If You’re Feeling Stressed Out about College Admissions, This Post is for You. My Thoughts about Mindfulness, Mental Health, and College Admissions for Mental Health Month
I’m gonna be super real with you — applying to college is fricking stressful — and often overwhelming. And it’s totally ok and normal to be stressed out. Still, no doubt, there are going to be times when you’re going to absolutely need to be able to handle the stress of it all. So in honor of Mental Health Month, as we finish off May, I’m gonna try to get all the mental health tips that I like to share throughout the year all bundled up in one post — this one.
Warning — it’s long, but it’s all really important. (Graduating seniors, y’all might wanna hold on to this post too. Some of these tips might come in handy during the college transition.)
So, yeah — there are times when the college admissions experience absolutely sucks. But there’s also something really amazing about the admissions journey. And here’s why: Some stress is good for you. You aren’t going to live long, full, absolutely stress-free lives and the sooner you learn to handle it, the better. I’ve heard this called stress inoculation before.
I call it wind.
Baby Tree Metaphor
Now, I really hope there aren’t any botanists out there to call me out on the details of this story because anyone who knows me can tell you I’m no scientist, but I am a former English major and English teacher, so I love a good metaphor, and when I first heard this story, it struck me, and it stuck with me.
Back in the 90s, there was this big ole Biosphere in Arizona where they were trying to create a completely self-contained ecosystem and grow trees, so that, you know, if we get booted off Earth someday, we can take our plant life with us.
They made the conditions absolutely perfect for raising these baby trees. Perfect soil. Ideal temperature. Perfect amount of sunlight and water. And the trees grew and they grew fast and tall and seemed healthy and then — — they started to fall over. And do you know why? The scientists had forgotten to provide the wind in creating the perfect environment for raising their beautiful baby trees. And because there was nothing pushing on these baby trees, nothing trying to knock them over, the saplings never experienced any stress. And without the stress from the wind trying to knock them over, the trees weren’t creating “stress bark,” a bark that makes them stand strong, and they weren’t able to bear their own weight — even in this beautiful, protected, forgiving environment.
So, take heart in the idea that it’s ok and healthy and good and necessary for you to experience a little wind, a little stress. The college admissions journey can be stressful — or windy as I like to now call it — I’m not gonna lie, but that can be a healthy experience. For many of you, it’s the first time you’ve come across this level of stress and when you make your way through the admissions journey and you’re standing tall at the end — even when admissions results do not go your way — you’ll be incredibly proud of yourselves — and stronger.
Seniors come back and tell us this every year here on A2C. After they’ve cried, pounded their pillows, licked their wounds, and eaten ice cream — and I mean there’s a lot of ice cream eating going on during college-admission-decision time — a few months later, they come back and talk about how even though it was the most stressful experience of their short lives, they are proud of how much they learned about themselves and how much stronger they feel now. This is the good kind of stress — where you grow and learn.
Now, in case you think I’m trying to turn the admissions experience into some happy-ending forest-like fairytale — I’m not. In fact, I think there’s a lot wrong with it. I believe the non-stop college talk in schools and homes is downright dangerous for some kids — and the constant college admissions chatter causes unnecessary stress in many others.
NO-COLLEGE-TALK ZONE: I know sometimes you teens worry and feel it’s the only thing parents care about — sometimes even thinking they care more about where you go to college than about you. One way to mitigate some of this stress is by creating a No-College-Talk Zone or Time in your home.
At my house, it was my kitchen table. That way, my kids knew they weren’t going to be interrogated while having breakfast or dinner or eating an after-school snack by their somewhat college-admissions-obsessed (but in a totally good way) mom. It helped to keep some balance in our lives. For others, it’s the car. Or some people designate a college talk time — Sunday afternoons or Wednesday nights, and all other times are off-limits. However and whenever and wherever you decide to frame it, you need to know that your parents value more about you than the name on the bumper sticker on the back of the car.
Reframing How We Think About College Admissions
And outside our homes — in school, at family gatherings, in the community, in the media, in admissions guides, in college lore and mythology, the words just keep coming, and to me, many of these words cause even more unnecessary stress. Let me just tell you about five of the words and phrases I’d like to see eliminated from college admissions.
