Last fall, I gave a speech to a crowd of moms with teens either smack-dab in the middle of the college admissions experience or about to embark on that journey. I focused mostly on handling college admissions stress, and I wanted to share it with you because I think most of us need occasional reminders that life isn’t meant to be totally smooth all the time. Bumps are inevitable and necessary. That’s how we grow, gain strength, and come to deeply appreciate the complex and unique individuals we are. (But you’ll read all about that below!)
By all means, share this post with your parents or your aunt whose kid is about to start their junior year. Share it with your siblings or friends, especially the ones who are maybe feeling a little too stressed out and need someone to reassure them that it’s going to be OK.
Most of all, I hope you read it. I hope you reflect on your college admissions journey, wherever you are on that path, or even if you are beyond it. I hope you feel like you can face the challenges on the way, that your college admissions stress will teach you about yourself. I hope you can look back, see the past challenges of your life, and maybe find that those bumps in the road helped you more than you thought they did. I hope you see that you are capable and competent and that the college admissions experience can’t take that from you.
I hope you enjoy my speech!
“It’s really, really great to be here today talking about a subject so close to my heart — navigating stress in the college admissions journey, or as I like to call it, Taming the College Admissions Stress Monster.
“Moms, we have a problem. I’m going to be real and upfront with you from the beginning here. Lots of our kids are stressed out. And often it’s not the good kind of stress. I know that because not only do I work in person with teenagers who are applying to college, but I’m also a moderator of a subreddit called r/ApplyingToCollege, a worldwide online community, where we have almost 125,000 members, most of them teens. And they’re not only stressed to the max about college admissions, but they’re also worried about pleasing us and living up to our expectations and the lives we have so carefully curated for them. Yes, I’m using we and us here because in raising my three kids, I was right there with you in that airspace, hovering over my own children.
“But, look, I also get that we too are stressed out. We’re throwing our sweat, blood, and tears into these amazing beings we’re raising and we want what’s best for them — and you know everybody is talking about how stressful college admissions is, how competitive it is, how unless they’ve cured cancer, have a perfect score, made perfect grades, or founded a non-profit, their chances of acceptance anywhere at all are nil. In fact, the mom of one of my students likes to tell me how heinous college admissions is, so, you know, we’re just trying to protect our kids and make sure that they have the best opportunities life can give them. Nothing wrong with that, right?
“Yep, there are problems in today’s college admissions landscape, no doubt, but guess what? It’s not necessary to go to jail for 14 days or pay a hefty fine in order to try to fix it or boost your child’s test scores or fabricate their extracurriculars. Believe it or not, there is a better way.
“Because every time we try to fix the admissions process for our kids, we’re taking away their opportunity for growth.
“Every time we curate their calendar, we’re taking away their opportunity for exploration.
“Every time we try to smooth the path by doing ‘just a little bit’ of the work for them, we’re taking away their opportunity to potentially learn from failure.
“We’re taking away their opportunity to navigate and handle their own stress.
“So, this is my reminder to you that as much as we’ve invested in our kids going to college, as much as we want to make it all effortless and perfect for our kids, it’s their journey, and I believe it’s important that they take this journey.
“And here’s why: Some stress is good for you. Our kids aren’t going to live long, full, absolutely stress-free lives, and the sooner they learn to handle it, the better. I’ve heard this called stress inoculation before.
“I call it wind.
“Now, I really hope there aren’t any botanists out there to call me out on the details of this story because anyone who knows me can tell you I’m no scientist — but I am a former English major and English teacher, so I love a good metaphor, and when I first heard this story, it struck me, and it stuck with me.
“Back in the 90s, there was this big ole Biosphere in Arizona where they were trying to create a completely self-contained ecosystem and grow trees, so that, you know, if we get booted off Earth someday, we can take our plant life with us.
“They made the conditions absolutely perfect for raising these baby trees. Perfect soil. Ideal temperature. Perfect amount of sunlight and water. And the trees grew and they grew fast and they grew tall and they seemed healthy and then — they started to fall over. And do you know why? The scientists had forgotten to provide the wind in creating the perfect environment for raising their beautiful baby trees. And because there was nothing pushing on these baby trees, nothing trying to knock them over, the saplings never experienced any stress. And without the stress from the wind trying to knock them over, the trees weren’t creating something called ‘stress bark,’ a bark that makes them stand strong, and they weren’t able to bear their own weight — even in this beautiful, protected, forgiving environment.
