Every year, high school students across America frantically prepare their college applications. This typically includes studying for standardized admissions tests like the SAT and ACT, maintaining a competitive GPA, crafting persuasive personal statements and taking on extracurricular activities. It’s an exhausting exercise, and it’s not unusual for applicants to apply to more than 30 colleges (Edmonds, 2015; Kaminer, 2014).

The value of a college education has long been recognized as a pathway to upward mobility in America. However, recent trends have shown admission rates to be falling at many institutions, indicating that getting into college has become increasingly competitive. UCLA, for example, has seen its annual admit rate drop from 25% of applicants in 2011 to a mere 12% in 2019 (UCLA Academic Planning and Budget, 2019). At flagship universities, application numbers are higher than ever before, while available spots for students have largely flat-lined (Pollack & Edgar, 2019).

Yet those with the financial means are finding ways to leverage the system to their advantage, as so played out last year (Lartey, 2019). Wealthy parents are hiring private tutors for their children, others are having their children attend expensive cramming classes and “boot camps.” Indeed, an entire industry has been built to serve – and some say exploit – the pressure parents and their children feel to get into the right school (Pollack & Edgar). Others have gamed the system in more unscrupulous ways, as played out in the college admissions “pay to play” scandal of 2019 (Tuttle & Mulhere, 2019).

Clearly the stakes have never been higher, as high school students are under increased pressure to excel in their final high school years, to be model students, in what can be perceived as an unforgiving system. In this atmosphere of increased pressure for applicants, research is coming to light on how children are faring – or not faring. Studies are showing that children in their senior years of high school are suffering from high levels of stress, anxiety and depression related to the competitiveness of applying for college (Leonard, Gwadz, Ritchie, Linick, Cleland, Elliott & Grethal, 2015). Gabriela Nadeau, writing for “Teen Vogue,” talks about being “stressed AF”:

“Sometimes I get anxiety dreams about college. To my eternal dread, they typically end with me opening that future-determining email only to discover that I was rejected from the college of my dreams, and then I wake up crying, wondering why I even bother trying. This is happening because applying to college is so stressful now, especially for students who want to go to competitive schools. It feels like you have to be the perfect student, with great grades, test scores, and extracurriculars,” (2017).

So, what can be done to support our high schoolers going through college application-induced stress? Here are some tips I found.

Firstly, many universities are starting to go ‘test-free’ or ‘test-optional’ – meaning that sitting the SAT or ACT is entirely optional, and the repertoire of colleges adding their names to this list is impressive – such as NYU and Cornell (Saracino-Lowe, 2015). More schools are jumping on board each year, as standardized tests have started to suffer an image problem of sorts, with their scoring methods and handling of various biases being called into question (Nadworny, 2019). Applying to a school on this list may ease your teenager’s anxieties – especially if they don’t consider themselves to be the best test-takers.

Secondly, in applying for college, applicants should try not to get hung up on whether they as applicants are “unique” or “different” enough – instead, they should be themselves. The applicant’s personality and interests ought to shine through. IvyWise dispenses the following advice:

“Admissions officers read literally thousands of applications and have seen a broad spectrum of applicants, so it’s unlikely that your debate championship is the first to come across their desk. However, that doesn’t mean you should abandon your passion and take up an odd and unusual activity for the sake of being ‘different.’ … Tell the admissions officer why you debate, how it makes you feel, and how it’s part of who you are. Your individual take on why you enjoy this activity and demonstrating your depth of involvement and passion will make you stand out,” (2014).

Similarly, applicants shouldn’t get hung up on having an extensive resume – high school kids are just that, kids – and it is more important, again, to show one’s true passions:

“Showing that you have interests and that you’re willing to commit your time outside of school to those activities tells colleges that you’ll come to their campus and make their community interesting and exciting,” (Ivywise, 2014).

And finally, the community college route to a four-year school should not be discounted. I am a proud product of the California Community Colleges system, having spent two years as an international student at Santa Monica College, a school that has incredible transfer arrangements with neighboring UCLA, USC and the Cal State system, opening up a broad array of higher education opportunities at an incredible price for in-state residents (Santa Monica College, 2020). In fact, community colleges across America maintain strong transfer arrangements with local four-year institutions, are of high quality, affordable (often free, or nearly free for in-state residents) and typically only require a high school diploma for admission (Akhtar, 2019). I’m now studying for my master’s degree at UCLA, but I remember my time at community college very fondly – the range of clubs, classes and sense of community made my time there very special.

Further Reading


Akhtar, A. (2019, November 25). The 20 best community colleges in the US to jump-start a successful career. Retrieved February 13, 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.com/best-us-community-colleges-for-transferring-to-a-university?international=true&r=US&IR=T

Edmonds, D. (2015, November 20). How many college applications are too many? Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/noodleeducation/2015/11/20/how-many-colleges-should-you-apply-to

Kaminer, A. (2014, November 15). Applications by the dozen, as anxious seniors hedge college bets. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/16/nyregion/applications-by-the-dozen-as-anxious-students-hedge-college-bets.html

IvyWise. (2014). 4 things students shouldn’t stress about when applying to college. Retrieved February 13, 2020, from https://www.ivywise.com/ivywise-knowledgebase/newsletter/article/4-things-students-shouldnt-stress-about-when-applying-to-college/

Lartey, J. (2019, March 14).  The perfectly legal – but immoral – ways rich kids get into top colleges. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/mar/13/rich-kids-top-college-admissions

Leonard, N. R., Gwadz, M. V., Ritchie, A., Linick, J. L., Cleland, C. M., Elliott, L., & Grethel, M. (2015). A multi-method exploratory study of stress, coping, and substance use among high school youth in private schools. Frontiers in Psychology6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01028

Nadeau, G. (2017, November 6). College applications: I’m applying to college and I’m stressed AF. Teen Vogue. Retrieved from https://www.teenvogue.com/story/college-application-stress

Nadworny, E. (2019, December 10). Lawsuit claims SAT and ACT are illegal in California admissions. Retrieved February 13, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2019/12/10/786257347/lawsuit-claims-sat-and-act-are-illegal-in-california-admissions

Pollack, G. & Edgar, T. (Producers). (2019, December 10). Under pressure. [Television series episode] In K. Foshay (Executive Producer), SoCal Connected. Burbank, CA: KCETLink.

Santa Monica College. (2020, January 28). Number 1 in transfers for 29th straight year. Retrieved February 13, 2020, from http://smc.edu/NewsRoom/Pages/No-1-in-Transfers-for-29th-Straight-Year.aspx

Saracino-Lowe, M. (2015, November 18). 10 colleges that don’t require SAT or ACT scores. Retrieved February 13, 2020, from https://www.unigo.com/get-to-college/college-search/test-optional-colleges-10-colleges-that-dont-require-sat-or-act-scores

Tuttle, B., & Mulhere, K. (2019, March 13). The college admission process is already rigged to favor the rich. Here’s How. Money. Retrieved from https://money.com/college-admission-scandal-bribe-cheating-rich-advantage/

UCLA Academic Planning and Budget. (2019, November 13). Admissions. Retrieved January 25, 2020, from https://www.apb.ucla.edu/campus-statistics/admissions

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