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College Bound

Balance is Key to Surviving College Application Season

The fall can be a challenging time for high school seniors. Alongside the desire to savor their final year of high school, they feel the weight of the college search. The magnitude of this activity often comes into sharp focus as application deadlines loom. Essays…application forms…interviews…suddenly, students feel overwhelmed by the to-do list, and the school year has just begun. This is part of what makes the college search such a rite of passage into adulthood. For many teens, it is one of the first life experiences in balancing competing priorities in a situation where both goals are important.

Getting organized is the first step to helping students feel in control of this situation. By September, most seniors have already begun considering college options, but the results of their explorations may seem hazy. Now is the time to shape the preliminary information and impressions into a refined list of real possibilities, connected to a set of real deadlines and action steps. Candidates take a stand on what they want for their future as they eliminate some prospects and prioritize others. Stress goes down as this self-reflection builds confidence and excitement.

Narrowing the scope of work to a specific list and identifying what each college needs, by when, also provides a path for breaking down this large process into smaller steps. A good plan will include the details of any restrictive policies colleges have about applying for early action. It will also highlight preparation time: Students should plan for multiple drafts of essays; expect “short answer” questions to require significant time and thought; and actively practice for interviews. Many students have had the experience of being able to renegotiate project deadlines with teachers when they have become overwhelmed in the past. That flexibility does not exist with college application deadlines. Having a clear schedule, with prep time built in, can significantly reduce stress because students don’t feel rushed.

After getting the overall plan in place, scheduling interviews is often the next priority. Colleges have different policies about how and when interviews fit into the application process. Understanding the parameters and getting time confirmed on calendars is important to putting a candidate’s best foot forward. Students often then turn to work on their essays.

Some students may be tempted to skip extracurricular activities in the fall to make room for the college application tasks. A better strategy would be to refine activities to make sure students continue doing what is important to them. Finding balance in life is a sign of maturity. Colleges like candidates who can rise up to the challenge of enjoying the present—and keep up with their classes—while also planning for the future. Plus, seniors deserve to treasure the culmination of their adolescence, as they prepare to transition into adulthood.

Deena Maerowitz advises students throughout the entire college admissions process. She works with students ranging from freshmen to seniors and is an expert in both undergraduate and graduate education. She is widely published and sought-after as a speaker on college planning. She can be reached at