Catastrophe, or catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing is the irrational act of believing that something is a lot worse than it actually is. There are two kinds, and both show up regularly for anxious students and parents going through the college admissions process.

The first creates a catastrophe out of a current non-catastrophic situation.

You get a C on one test and think, “I’m not smart, and I’ll never get into a good college.”

One college says no and you think, “All my hard work was for nothing, and I’ll be miserable at any other college that I go to.”

Your student doesn’t get into an Ivy League school and you think, “She’ll never get over this. I should have paid for even more SAT tutoring. I’ve failed her as a parent.”

The second kind of catastrophizing looks into the future and imagines the worst that could happen.

If the SAT tutoring doesn’t work, I won’t get the score I need and I’ll be rejected from all my favorite colleges.

If she doesn’t get into that AP class, she won’t be ranked in the top 5%, she won’t be competitive for good schools, and she’ll need to transfer to a different college as a junior.

If I don’t get into Stanford, I’ll never get into a good law school, and I’ll let my parents down.

The best way to battle both? Start by asking yourself, “Is this actually a catastrophe, or am I just catastrophizing?”

When you consider that question, try to be objective. Take the emotion out of it and focus rationally on the actual facts.

I acknowledge that some college admissions catastrophizing comes from the complexity and uncertainty of the process. The facts might be that you don’t really know exactly how one C or one test score or one decision will or will not affect your admissions outcomes. In those cases, a quick conversation with your high school counselor will help.

But no calm, rational, non-catastrophizing person truly believes that long-term life damage will be done by one grade, test score, or admissions decision in high school. Short-term impact and even disappointment? In some cases, maybe. But if you’re constantly anxious about the ride to college and wish you could be enjoying it just a little more, remember that the better you can get at differentiating between catastrophes and catastrophizing, the more you’ll be able to focus on the right things.