- Focus on Sticking With and Not Standing Out: Instead of telling kids they need to Stand Out in the college admissions process and in their essays, we need to encourage them to Stick With. I tell students, “you want the reviewer to fight for your application while in committee, and they’ll want to fight for you and your application if you’ve stuck with them, and you stick with them if they feel connected with you. I remind the kids that they build that connection by allowing themselves to open up and be vulnerable, by channeling their inner Shrek and peeling back the onion layers, and allowing the reviewer into their lives.
- Forget about Dream Schools: Instead of spending so much time focusing on one school — a “dream school,” I encourage you to find your “Dream You” — not your Dream U. Look, I know you’ve been taught to “dream big” and “follow your dreams,” but it’s not about finding the school of your dreams; it’s about finding the you of your dreams. In my book, find the best version of you. When you’re drooling over that perfect school with a perfect campus and perfect classes, you’re not dreaming about any one school. You’re dreaming about who you want to be and where you can become who you want to be, and there isn’t only one Dream School where you can do that.” So, I invite you to think deeply — and figure out what it is about that certain school that makes you consider it your dream school — because, I guarantee that your dream isn’t out there in the form of a college; it is in YOU.
- Forget About Being Unique. Be YOU: Instead of telling students to “Be Unique,” I tell them Be You. You are unique. Everyone is. There is no one else who thinks exactly like you. So, when you use your application to allow the reader in your head and share your thoughts about life and the world around you, you are being unique.”
- Lose the Word “Passion”: Instead of telling y’all to follow your passion, I think we should be encouraging exploration. I think telling 14 and 15-year-olds, and even 17 and 18-year-olds to “follow their passions” adds unintentional pressure. What if they’re not feeling any passions yet? What if they’re doing stuff that simply interests them? Or what if they don’t even know what interests them yet? That’s why I encourage you to explore and try new stuff. It’s ok to learn what you like and don’t like. There’s no shame in starting something and then dropping it when they find something else more interesting or exciting. Of course, a few kids have passions they’re devoted to, and that’s absolutely ok because, in the end, it’s all really just about being authentic.
- Be Star-Shaped: Instead of advising students to have a “spike” or “be well-rounded” in their extracurriculars, my philosophy for helping kids with their activities is all about being star-shaped. I don’t recommend having one big spike, meaning a single extracurricular you devote all their time to — though I recognize that can be trendy advice these days, nor do I recommend you try to pursue every single extra-curricular because they feel the need to check off a laundry list of activities for the “resume booster club” — in order to be well-rounded. Instead, I encourage you to shoot for being kinda well-rounded with some spikes — like a star — by pursuing four or five activities that interest and excite them. But, honestly, you do you. Be who you are — that’s what colleges want. And if being you means having one big spike or it means being a perfectly round ball, then that’s totally fine.”
But, here’s the hard truth, no matter how hard I try to reframe the words so you can have a deeper understanding of the process, the college admissions journey still causes stress and unhappiness that can get carried away by our thoughts. Some people call these rampant, racing thoughts your “monkey mind” or your “puppy brain.” But with some basic mindfulness techniques, you can learn to focus inward, becoming more aware of your thoughts and feelings to better understand them. As I mentioned earlier with my windy trees metaphor, a certain amount of stress in our lives can be helpful — the difference is in how we respond to it.
A few years ago, my mom got really sick and I became her primary caretaker. She was a single mom to me when I was young, and we’d always been very close. She died right around the same time my youngest went to college and I’d just retired from teaching. I was absolutely untethered, empty-nested, and quite frankly — lost, consumed by sadness and worry about what I was going to do with my life, leading me on a journey to discover mindfulness and meditation to deal with the scattered remains of my life.
What I learned is that the first step in taming your stress is to recognize, acknowledge, and accept that you are experiencing stress, and you have to lean into it. If we try to suppress our thoughts and feelings and avoid them, they just become stronger. As Carl Jung says, “What you resist, persists.”