“So, take heart in the idea that it’s OK and healthy and good and necessary for your children to experience a little stress, a little wind. The college admissions journey can be stressful — or windy as I like to now call it — I’m not gonna lie, but that can be a healthy experience for your child. For many of our children, it’s the first time they’ve come across this level of stress and when they make their way through the admissions journey and they’re standing tall at the end — even when admissions results do not go their way — they are incredibly proud of themselves — and stronger.
“They come back and tell me this every year on Reddit. After they’ve cried, pounded their pillows, licked their wounds, and eaten ice cream — and I mean there’s a lot of ice cream eating going on during college-admission-decision time. A few months later, they come back and talk about how even though it was the most stressful experience of their short lives, they are proud of how much they learned about themselves and how much stronger they feel now.
“This. This is the good kind of stress.
“Now, in case you think I’m trying to turn the admissions experience into some kind of forest-like fairytale — I’m not. In fact, I think there’s a lot wrong with it. I believe the non-stop college talk in schools and homes is downright dangerous for some kids and the constant chatter causes unnecessary stress for most of them. They worry and feel it’s the only thing we parents care about — sometimes even thinking we care more about where they go to college than we care about them.
“So, what can we do to not only help them manage their college admissions stress but assure them that we want the best for them? One way to mitigate some of this stress is by creating a No College-Talk Zone or Time in your home.
“At my house, it was my kitchen table. That way, my kids knew they weren’t going to be interrogated while having breakfast or dinner or eating an after-school snack by their somewhat college-admissions-obsessed (but in a totally good way) mom. It helped to keep some balance in our lives. For others, it’s the car. Or some people designate a college talk time — Sunday afternoons or Wednesday nights, and all other times are off-limits. However and whenever and wherever you decide to frame it, our kids need to know that we value more about them than the name on the bumper sticker on the back of the car.
“And outside our homes — in school, at family gatherings, in the community, in the media, in admissions guides, in college lore and mythology, the words just keep coming — and coming, and to me, many of these words cause even more unnecessary stress. Let me just tell you about five of the words and phrases I’d like to see eliminated from college admissions.
“Instead of telling kids they need to Stand Out in the college admissions process and in their essays, we need to encourage them to Stick With. I tell students, ‘You want the reviewer to fight for your application while in committee, and they’ll want to fight for you and your application if you’ve stuck with them, and you stick with them if they feel connected with you.’ I remind the kids that they build that connection by allowing themselves to open up and be vulnerable, by channeling their inner Shrek and peeling back the onion layers and allowing the application reviewer into their lives.
“Instead of telling students to Be Unique, I tell them, ‘Be You. You are unique. Everyone is. There is no one else who thinks exactly like you. So, when you allow the reader in your head and share your thoughts about life and the world around you, you are being unique.’
“Instead of telling students to follow their Passion, we should be encouraging them in Exploration. I think telling 14- and 15-year-olds, and even 17- and 18-year-olds to ‘follow their passions’ adds unintentional pressure. What if they’re not feeling any passions yet? What if they’re doing stuff that simply interests them? Or what if they don’t even know what interests them yet? That’s why I encourage them to explore and try new stuff. It’s OK for them to learn what they like and don’t like. There’s no shame in starting something and then dropping it when they find something else more interesting or exciting. Of course, a few kids have passions they’re devoted to, and that’s absolutely OK because, in the end, it’s all really just about being authentic.
“Instead of advising students to have a ‘Spike’ or ‘Be Well-Rounded’ in their extracurriculars, my philosophy for helping kids with their activities is all about being Star-Shaped. I don’t recommend having one big spike, meaning a single extracurricular they devote all their time to, though I recognize that can be trendy advice these days, nor do I recommend they try to pursue every single activity in their high school because they feel the need to check off a laundry list of activities for the ‘resume booster club’ in order to be well-rounded. Instead, I encourage them to shoot for being kind of well-rounded with some spikes — like a star — by pursuing four or five activities that interest and excite them. But, regardless, I always say to them, ‘Honestly? You do you. Be who you are — that’s what colleges want. And if being you means having one big spike or it means being a perfectly round ball, then that’s totally fine.’
