Many of the students and families I work with experience understandable anxiety about applying to college. This anxiety begins with the many important decisions that should be made during high school: choosing which colleges to apply to, completing the application process, and making a final decision about which school to attend.

Additionally, the process includes taking into account how college costs, availability of majors, and prestige of a college or university will impact the future of the student’s success after college.

During my many decades involved with college admission counseling, I have noticed that anxiety around applying to college has increased due to outrageous admission scandals in the news, growing selectivity of well-known colleges, rising college costs, and uncertain economic futures. Recently, I have been thinking more and more about how I can help students and families address this rise in anxiety around a process that should be an inspiring rite of passage. Not one that overwhelms them with frustration.

Over the last several months—while participating in conference presentations with leaders in college admission, fielding phone calls from reporters regarding the recent admission scandal, and preparing to teach a new course for admission professionals on the Ethics of College Counseling—I have heard many different perspectives on what’s working and not working with college admission today.

The Question Students/Families Must Ask Themselves

These recent experiences have led me to try to distill my observations into concise advice for all students and families. Therefore, my First Rule of Applying to College is to answer this question:

“How much sleep am I (or is my student) getting?”

Before piling on one more AP class, signing up to take the SAT a third time, or repeatedly staying up late to finish homework, students (and families) must take stock of their mental and physical well-being. Before setting their sights on highly selective universities, students (and families) must ensure that there is a balance between challenging academics that result in real learning during high school with time for extracurriculars, work, socializing with friends, and sharing time with family, as well as good old-fashioned downtime.

The arms race to getting into a “better” college or university cannot take precedence over health—mental or physical.

Unfortunately, for many, it does. This does not have to be the case. There is no objective evidence that getting into a prestigious college is worth stressing out, losing sleep, or sacrificing the well-being of a smart, capable young adult.

The Questions Student/Families Might Ask Me in Return

In response to my First Rule of Applying to College, some might ask:

“But should students not challenge themselves?”

Yes, they should. Learning, growth, and progress rarely happen in the absence of conflict or challenge. But those that study learning, human development, and psychology agree that people (especially young adults) require a balance between the stress that comes with stepping out of one’s comfort zone and creating space for reflection to integrate what was learned.

“Is it not important to set lofty goals and reach for admission to a college that might be a stretch?”

Goals, even seemingly unattainable ones, are important to have throughout life. However, no one should blindly pursue every goal that is available to them. Whether or not to pursue a particular goal must always be measured against the value of having reached that particular peak.

The pursuit of any goal, large or small, has a cost. Pursuing lofty goals in college admission, such as highly selective colleges or universities, costs time, mental well-being, and money.

Increasingly, students are pursuing the goal of admission to more selective colleges. They do this at the cost of anxiety, lack of sleep, and in more and more cases, serious emotional or spiritual problems. Sadly, the instances of teen suicide, especially around pressure to excel in high school and achieve admission to highly selective schools, has reared its head in our nation more frequently over the last several years.

I can think of no pursuit related to college admission that is worth the disruption of a healthy life.

“Will chances for getting a good job not decrease if students do not push themselves to their limits and reach for the stars?”

No. There’s no evidence that overdoing the pursuit of admission to prestigious colleges and universities is going to result in a better career, a better job, or more success and happiness later in life.

In my next post, I’ll discuss my Second Rule of Applying to College.

In the meantime, if you would like more information about how to successfully navigate the college admission process, please contact me. I am an accomplished Independent Educational Consultant. I have many years of experience in the field of college admission. It would be my pleasure to help you take this important step with confidence.