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College applicants fight stress as deadlines - and maybe rejection - loom

Posted by Leslie Anderson  December 11, 2013 06:14 PM

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There is no getting around it, applying to college is stressful.

And right about now, when seniors who applied for early decisions are hearing from admissions offices, and others are finishing up applications due Jan. 1, the stress level hits a peak, according to those who work with students.

While it’s unrealistic to think a few magic steps will make the process stress-free for everyone, there are things that can be done to make it easier on students and their families.

First of all, according to guidance counselors, tutors and college coaches, it is important to recognize that the application process is hard, and not brush aside the stress involved in writing essays, keeping up grades, making choices about where to apply, dealing with rejection, and perhaps having to wait until Spring before making a final decision.

“We can’t control the waiting, or the disappointment, but we can control how we are affected,” said Alan Houghtaling, founder of Evolve Tutoring in Belmont who has worked with adolescents for nearly 20 years.

“Literally, take a deep breath,” he said. “We’re not talking deep meditation here, just take a breath, and half a step back to remember why you are doing all of this, put a little bit of perspective on the situation.”

For Patrick Manning, coordinator of the post secondary planning office at Hingham High School, the key to getting through is to help students understand that they are not alone, and that it’s OK to feel stressed, confused, angry, disappointed.

“It varies so much from kid to kid but I always think its important to give kids a chance to actually feel their feelings. I hope I have given them a space where they can feel safe to rant and rave,” he wrote in an email to the Globe.

He also stresses to them, that even though it may not seem like other kids are going through the same feelings, they likely are.

“I like to talk to them about ducks, and how if you watch a duck on the surface it seems smooth and calm, and the water barely ripples, but if you look below the surface the duck is thrashing violently,” he wrote. “There’s a lot of ducks out there, especially in high school.”

And as experts who work with students trying to get into college say over and over, remember that virtually every student who wants to go to college will get accepted somewhere, and that the “best” school is not necessary the best school for you.

“Once you come to grips with that, it can really reduce the stress,” Houghtaling said.

The key in this unpredictable acceptance climate, they say, is to try and shift focus from a single “dream school,” and concentrate instead on finding several places where you could be happy, successful, and can afford.

The list of a student’s possible destinations should be well balanced, according to the experts, and include so-called reach schools as well as schools that regularly accept students with similar grade point averages and transcripts.

Instead of being excited about going to a particular college, which can just add to the anxiety, start getting excited about the fact that you’ll be graduating and going to college, they say.

“The likelihood is that getting into your first choice school may not happen, and that’s OK,” said Elizabeth Heaton, an admissions expert at College Coach in Watertown.

“There may be a dream school, but everyone will be calmer during the process if there are other schools on the list you’d love to attend.”

Shannon Mastropoalo, who is in her tenth year as a guidance counselor at Needham High School, agrees.

“It’s a tough time, there’s no question,” she said. “But we encourage students to hold their head high, it will all work out.”

Mastropoalo said right now can be especially difficult for students who didn’t get accepted early into their first choice school.

Not only do they have to deal with the disappointment, but they have to quickly regroup and make sure their applications are ready to send out to other colleges.

To make it even more difficult, students who were accepted start wearing their new college sweatshirts to school, often sitting in the same waiting area of the guidance office next to kids who were rejected.

“Those are difficult meetings we have with students who didn’t get admitted,” she said. “Most of the time they were very qualified. We acknowledge the grief, allow them to work through it and then move on to the next step.”

And it’s important to remember that the rejection is not personal.

“In most cases they haven’t even met the student,” Heaton said.

Houghtaling said he tries to convince students not to take a college rejection letter as a sign of being unworthy.

“It is personal to you, but it really isn’t personal,” he said. “This isn’t a science. I’ve seen kids get rejected from their so-called safety school and then get into their reach.”

It is exactly these situations where the experts say starting the process early and staying organized can make the difference between enjoying the holiday school break, and spending it in a wound-up frenzy trying to finish up essays and applications.

“We push hard to have students get everything done before they hear from an early action school,” Heaton said.

When a student hits the send button, it will be easier to wait for a response if the process was well-thought out, and not rushed through just to finish.

At Westwood High School, guidance counselors get students started thinking about college applications in 11th grade, spending a lot of time with juniors in December just after the PSAT results come in, according to Lynne Medsker, director of guidance.

“The goal is for juniors to begin with a long list of colleges in January, and then bring it down to a reasonable number by June,” she wrote in an email to the Globe.

“The wait can be stressful, but by starting the process a year in advance students can feel good about the fact that they did everything they could to achieve their desired outcome,” she wrote.

The summer before senior year is also a good time to take a look at the common application, and even get a jump on writing the essay to alleviate a rush to edit and rewrite while trying to keep up with classwork once school starts.

Doing all the right things, staying organized, getting everything done early and applying to a wide range of schools you’d be happy to attend can’t prevent the stress for students and their families in waiting to hear for schools’ decisions, but it can help.

While it is important to keep up your grades, the experts say this is the time to enjoy being a senior.

“Go watch your friends play a winter or spring sport, be a fan,” Mastropoalo said.

Heaton suggests starting a basket of “college supplies.”

She said she clearly remembers that even before she had been accepted to college her mother casually started buying extra shampoo, deodorant, extra-long sheets and other things she’d need to pack, and setting them aside for her.

“Start believing it’s going to happen,” she said. “Start getting excited.”

Parents, meanwhile, shouldn’t suggest a college that realistically is out of reach for their child. Houghtaling said it’s important for parents to make sure their children’s expectations are in line with reality, and that they’re not projecting their own expectations onto their child.

“They are already burdened by the process,” he said.

Medsker agrees.

“Parents need to take a cue from their children,” she said.

Admissions is much different today than it was when most parents when to college, she said.

“They are often very surprised to hear their child may not be accepted to UMass Amherst or Boston College or Northeastern. These are all selective schools,” she said.

The best thing parents can do to help their kids through the process, the experts said, is to really listen to them.

“We are often quick to give out advice, and to make things better for our children,” Houghtaling said. “Well, you may not be able to make this better. So listen. Be incredibly empathetic, and be aware that they may be going through a tough time.”

And, he said, apologizing for “getting all touchy feely,” stress that whatever happens, you love them, and are proud of them.

“This is the time for a pat on the back,” he said.

And the time to remember that there are things more important than your undergraduate alma mater.

“The character of who you are as a human being will count more than the name of the school on your diploma,” Houghtaling said.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at

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