If you’re skydiving, going in for open heart surgery, or running into a burning building to save someone, the worst thing that could happen is that you could die. That’s a pretty bad worst-case scenario. But to my knowledge, nobody has ever died as a direct result of applying to college. If people made more of an effort to remember that fact, a lot more families would enjoy the college admissions process instead of suffering through it as though an admissions decision from a dream school were a life or death matter.
If you’re feeling far more anxiety than you’d like to feel around the college admissions process, try this.
First, ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
If your answer is, “I/my kid might get rejected from USC” (or Yale or Amherst or whatever the dream school is) and you’re still lying awake at night over that scenario, you need to gain some perspective. A rejection from a dream school is disappointing, but it doesn’t merit devastation, especially if you’re healthy and still going to college someplace.
If your answer is, “I might not get into any college,” or “I might not be able to go to college because I can’t afford it, congratulations. You're assigning worry to outcomes that deserve it. So here’s what you do to prevent it.
1. Apply to plenty of “target” and “safety” schools.
Too many students play the admissions lottery and apply to a lot of dream schools where they don’t have a good chance of being admitted. That’s not a smart way to play this game. So apply to plenty of “target” and “safety” schools. At Collegewise, we define a target school as one where the students from last year’s class who got in look very similar to you on paper. We think you have a good shot, too. And a safety school is one where we’re so sure you’re going to get in that we would go into cardiac arrest if you got rejected (which admittedly would be a college admissions-related life or death matter, but at least it would be happening to us, not you).
Ask your counselor to recommend some good targets and safeties, and make sure those make up at least 2/3 of your college list. Most of the 2500 colleges in the country take pretty much everybody who applies (there are only about 100 schools that reject big chunks of their applicant pools). So pretty much everybody can find a target or a safety school.
2. Apply to at least one “financial safety school."
A financial safety school is one where you’re not only virtually guaranteed to get in, but you’ll also be able to pay for it even if you received no financial aid. Again, speak with your counselor, and investigate some of your state’s public university options.
If your family doesn’t have enough money to pay for any school, refer back to tip #1 and apply to plenty of target and safety schools. There are billions of dollars in financial aid available, and your best chance of getting it is to apply to target and safety schools that fit you well. Your counselor is probably your best source of advice for finding those schools.
There—you’ve probably just eliminated your “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” scenario. So what are you so worried about? No matter what happens, you’re not going to die from a college admissions-related accident. Work hard and do your best—your college future is important and deserves your best effort. But while you’re at it, try to enjoy the ride a little bit.