How to find calm during college application season

If you’re a high school senior in the class of 2021, you are my hero. I have no idea how you do it. Even in normal times, college app season is a lot to handle. But this year? In a pandemic?

A big mood right now.

Times were simpler three years ago when I was applying to college, but we still were not immune to the stress and anxiety that came with the first semester of senior year. In this post, I’ll try to recap some tips that helped me, and other tips that I wish I had followed. Hopefully, they can help you catch a bit of breath when everything gets to be a bit too much. 

1. Just start.

We’ve all been there, confronting a task that seems so huge and all-encompassing and important that you don’t know where to begin. If you’re a perfectionist, you’re even more afraid to start because you don’t want to mess everything up. And the more you push it off, the more your stress builds.

I recommend just tackling it head-on. Set a timer for five minutes and start on some part of the application: fill out the demographic info, or list out some of your activities, or word vomit a bunch of the thoughts that have been swirling around in your head to kickstart your essay. Most times, when the five minutes is up, you’ll see that the work isn’t really that bad, and you’ll just keep going. And you’ll feel so, so much better after a productive work session.

2. Take a break and forgive yourself

This is an important counterbalance to #1. Sometimes, when you’ve hit a roadblock, the best thing you can do is just step away and catch your breath. Especially now, it’s okay if some days you’re just not feeling up to it. I know what it’s like to feel guilty for taking a break, and trust me, that cycle of guilt and exhaustion only hurts your productivity, not to mention your long-term mental health, even more. Say yes to that (socially distanced) hangout with friends. Get that acai bowl you’ve been craving. Binge watch that Netflix show you’ve been refusing yourself. You’ve earned it.

I discovered acai bowls my first semester of senior year. Truly life changing.

3. Change the scenery 

Working at the place in your room, day in and day out, gets old quickly. With online school, the problem is only more severe. These spaces can be stifling, subconsciously adding to your stress each time you sit down to work. Most of my most productive college application writing came when I was at my public library, which did wonders to clear my head. With the pandemic, if you don’t feel safe and socially distanced in more traditional study spots, I’ve found that small changes—sitting on a blanket outside, or even working at the dinner table instead of at your typical desk—can get the job done, especially if you bring a good snack and a nice big cup of coffee.

Going somewhere besides your typical study spot can be a great way to respark your motivation!

4. Let go of Yale (or any other “dream school” you might have)

This is easier said than done. And I fully acknowledge that I’m writing as someone who desperately wanted to go to Yale and who was lucky enough to be admitted. But hear me out.

It’s great to be excited about a school—and hopefully these blogs will show you that Yale is an amazing place to be. I think at a certain point, though, lusting after Yale starts to be just that: lusting, creating in your mind an image of a utopia that may or may not really be the best fit for you. It blinds you to all other alternatives and makes you really, really afraid of rejection. I know first-hand how absolutely paralyzing that weird blend of fear and hope can be: how it lurks in your head even when you’re taking a “break,” how it amplifies your need for perfection and makes it even more of a mental roadblock. If I had been able to let go of my image of Yale, I would have saved myself a lot of stress and anxiety, to say the least.

Here are two observations that I wish I could have told myself:

1) Yale is great, but the actual experience of going here is probably very different from whatever idealized image you have in mind. Yale, like all other places, comes with ups and downs.

2) Your genuine passions—whether they be broad (ex. helping others, investigating questions about the universe, being creative, etc.) or specific (ex. fighting for environmental justice, making music, watching reruns of The Office, etc.)—will guide you in the future, whether or not that future is at Yale. Reflecting on what these passions might help you see beyond Yale specifically.

5. Let yourself feel stressed

College apps are a big deal! It really is true that you’ll be okay no matter where you end up, but let’s face it: the sheer number of steps in the process, combined with the expectations you might’ve established for yourself or felt from those around you, makes for a very, very overwhelming couple of months. The pressure has been building up for 12 years, and trying to suppress it will only make it worse. Let yourself feel stress in whatever way works best for you. Wallow in self pity, or cry, or scream into a pillow. Vent to your friends or family. Know that you’re definitely not alone, know that in a few short months you’ll be done, and know that we’re all rooting for you. You’ve got this!

Current you watching future you celebrating when you’re done!