Manage College Application Anxiety

Ellen Gamerman

December 14, 2008

For many high-school seniors, fall is a time fraught with college applications, interviews and campus tours.

For students, it’s also a time of unknowns: how will they afford school, can they get into their top choice, will they be happy once they get there?

Advice is everywhere. Kids can plug their test scores into online college “calculators” to run the odds of getting into competitive schools.

They can seek suggestions on sites like College Confidential, where students trade angst and wisdom. Or they can pay a professional coach; the number of kids with private counselors has doubled in the past five years, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

The tough part, other than actually getting into college, is figuring out which tips to listen to and which to ignore.

We’ve asked college counselors, admissions officials and current college freshmen to take a stab at some frequent questions.

1 How will we pay for it?
Advice: Some private colleges with higher sticker prices may end up offering more financial aid, so they would ultimately cost less than public universities, says Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant in Washington. He says you should apply first and make decisions about affordability later: “This is the time of year to go fishing.”

Katherine Cohen, co-founder of ApplyWise.com, an online college counseling program, says students might consider finishing college in three years instead of four by using credits from Advanced Placement exams or by taking community-college classes during the summer.

She also suggests that students consider moving to less expensive off-campus housing, or eat breakfast in their dorm rooms so they’ll only pay for a two-a-day meal plan.

2 Is this school the right fit?
Advice: Tina Bu never visited New York City or talked with students before enrolling at Columbia University. Now a freshman, she says the school can be intense and stressful. The student from Greenville, S.C., says she was so flattered by the university’s offer, she barely paused to consider how she would feel once she got there.

If high schoolers don’t have time or money to visit a college, then they should seek out current students through the admissions office or via Facebook to get an idea of campus life, Ms. Bu says.

She urges a healthy dose of realism: “Try not to believe all the propaganda that colleges send out,” she says. “They’re full of superlatives.”

3 How do we know when the application is finally done?
Advice: Harry Kisker, a college counselor at the Branson School in Ross, Calif., says students and their parents can read an application so many times that their eyes glaze over by the final proofreading.

At that point, he recommends students read the essay backward, from the last paragraph to the first, because it’s sometimes easier to spot errors when looking at the page in a new way.

Not every question requires an answer, says Bev Taylor, founder of Ivy Coach, a New York counseling service.

For instance, she says, some colleges ask applicants to list all the other schools to which they’ve applied — which Ms. Taylor believes can hurt an applicant if the college concludes the student is treating it as a safety school. She suggests skipping the question.

She also urges the children of business executives to leave out titles like “CEO” when applications ask for parents’ occupations because she believes students may put themselves at a disadvantage if they appear highly privileged.

4 Can you go too far showing a college it’s your top pick?
Advice: Hank Herman, who wrote the book “Accept My Kid, Please! A Dad’s Descent into College Application Hell,” about his son’s college-application experience, says he urged his child to write weekly emails to Emory University in Atlanta expressing his enthusiasm for the school.

It was only when Mr. Herman attended a presentation to parents and high schoolers by an Emory official that he realized his error. “One of the first things the admissions representative said was, ‘It’s very good we’re getting 80,000 emails, but we’re basically not reading them.’ ”

Stu Schmill, dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agrees that email campaigns and other gimmicks won’t work. “We try to really look at students’ long-term potential,” he says. “It’s not about the flash of an application.”

5 How do you get excited about a school that wasn’t your first choice?
Advice: Mr. Goodman suggests students imagine themselves in the college dining hall and then ask if they see themselves feeling comfortable and happy.

Similar visualization exercises worked for Kristin Drouin. Initially, she was so blasé about Macalester College that she threw her acceptance letter on the floor after she read it. But then she researched the school and started picturing herself there.

The open-minded effort worked. Now a freshman at the college in St. Paul, Minn., she says, “I’m 100 percent happy.”