | November 29, 2018

Do you have a child who excessively worries about the college application process, so much to the point where they lose sleep or experience headaches? Applying to college can be a stressful experience for teens, especially when they must balance homework and extracurricular activities with college applications and essays. Fortunately, you can guide your child through the process and turn it into a meaningful, positive experience.

In this post, we provide tips and insights to help you and your teen navigate the college application journey with the least stress possible. Applying for college is an exciting time in your teen’s life, and once they take some of the pressure off and shift their focus to their goals, they can enjoy the transition to a new stage.

Why College Creates Anxiety

There are many reasons college creates anxiety. First, your teen likely has plenty they need to do by certain deadlines, such as acquiring letters of recommendation and constructing creative essays — all while maintaining their responsibilities in high school.

Also, your child might have their heart set on a particular school. They might imagine how perfect life will be if they get accepted, and they likely spend a lot of time stressing out about the application details. They may not feel prepared to handle rejection.

Students in high-achieving schools, for example, often feel immense social and academic pressure to continue achieving and get accepted into a top-tier college. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), American teens from upper-middle-class families are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and substance abuse than other socioeconomic groups. To make the college application process more stressful, students face fierce competition when it comes to getting into a selective school. For example, students have less than a 10 percent chance of getting accepted into a school like Yale, Harvard or Princeton. This statistic makes it easy to imagine the pressure some students feel relating to college applications.

Some teens may feel overwhelmed by the need to pick a school by a deadline. After all, there are hundreds of schools and career options to choose from. Your child may not feel like they know which path to take or what colleges to apply to. According to a YouthTruth survey, only about 45 percent of high school students feel ready for college and careers. If your child does not feel prepared to make a big life decision, it is understandable they would feel intimidated or stressed.

Regardless of your child’s situation, the pressure to make the correct life-changing decision can feel intense. All of these factors could make anyone feel overwhelmed and stressed. We’ll show you what you can do as a parent or guardian to help relieve some of the pressure, set realistic goals, and healthily manage college application stress.

How to Help With College Application Stress

Ready to help your child survive college application stress? First, take a deep breath — you can help your child make it through this process in a healthy, positive way. Use the following tips to make the application process a lot less stressful, so you and your child can look forward to college and building a bright future.

1. Create Realistic Expectations

Your child might feel determined to get into a selective school and fear the disappointment of rejection. Help them accept the reality of low acceptance rates by anticipating rejection and coming up with a solid backup plan. Make sure your child knows the statistics, and that it is increasingly difficult to get into a top-tier school.

For example, only five percent of applicants get accepted into Harvard. That means the chances of getting into Harvard are incredibly slim, no matter how talented or qualified your child is. Though your child can still apply and put forth their best effort, they will experience less anxiety if they understand the reality of the situation and expect rejection rather than acceptance.

Reassure them that this does not mean they are less qualified than other applicants, but remind them they are competing against tens of thousands of students. Help them set realistic expectations in the following ways:

  • Encourage them to take an honest look at their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Help them focus on their career plans rather than the school.
  • Help them apply to a range of colleges that will suit their educational and career needs where acceptance rates are higher
  • Encourage them to be authentic and truthful throughout the goal-setting process.
  • Assure them that you will not feel disappointed if they do not get accepted into a particular school.

Remind your child that although a prestigious college has its benefits, prestige is not the most important factor in the college experience, nor a good reason to experience high levels of stress. Reassure your teen that every college offers opportunities and chances to thrive, and they can find a great match that will inspire them and help them grow, even if it is not their dream school.

2. Provide Support and a Listening Ear

Your child might feel alone with their anxiety, especially if they worry about making you proud. It is important to let your teen know that they have your full support, and you are available to listen when they need someone to talk to about the anxiety they feel. Remind them you want to help them manage their stress, so they feel less overwhelmed. Listen to their hopes, dreams and expectations, and guide them by painting a realistic picture while letting go of your own anxieties.

By encouraging them to talk to you when they feel overwhelmed, you help them relieve the burden of carrying stress alone. You also invite them to open up about their problems so you can help them find solutions or connect them to the right resources. With your help, your child can sort through their problems and find new ways to look at things.

3. Discourage Comparison to Others

Most people compare themselves to others from time to time, and teens may be especially vulnerable to comparing themselves to peers. Regarding the college application process, making comparisons usually feels discouraging, and it is rarely productive. Encourage your child not to compare themselves to others and instead focus on self-improvement. You might also help them by making the following points:

  • It’s an illusion: Remind your child that the appearance of perfection is an illusion and that they only see part of someone’s life — not the full picture. For example, when a classmate posts a picture of an acceptance letter on social media, they do not show the dozens of rejection letters they received or the struggles they endured to get where they are. Instead of focusing on a friend’s achievements, help your child set realistic goals and take steps towards the future they want to build.
  • It’s the way life is: As an adult, you understand that life is not fair. You may need to remind your child of this fundamental truth. For instance, if your child compares themselves to a wealthier classmate, they are only wasting their time and energy. It’s better to accept reality and focus on their unique gifts, talents and strengths, and the opportunities available to them.
  • Overanalyzing will not change anything: If your teen wonders why their friend got accepted into a school, and they did not, they may spend a lot of time overanalyzing the situation and trying to figure out why they were not selected. Remind your child that many different factors go into a college’s decision to accept an applicant or not. There is no way to know the details that made a college choose someone else, and sometimes it is just a matter of luck. Help them focus on making the best of their circumstances and finding a good fit for their goals.

