A totally normal (but totally frustrating!) part of getting ready for college is college application stress. Statistics show that 76% of students feel high levels of stress about the college application process…so if you’re feeling overwhelmed by college applications, you aren’t alone!
The good news is that there are steps you can take to prepare for the college application process, including having some stress management tactics at the ready. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know for effective college application stress management, including:
- Answering the question, “Why are college applications so stressful?”
- Explaining four reasons why college applications are so stressful
- Providing a college application schedule to help manage stress
- Listing five tips for managing stress during college application season
Let’s get started!
If you're stressed out about the college application process, you might want to buy some extra pencils. You know...just in case.
Why Are College Applications So Stressful? 5 Key Reasons
There are many different parts of the college application process, and each one can affect your stress levels in unique ways. But by learning about what each part of the application process entails, you’ll be on the fast track to overcoming college application stress!
The more you learn about the college application process, the easier it will be to answer the question, “Why is applying to college so stressful?” Once you can answer that question, coming up with a solid stress management plan will be much easier. Below, we’ll go over five reasons why college applications are stressful to help you manage college admissions anxiety.
Reason 1: Time Management
Time management is one of the biggest stressors during college application season. Some sources suggest that applying to colleges takes 60 to 200 hours from start to finish, depending on how many college applications you choose to complete.
But even if you apply to just one college, there are still many steps in the application process that take up quite a bit of time. You’ll spend time researching and picking colleges to apply to, choosing, studying for, and taking college entrance exams like the SAT or ACT, and collecting info about different colleges’ application guidelines.
From there, you’ll dedicate lots of time to filling out online applications, writing college essays, preparing your list of extracurriculars, and seeking out teacher recommendations. You’ll also apply for financial aid and scholarships.
When you think about how many steps are involved in the college application process, it makes sense that the process can eat up so much time!
While 200 hours spent on applications seems like a lot, it helps to remember that every college applicant will have to put in that time and effort…which means you aren’t alone! Stellar college applications take hours of work, and each hour you put in will make a difference.
Reason 2: Cost and Debt
The cost of college is one of the main answers to the question, “Why is applying to college so stressful?” For many students, the first thing they see when looking at college applications is a bunch of dollar signs. College is expensive in general, and that starts with college application fees.
The average college application fee is $45, with the most expensive college application fees coming in at $100. There will be a separate fee for each application you submit. If you choose to apply to five, ten, or even 20 schools, it makes sense that those costs can really add up!
In addition to college application fees, many students are worried about the price tag that comes with a college degree. 39 percent of students who responded to a recent survey cited the level of financial debt as their biggest concern about applying for college.
At the same time, 84 percent of college students receive some kind of financial aid for college, and many students are eligible for waivers that exempt them from paying college application fees. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by college applications and financial aid, you aren’t alone! For the majority of students, taking the time to research financial aid options and fee waivers can pay off (literally!) in the end.
Reason 3: Standardized Test Scores
The SAT and ACT can feel like the biggest villains in the admissions process. Standardized tests are challenging for many students because they’re long, difficult, and require hours of prep time. Despite that, SAT or ACT scores are required pieces of most college applications, which can feel like a lot of pressure.
Even though test score requirements feel stressful all on their own, many students experience the added stress of comparing their test scores to other students. Lots of colleges provide data about the average test scores of their accepted students, which makes it even easier to compare yourself to other applicants.
While you might feel overwhelmed by the test scores you need to aim for, it can also motivate you to come up with a top-notch SAT/ACT study plan and put in quality time preparing for the exams.
And at the end of the day, it helps to remember that while test scores are important, they aren’t the only important part of your college application. Working hard on SAT/ACT prep is always the best move … as long as you remember that college admissions teams are going to evaluate you based on more than just your test scores. Your essays, extracurriculars, and letters of recommendation will speak for you too!
This is Jack. He just turned 18, but the stress of applying to Stanford aged him prematurely. (Don't be like Jack—follow our tips for a stress-free application process below!)
Reason 4: Competition
It’s no secret that college admissions are competitive. In 2021, Stanford rejected more than 96 percent of its applicants, though many of them had perfect SAT or ACT scores. Elite schools typically have really low acceptance rates, and most students who apply to them have outstanding test scores, GPAs, and extracurriculars.
Looking at those numbers might make you feel even more overwhelmed by college applications, but that isn’t the whole story. According to Pew Research Center, more than half of schools admitted two-thirds or more of their applicants in 2017, including well-known schools like Virginia Tech, George Mason University, and St. John’s University of New York. While the acceptance rates for elite colleges get a lot of attention, there are tons of other great schools that accept a majority of applicants.
No matter where you apply, it’s important to put in the time and effort to make your college applications excellent. Looking at the average test scores and GPAs of students who were accepted to schools you’re considering can even help you choose schools that are a good fit for you!
Being overly focused on the competition will pull your attention away from crafting college applications that show how you’re a uniquely qualified candidate for the schools of your choice.
Reason 5: Getting the Right “Fit”
The college admissions process is all about making choices. Which schools will you apply to? How many? Which one is your top choice? Do you have a safety school? These questions can feel like a lot, but taking the time to answer them will help you pick (and get accepted to!) a school that’s a great fit for you.
While you don’t want to be overly stressed about choosing a college, feeling a little bit of stress about that decision can motivate you to research schools and consider what you want out of your college experience. Spending time learning everything you can about the colleges you’re considering applying to will help you make good decisions about which schools to submit applications to.
And even when admissions decision deadlines are months away, having lots of knowledge about your choice schools can help you feel more confident and less stressed when it’s time to accept an admission offer!
Creating a College Application Schedule
For many students, staying organized and knowing what to expect at each stage of the college application process can make the whole experience less stressful. That’s why it’s a good idea to put together a college application schedule to keep you on track and on top of all your deadlines.
