As a high school student, I remember feeling immense pressure as I prepared to apply for college. From my grades, extracurricular activities, and SAT scores, everything seemed to hinge on my acceptance into a top-tier university. However, as I reflect back on that time, I realize that in the midst of striving for academic excellence, I neglected my mental health. In this blog post, I will share my insights on redefining success beyond academic achievement and prioritizing mental health during the college admissions process as someone who struggled with anxiety and depression in college, but also as an educational consultant who helps students through the college admissions process.
The Pressure of Applying to College
The college application process is undoubtedly stressful for many high school students. The pressure to secure admission into prestigious universities can be overwhelming, leading to anxiety, depression, and burnout. For many students, the fear of rejection and failure can manifest itself in various ways, such as sleep deprivation, overeating, or social isolation. As one of my former students shared, even if she didn't want to talk about college admissions, it was all around her at school. Even if she didn't care about rank and reputation, her peers' judgement and equating it to a "luxury handbag or car" made her care - even when her parents didn't. It led her to select a college based on rank instead of fit. This led her to not only struggle at that school, but also develop depression. Ultimately, she learned a lot from the situation and is happily settled at her new school after transferring.
The Correlation between Grades, Scores, College Decisions and Self-Esteem
It is widely acknowledged that grades and test scores are important pieces of the college application. However, the pursuit of academic excellence can often take a toll on one's self-esteem. I've heard from many of my students that their grades become a measure of their self-worth, leading to a constant need for validation from others. This need for validation often leads to a lack of self-confidence and a fear of failure. It can also result in destructive perfectionism - a scary trend I've seen in high achieving teens. What's worse is it all culminates in college admissions decisions from their "dream school" that may have nothing to do with their efforts. March can be a brutal time for high school seniors, but I want students to know that a college rejection letter doesn't mean you're "less than" or not "worthy". College admissions decisions are subjective and many factors for whether or student gets in or not may be determined before they were born - like where their parents work or their background. This is but a blip in the grand scheme of your life and where you go to college matters less than what you do when you get there.
Redefining Success Beyond Academic Achievement
Redefining success beyond academic achievement is essential for prioritizing mental health during the college admissions process. A low grade doesn't mean you won't be successful - it just means your human. Success should not be defined solely by grades or college acceptances but by personal growth and development. By focusing on personal growth, you can cultivate a growth mindset, which is essential for long-term success. Plus, it is something that colleges look for in students. If you're a freshman, sophomore, or junior in high school, I encourage you to embrace challenges, learn from failure, and persist in the face of obstacles. By focusing on personal growth rather than external validation, you can reduce stress and anxiety, improve your overall well-being, and increase your ability to focus. By focusing on personal growth and development, you will realize applying to college is simply filling in an application and learning more about yourself. You will accomplish great things no matter where you go to college.
Bouncing Back from a Setback
Mental health challenges are common amongst teens. I remember when a student shared that the reason they attempted suicide was because they felt overwhelmed by their work and felt like they couldn't ask for an extension. In hindsight, they can see how "silly" it was, but at the time, they really felt like they had no other option. Since then, they've learned to prioritize their mental health and well-being. They chose to only engage in extracurricular activities they were genuinely interested in. They took breaks when they needed to. They understood that their academic performance didn't define them. As they found ways to overcome their anxiety and utilized resources like their parents, therapist, and counselor, they not only began to thrive in school, but truly began to enjoy their life. They were also able to write about their mental health issues and how they grew as a result of them in their additional information statement. Not all, but many admissions officers are compassionate when it comes to mental illness as the pandemic has worsened the mental health crisis amongst adolescents. I'm happy to say they will be attending their first choice college this Fall.
The Role of Parents and Educators in Promoting Mental Health
Parents, teachers, and high school counselors play an important role in helping a teen's mental well-being. I'm grateful that the teens I work with share their burdens with me. It's not easy being a teen these days. They are trying to maintain a strong transcript, get good SAT and ACT scores, write stellar college application essays, adjust to school after virtual schooling during COVID, worry about their safety with the rise in school shootings, amongst many other stressors. Let's do our best to maintain open ears, strong shoulders, and compassionate heart as they navigate the grueling high school years. I like to advise parents to treat their teens like they were younger - praising effort, celebrating little wins! They make a world of difference in how students view themselves. Our teens are more than applicants or future college students - they have so many beautiful gifts that we should focus on instead of grades, scores, and college decisions.
Tips for Minimizing Stress in Teens
Having worked with hundreds of teens over the years, here are a few of my favorite tips shared by superstar students
1) Learn to manage your time with a schedule. By dividing your time between schoolwork, activities, friend time, and relaxation, you can avoid feeling overwhelmed.
2) Adopt a healthy lifestyle to help you feel more energized and better equipped to handle your busy days. While we know many of you are naturally night owls, it can make paying attention in class hard if you're sleepy. You can learn to be more efficient with your time if you're focused in class. Eating healthy and exercising are also great ways to help you perform at your best and make you feel good.
3) Find an outlet for your thoughts and feelings. Whether its jotting it down in a journal to talking with a friend or family member, getting it out of your head can help you feel better.
4) Practice self-care. Identify safe and healthy activities that make you feel good. Perhaps its taking a walk in the neighborhood, playing with your dog, or blasting your favorite song as you drive around.
Remember, you're awesome! No grade, score, or letter from the admissions office is going to change that.