4. Other Ways to Help a Teen

Here are a few more ways you can help your teen make it through college application stress:

  • Make sure your child eats well and gets adequate sleep.
  • Help them find extracurricular activities that are meaningful to them, and emphasize quality over quantity.
  • Remind your teen of the big picture when they feel overwhelmed.
  • Focus on finding the right college, not necessarily the best college.
  • Listen to their needs, dreams and concerns.
  • Encourage authenticity rather than focusing on status.
  • Remind your teen that there are hundreds of great schools out there, even if they are not on a “best schools” list.
  • Remove some of the pressure, and do not spend every moment talking about college.
  • Enjoy quality time with your teen that gives them a break from college concerns.
  • Take a moment to reevaluate your expectations if you find yourself worrying too much about your child’s college or achievements.
  • Discourage your child from taking on too many challenging courses or extracurricular activities just to impress an admissions officer.
  • Help your teen figure out their priorities and what’s most important to them to help them feel less overwhelmed by options.
  • Reassure them you are there for them no matter what.
  • Maintain a positive attitude and make the experience meaningful for both of you.
  • Emphasize that success is measured by good health, character and learning new things rather than acceptance into a college.

Should Anxiety or Depression Be Included on a College Application?

Experiencing anxiety or depression is not uncommon for adults or teens. According to The American Freshman 2016 report, about one in eight full-time college freshmen reported feeling frequently depressed in the past year, and about 35 percent often felt anxious.

If your teen has experienced depression or anxiety throughout high school, it may have impacted their academic performance, participation in extracurricular activities or attendance. They may be concerned that this will affect their chances of getting accepted into a particular school.

If their academic performance did not suffer due to a mental health condition, then there is no reason to include information about a mental health issue on a college application. However, if depression of anxiety affected their school performance, they can explain any inconsistencies on their college application by highlighting their strengths and focusing on the positive. Share these tips to help them shape an impressive application essay:

  • Focus on turning a weakness into a strength: Mental health conditions might actually have some benefits. For example, psychologists have found that depression leads to more analytical thinking and the ability to break complex problems down into smaller pieces. Depression may also improve the ability to focus. Remind your teen that many great minds throughout history struggled with depression, and they too can find ways a mental health issue has made them more insightful, understanding or wise.
  • Talk about overcoming challenges: If your child had a bout of depression during their junior year and did not do well academically, for example, but received treatment and achieved excellent grades as a senior, they should provide this example in their application. This will demonstrate their ability to overcome challenges, and it shows maturity and resilience — valuable traits to an admissions officer.
  • Say it was a medical condition: If your teen feels uncomfortable describing details about anxiety or depression, they might say they had a medical condition, rather than a mental health problem, that temporarily impacted their academic performance or involvement in an extracurricular activity. Just as any health condition can affect the ability to do something, a mental health problem is no different.

Before your child considers a college, make sure the school welcomes students who have mental health issues and provides a supportive environment by offering counseling services and a culture of understanding. Explore the college’s counseling office online to see what services are available for students. Fortunately, many colleges are expanding their mental health services to meet the needs of many students.

Contact Hillside® Today

As a parent, you may be thinking of hundreds of ways to help your teen manage college application anxiety. The best thing you can do is let them know you understand what they are going through, and you support them. The transition from high school to college involves significant decisions that will affect your teen’s future. Remind them that there is nothing to fear, and college can be a nurturing experience that fosters self-exploration and self-understanding. Even if they do not get accepted into their top college, they will still have tons of opportunities to learn, grow and build a future at another school.

Despite your support and understanding, sometimes handling your teen’s depression or anxiety calls for outside assistance. At Hillside®, we understand the college application process can be overwhelming for both teens and parents, and we are prepared to help your family through this transition with hope and positivity. We are one of the top treatment centers for depression and anxiety in the Atlanta region, and we offer services especially for adolescents and young adults. If you have any questions about college application anxiety or depression, we encourage you to reach out to us today.


  • Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC

    Director of Clinical Education & Outreach - Gaan has been working with children, adolescents, and families for over 10 years in various settings. In her current role, she provides education and training for mental health professionals, parents, and the community. She lives in Atlanta with her husband. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, climbing, and cooking. She is a donut aficionado and a national park enthusiast!

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May 10, 2024
Written By: Angie Hoke
Edited By: Angie Hoke
November 29, 2018
Medically Reviewed By: Angie Hoke
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