Navigating the Tide of Stress this Fall

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Each August, I get hit by a tsunami of anxiety and stress. Though it happens year after year, I’m still startled when I look up and see it above me, overshadowing the peaceful laziness of summer that came before.

Call it a professional hazard: Students and parents cannot help but look toward college with apprehension, and their apprehension arrives in force (in my office) in August. Whether stemming from the unbelievable cost of college, or the incredible odds against getting into a dream school, these fears are grounded in the realities of today’s college admission world.

College-bound students transitioning to adulthood face myriad challenges – living on their own, finding friends and partners, declaring a major, looking for a job. The percentage of students who enter college and do not persist to graduation because of depression, academic failure, substance abuse, or financial concerns is high. And more and more students who do complete a degree are graduating without jobs and heading home to live with parents.

I see on a daily basis the anxiety associated with these transitions. For many students, feelings of fear, anticipation, and self-doubt continuously circulate, even as they set high expectations for their final year of high school. Rising seniors want to enjoy time with friends and family, make good grades in challenging classes, apply to college, perhaps take the SAT, make it to state in their final year on the team….and the list goes on. These young adults have a lot to do as they approach what is arguably the biggest role transition a person experiences until becoming a parent.

Parents face different challenges, but intense ones nonetheless. In addition to hoping/wondering/praying that their children can actually survive in the real world, they are trying to figure out how they can afford to send the child they have nurtured, supported, and loved all these years to his or her dream school. In many cases, they can’t. Parents feel their children’s stress, self-doubt, and anxiety and help as best they can. But also, for one of the first times, they have to cede control of a process that has lifelong importance for their child. In my experience, parents across the spectrum fight valiantly to keep their own egos out of their child’s college process, but at times feel inferior to other, braggadocios parents. All the while, they are crying at senior slide shows, sponsoring that last prom party, and buying snacks for the final big game. Parents are showing up, but feeling themselves disappear into the background, knowing that leaving their child in a college dorm room will be an act of faith, hope, and love, and a heartbreaking one at that.

I choose to describe this tide of emotion as a tsunami, not a wave, because I believe it takes us all by surprise. Intellectually, folks recognize the stressors and transitions associated with being or having a 12th grader. Yet what I forget time and time again is that knowing it doesn’t protect you from living it. In my office, I see the college application process exacerbate family dynamics, financial stressors, and transition anxieties. For instance, the stress over whether to take the SAT a fourth time often has more to do with a father’s feelings of helplessness to give a child her dream than with the SAT. It takes compassion to acknowledge the look of fear in a student’s eyes when we open a Common Application account, and to take a deep breath with that student and acknowledge how scary it is to think about going to college and making a life in the adult world.

I have always believed that the process of applying to college is a catalyst for psychological issues such as family dysfunction, self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. The pressure and work associated with the process cracks facades and touches on hidden expectations and fears. Knowing this offers professionals who work in the field an incredible opportunity. I remember being astonished once to hear a colleague say that the moment a student starts to tear up in his office, he finds a way to leave the room. In my mind, the moment a student or parent becomes vulnerable enough to reveal fear, anxiety, or pain is the moment that person has become brave. That is the moment a person is looking for you to look back with confidence, acknowledge the truth that this is a scary moment, and help him or her step forward into the future.

This August, I remind myself and other college admission professionals that we are working with human beings. Not numbers, or resumes, not demographic groups or well put-together packages. We are working with people who have looked up and seen a scary wave about to crash down on their shores. The ways they are trying to get to safety may be annoying or add extra work to our lives, but by acknowledging the bigger issues at play, we’re better positioned to help both students and parents safely weather the transition.

NACAC Member Nicole Shaub Cook is founder of Educational Horizons (GA) and an adjunct faculty member with Mercer University (GA) and University of California-Riverside. She serves on the Southern Association for College Admission Counseling’s board of directors.

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