LEAN INTO THE SHITTY PARTS: Remember it’s ok to feel the pain. In fact, often the only way to get past the pain is to go through it. So, as hard as might be, you’re gonna have to give in to the anger and sadness when they hit, and maybe even angry cry a little and bash some pillows. If you have a hard time tapping into your anger because you’re suppressing it, I suggest listening to angry music. I’m Gen X (not a Boomer, no), so Tupac, Nirvana, Eminem, Smashing Pumpkins, and Linkin Park are my gotos, but you have your own I’m sure.
YOU ARE THE OBSERVER: It’s also important to recognize that we are not our thoughts or feelings. These racing thoughts and bouncing ideas and uncomfortable feelings are just that — thoughts, ideas, feelings — they are not you. You are the observer. You can watch those thoughts and feelings pass by and return again and again — especially when you develop an awareness of them — but they are not you.
GO ON A BEAR HUNT: Do you remember the book, “Going on a Bear Hunt?” It’s a children’s book and chant, but it’s also a metaphor for overcoming challenges — because it helps us understand there is no avoiding the struggles and pain we meet on our journey through life. On the bear hunt, you have to go through all sorts of stuff, like swimming through a swiftly racing river and marching through deep squishy mud, and walking through tall swishy grass. If you remember the chant, you’ll remember — You can’t go over it. You can’t go under it. You can’t go around it. You have to go through it. To me, those are metaphors for the emotions we have to pass through as we make our way through anger, sadness, and disappointment. It’s like making it through the train tunnel; if you can’t go through that darkness, you get stuck there. Feelings are like that — you have to go through them to get past them.
THE RAIN TECHNIQUE: In Mindfulness, we use the RAIN technique to help us go through the emotional process of dealing with pain.
Recognize your feelings.
Accept and acknowledge that they are there.
Investigate them — what caused them, why are you feeling them
Non — identify; know that they are just feelings and feelings come and go. You are not your feelings. You are the observer of your feelings.
Look, having feelings is part of being human. That pain, hurt, anger, excitement, happiness, disappointment, or any other feeling you’re having is part of your humanity, but those feelings come and go. They are ephemeral. You are not your feelings; you’re the observer of your feelings. What feels super shitty right now is going to pass, and on the reverse side what feels super amazing right now is also going to pass. That’s what feelings do. If you sit still or meditate, you can actually watch that happen.
MAKE MISTAKES AND BEGIN AGAIN: Another lesson I learned on my journey through my rough times is that it’s never too late to begin again. Practicing mindful meditation is helpful with this because whenever your mind wanders away from your focus, like your breath, for example, you learn that you can start over. This awareness is powerful — especially for our kids because so many of them are afraid of making mistakes. It’s important for them to know and understand that they can start over — and over. That, as my favorite author James Joyce says, “mistakes are the portals for learning.” Mistakes create opportunities for a kind of learning that really can’t be taught any other way and the knowledge gained through them is truly valuable.
LET IT GO: I know there have been times for me when I get stuck on a thought and I have a hard time getting over it. I do RAIN, I do the Bear Hunt, I think about the train tunnel, and still, my brain is holding on. That’s when I know I’m just gonna have to channel my inner Elsa and Let. It. Go. OK if Disney Cartoons aren’t your style, you can try this story about monkeys and coconuts. Some hunters attach a coconut to a tree, cut a hole in it, and place a banana inside. Then, an unsuspecting monkey comes along, smells the deliciousness, and puts his hand through the hole, and grabs the banana. The unfortunate thing for the monkey is that the hole is too small for his fist to get back through, so he is stuck sitting by that tree holding on to the banana. To be free, all he has to do is let go of the damn banana. It might be this way for your child, too, if acceptances don’t go their way. Eventually, they (or you) might just have to let it go, recognizing that you can only control what you can control.
Basically, sometimes when you start having self-doubts or thoughts that make you feel like shit, you just gotta tell that asshole brain to shut the fuck up.
LIVE IN THE NOW: Look, being a teenager sucks sometimes. Everyone knows that.
But it’s also this narrow, little window in our lives that we can literally never get back to again. So, don’t spend your remaining teen years stressing too hard about your future. Trust me when I tell you, there will be AMPLE time for that later. You also can’t waste time worrying about the mistakes you’ve already made. NO ONE gets through life without making them; it’s how you grow.