Most college application schedules start with the same step: researching colleges, selecting the ones you’ll apply to, and learning everything you can about your choice schools. Once you’ve finalized your list of schools, you’ll need to get all the details on the application requirements and deadlines for each of the schools you’re applying to.
As you learn about the application process for all of your schools, you’ll quickly notice that there are a lot of different deadlines, application components, and requirements to meet. To help you stay on top of all of those moving parts, create a spreadsheet or calendar that marks each major deadline you’ll have to meet in order to get your applications in on time.
It’s a good idea to include the following application components and deadlines in your schedule:
- College research, planning, and finalizing your list of schools
- Selecting an admissions plan
- Registering for, studying for, and taking standardized tests
- Setting up your accounts on online application portals
- Writing admissions essays
- Requesting letters of recommendation
- Filling out your online applications
- Sending test scores, transcripts, and letters of recommendation to colleges
- Applying for application fee waivers
- Filing your FAFSA
- Submitting your applications
Once you have the major application deadlines slotted in, you can start adding in plans for how you’ll complete each application component. For instance, it’s best to write your application essays during the summer before your senior year. On your application schedule, you might block off the summer before senior year as essay writing time, then set a loose deadline for when your application essays should be completed.
You might even consider color-coding the different activities and deadlines associated with each part of your college applications. For example, you might designate everything related to taking the SAT or ACT as blue, and everything related to asking for letters of recommendations as red. Setting up a coding system like this will keep you organized when you’re working on multiple application components at one time, or when you have multiple deadlines hitting all at once.
The prospect of seeing all those dates and deadlines written down in one place might have you asking, “Why are college applications so stressful?” If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, remember this: keeping a detailed application schedule will make things less stressful once you start working on applications. You’ll have a solid plan for each part of the process, and you’ll generally know what to expect at each step!
5 Tips for Managing Stress
While we can’t change the fact that college applications are complicated, we can give you some useful tips for managing college application anxiety. Feeling overwhelmed by college applications is totally normal…but there are things you can do to cope!
If you’ve found yourself thinking, “I’m so stressed about getting into college,” keep reading. These five tips for managing college application stress are for you!
Tip 1: Start Early
Getting started on your college applications early is probably the best way to manage application stress. You know that college applications come with hard and fast deadlines that fall between November and February each year. With that knowledge in your back pocket, you can make a solid plan to start on your college applications as soon as schools open up their online application portals.
In general, it’s best to start working on college applications no later than the summer before your senior year. Starting in the summer will give you enough time to prepare your application materials, get feedback from someone you trust, and revise them before it’s time to submit the whole thing. By giving yourself extra time to work on applications by starting early, you’ll save yourself from the extra stress of falling behind and feeling pressed when deadlines are on the horizon.
Tip 2: Ask for Help
Your college application is all about you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get help from other people as you complete it. Many parts of college applications are somewhat subjective, like your application essays and letters of recommendation. Working with people you trust to get these materials right can give you peace of mind and let you know that you’re on the right track.
Consider having a teacher, tutor, or mentor read over your application essays and give you feedback. You’ll want to make sure you give them the essay prompt and requirements so they can give you good feedback, though!
You can also meet with the people you ask to write your letters of recommendation and discuss what you envision the letters looking like. While they’ll ultimately have the final say in what goes in the letter, you can still talk to them about the parts of your academic performance and extracurriculars that you feel speak to your ability to make positive contributions to the schools you’re applying to.
So if you’re finding yourself focusing on the question, “Why is applying to college so stressful?”, try being proactive. Asking for help from people you trust is a great way to gain some reassurance and manage your college application anxiety.
Tip 3: Collaborate With Friends
The college application process can be a lonely road…but it doesn’t have to be! For every moment that you think to yourself, “I’m stressed about college!”, one of your friends is probably thinking the exact same thing. Many of your friends will be coping with the same deadlines and requirements as you. Instead of isolating yourself and going it alone, consider working with your friends to make the college application process less lonely.
For instance, you could pick one night a week where you and your friends meet up and work on college applications together. Bring snacks, relaxing music, and even games to play when you take a break! Just being in the presence of friends who are going through the same thing you are can lighten the mood and give you the motivation to keep working hard.
Tip 4: Let Yourself Rest
College application burnout is real–and it’s something you don’t want to experience. While it’s true that you can spend hundreds of hours on college applications, in order for your applications to be truly excellent, you also need to give yourself time away from them.
Scheduling an evening off every week and giving yourself plenty of leisure time on the weekends can help prevent college application burnout. Doing things you enjoy with people you care about will help you dive back into your college applications with a fresh perspective and more energy.
Instead of convincing yourself that resting and recharging is a waste of time, remember that a little R&R can actually make your applications better. You’ll feel happier and more confident when you get back to your applications, and that positivity will shine through in each part of your application!
Tip 5: Focus on Why You’re Awesome
When you’re looking at test scores percentiles and admissions rates, it can be easy to forget the most important part of your application: you! Every applicant is different, and that means that every applicant has uniquely awesome assets that schools will be interested in.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed by college applications, remember to focus on what’s awesome about you. The things colleges are most interested in are the things that you’re passionate about and the contributions you hope to make to their school. Keeping some positive affirmations in your back pocket and reminding yourself that colleges care about who you are as a person just as much as they care about your test scores can help you stay motivated and combat anxiety.
Sometimes application stress can come from not understanding what an application is asking you to do. Our complete breakdown of the college application process can help demystify things!
Choosing which colleges to apply to can also be pretty stressful...and daunting. We'll make the process easier by teaching you how to make a college list.
Submitting your applications ahead of time can take a lot of stress off your plate, too. Use our complete application timeline to take the time-crunch out of the process!
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.