The fact of the matter is that we have to live our lives in the moment, and some of these moments suck and some of them blow us away with their amazingness, and some are just ho-hum. So buckle up, and prepare for some sucky moments to head your way in the next few several months, but — and as hard as this might be, especially right now — don’t forget to take a look around you right now, this minute. and see your friends, the beautiful blue sky (it is here today in Houston), your pets, your teachers, your warm bed, or whatever it is in your moment right now that you can appreciate. As hard as life is right now, there are still good things in the world.
COLLECT MOMENTS OF JOY: Collect those small moments of joy in your life and you’ll see that they can add up. Maybe it’s new snow on the ground, or a brilliant blue sky, or the never-ending rain like I can look up and see in Houston right now. Maybe it’s a quick snuggle with your dog or cat or a giggle with a sibling or a friend. Maybe it’s a smile you give someone else. Maybe it’s a funny post you saw here on A2C or a line in a book you just read. Even if you feel like your life just sucks right now because of all the shit that’s happening around you and school and college admissions and… and… and…, there are moments of joy. Collect them.
BE A FLOWER: “A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it. It just blooms.” ~ Zen Shin. Stop worry about others. You’re not in a “living your life” competition with them. You are just “living your life.” Bloom on your schedule. Bloom well. And let other people worry about how and when they will bloom.
MEDITATION AND MINDFULNESS: I started meditating a couple of years ago after I went through some pretty hard times in my life. Like many of you, I thought I could never meditate. I don’t like to sit still. My mind is always racing. And I just knew there was no way I could “clear my mind.” But, I decided to give it a try anyway because I needed something to help me deal with the feelings I was having. What I learned was life-changing! You don’t have to clear your mind. You do have to sit still for the most part, but I can actually do that for a few minutes or even more.
Mindful meditation, even for five minutes or ten minutes a day, is very helpful. You can try it for even two or three minutes. Set your timer on your phone. Sit in a comfortable but upright position and close your eyes or let them rest on the floor. Breathe normally and focus on your breath. If you find that your mind has wandered, that’s success! It means that you caught your mind in the act of thinking. Simply bring it back to focusing on your breath. The more you notice your mind wandering, the more mindful you are being. And when you can notice where your mind is and what it’s doing, you can, with practice, learn to have more control over it. The whole point is to get comfortable with being with yourself and your thoughts — not to relax or clear your mind.
Think of your thoughts as a flowing river carrying you along. Being mindful can give you a chance to get out of that river and climb up on the bank and watch the river of thoughts flow by. Or
you can imagine your thoughts as clouds floating by, just moving right along. You can imagine your mind is like a snow globe that you shake up. When you allow it to settle down, then all the “snow” settles, and the view becomes clear. Or if snow globes don’t float your boat, you can imagine your mind as a pond after you’ve thrown some rocks into it. Meditation helps you to calm the surface of the pond, allowing your brain to settle and letting the view become.
EQUANIMITY: I’ll share my favorite meditation with you. I breathe in as say these words and exhale as I repeat them.
I am who I am.
This is what it is.
May I accept things as they are.
May I trust in the unfolding.
EAT ICE CREAM AND OTHER QUICK TIPS FOR DEALING WITH STRESS: Talk to a counselor or therapist / Get outside. Go for a walk and be in nature if you can. / Read a book about Mindful Meditation. One of my favorites is Mediation for the Fidgety Skeptic. / Make a list of 5 gratitudes. Write them down. / Do something nice for someone else. Help someone at the grocery store get an item off the top shelf. Do the dishes before your parents even ask. Pick up trash on your street. / Take a walk / Have a dance party in your room / Do some breathing and meditation / Sit still for three minutes / Listen to angry music / Bash pillows / Sit still for three minutes / Do yoga (lots of youtube videos) / Take a cold shower / Blast music and have a private dance party in your room / Sing. I walk every day outside along the bayou listening to my favorite music and singing at the top of my lungs. Sure, I get a few strange looks, but I don’t care because I’ve got Freddy and Bob and Bruno and Beyonce and Taylor all my other legendary friends along with me. / Bake Something/ Drink a glass of COLD water / Make your bed and tidy your room / Cry if you need to
You Can Only Control Your Own Actions
Probably the most relevant lesson to the college admissions journey is the understanding that we can only control our own actions — and it’s fruitless to spend our time and energy trying to control anything else. And what you can control in college admissions is what goes in the application — essays, activity descriptions, and grades and test scores to a limited extent. What you cannot control is the number of other well-qualified amazing students who might be applying to the same tiny teacup of schools as you are; you cannot control the bulk of your transcript by the time you’re a senior; you cannot control the institutional needs of the colleges on your list; you cannot control the mood, preferences, or predilections of the application readers. You cannot, in essence, control what colleges want at the particular reading of your application on a particular day, and as an admissions officer from U Chicago once told me, “just when you think you’ve figured out, what we want, we’ve changed our mind.” The only thing you can control is becoming who you are and then putting together the best application that reflects the best of who you are.
INSTITUTIONAL NEEDS — WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN? I’ve been asked before what “institutional needs” means: it means colleges have to create a class, so they’re looking for all kinds of people with varying strengths, abilities, talents, and backgrounds. They don’t want to have a uniform set of people who are all doing the same stuff. That’s why it’s important to have holistic admissions and not just base it on stats. Also, they have a school to run, so certain departments and faculty might have more needs at different times. Or sometimes it’s just whatever their board members and presidents tell them they should keep in mind as they create a class. This is the part of college admissions that we have no control over and why applicants need to not take any of it personally. And, unfortunately, institutional needs change year to year so you can’t prep and plan ahead.
The Good Parts of College Admissions
There are for sure times when the admissions journey can feel overwhelming and like there is no end in sight and no possible good outcome. But actually, when you take a step back you might find that this is your time in your life to figure out who you are and who you want to be. By finding schools that fit you and that aren’t just randomly selected off some ranking list created by a defunct magazine, and by digging in deep and learning about yourself enough to write an essay that reflects the true essence of you, you are creating the opportunity to de-stress the process just a little.
You might even find college admissions can actually be this period of amazing self-growth and development — like no other if you allow yourself to recognize that some amount of stress is necessary and good for your development, and if we acknowledge that there might be ways to reframe our understanding of college admissions by changing the words and phrases we use. When you take control of your admissions journey and you incorporate some mindfulness into your lives, you can grow in self-confidence and maturity as you dig in and learn more about yourself than you ever have. Figuring out what you want in a college, developing a list, and writing personal essays all require deep reflection and self-investigation. Taking the reins and handling the details and difficulties of the application process demonstrates your abilities and strengths. And, no matter the outcome, no matter where you end up going to college, no matter how painful some of this journey might be, this transformational experience, filled not only with stress but also with excitement and joy — is turning you into a stronger human, ready to take on college — and life.
It’s completely normal to be stressed out about one of the most important milestones of your life.
Sometimes you have to lean into your stress and anxiety and ride the wave.
Sometimes you have to let it go.
Recharge your mental batteries by taking a break now and then.
Sit in stillness for a few minutes a day and recognize your thoughts.
Forget about dream schools, spiking, passion, being unique, and standing out. Reframe how you think about college admissions.
If you’re feeling so upset that you might do self-harm, Read This:
I’d like you to give yourself some more time.
Please get help. Right now. Today. Don’t wait. If you are feeling at all like hurting yourself, I want you to call a suicide hotline right now. Here’s a number for one of them: 1–800- 273- 8255. They can help you.
Then go to the closest ER and tell them you are thinking about self-harm. Ask your parents or a neighbor or relative or friend to take you. Or go by yourself if you need to.
Talk to your parents. Today. Tell them what you’re going through. Tell your parents you need a counselor or therapist. See your school counselor. It’s essential that you get help and fast.
I’m not a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. I’m just a mom, a teacher, and an educational consultant, and I know I’ve never gone through the specific pain that you might be going through. But, I’ve learned that when you feel like life is beating you down like this, your brain actually makes physical changes and isn’t working properly. You can’t trust it to make wise decisions. It was described to me as if someone was putting heavy weight after weight on your brain — eventually, it’s going to collapse.
So give yourself time. Give your brain time to heal. Talk to your parents, get to an ER, reach out to your therapist, or school counselor.
Resources and Hotlines
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1–800–273–8255 (TALK)
Crisis Text Line: Text “START” to 741–741