“Instead of promoting the idea of their finding a ‘Dream School,’ I encourage them to find their ‘Dream You’ — Y – O – U, not their Dream U (just U). Look, I know they’ve been taught to ‘dream big’ and ‘follow their dreams,’ but you ask me, I tell them, it’s not about finding the school of your dreams; it’s about finding the ‘you’ of your dreams. In my book, I say, ‘Find the best version of you. When you’re drooling over that perfect school with a perfect campus and perfect classes, you’re not dreaming about any one school. No, you’re dreaming about who you want to be and where you can become who you want to be, and there isn’t only one Dream School where you can do that.’ So, I invite them to think deeply — and figure out what it is about that certain school that makes them consider it their dream school — because, I tell them, I guarantee that your dream isn’t out there in the form of a college; it is in YOU.
“But, here’s the hard truth: no matter how hard I try to reframe the words so that kids can have a deeper understanding of the process, the college admissions journey often causes stress and unhappiness that gets carried away by our thoughts. Some people call these rampant, racing thoughts your ‘monkey mind’ or your ‘puppy brain.’ But with some basic mindfulness techniques, you and your teen can learn to focus inward, becoming more aware of your thoughts and feelings to better understand them. As I mentioned earlier with my windy trees metaphor, a certain amount of stress in our lives can be helpful — the difference is in how we respond to it.
“A few years ago, my mom got really sick and I became her primary care-taker. She’d been a single mom to me when I was young, and we’d always been very close. She died right around the same time my youngest went to college, and I’d just retired from thirty years of teaching. I was absolutely untethered, empty-nested, and quite frankly — lost, consumed by sadness and worry about what I was going to do, leading me on a journey to discover mindfulness and meditation to deal with the scattered remains of my life.
“What I learned is that the first step in taming your stress is to recognize, acknowledge, and accept that you’re experiencing stress, and, as I often tell the kids, you have to lean into it. If we try to suppress our thoughts and feelings and avoid them, those thoughts and feelings just become stronger. To paraphrase Carl Jung: ‘What you resist, persists.’
“Do you remember the book, ‘Going on a Bear Hunt’? It’s a children’s book and chant, but it’s also a metaphor for overcoming challenges because it helps us understand there’s no avoiding the struggles and pain we meet on our journey through life. On the bear hunt, you have to go through all sorts of stuff, like swimming through a swiftly racing river and marching through deep squishy mud and walking through tall swishy grass. If you remember the chant, you’ll remember: ‘You can’t go over it. You can’t go under it. You can’t go around it. You have to go through it.’ Feelings are like that — you have to go through them to get past them.
“It’s also important to recognize that we are not our thoughts or feelings. These racing thoughts and bouncing ideas and uncomfortable feelings are just that — thoughts, ideas, feelings. They are not you. You are the observer. You can watch those thoughts and feelings pass by and return again and again — especially when you develop an awareness of them through mindfulness and meditation — but those thoughts and feelings are not you.
“Another lesson I learned on my journey is that it’s never too late to begin again. Practicing mindful meditation is helpful with this because whenever your mind wanders away from your focus, like your breath, for example, you learn that you can start over. This awareness is powerful — especially for our kids because so many of them are afraid of making mistakes. It’s important for them to know and understand that they can start over — and over. That, as my favorite author James Joyce wrote, mistakes ‘are the portals of discovery.’
“Mistakes create opportunities for a kind of learning that really can’t be taught any other way, and the knowledge gained through them is truly valuable.
“Probably the most relevant lesson to the college admissions journey is the understanding that we can only control our own actions — and it’s fruitless to spend our time and energy trying to control anything else. And what your teen can control in college admissions is the kind of life they want to lead, who they want to become, and what goes in the application: essays, activity descriptions, and grades and test scores to a limited extent. What they cannot control is the number of other well-qualified amazing students who might be applying to the same tiny teacup of schools as they are; they cannot control the bulk of their transcript by the time they are seniors; they cannot control the institutional needs of the colleges on their list; they cannot control the mood, preferences, or predilections of their application readers. They cannot, in essence, control what colleges want at the particular reading of their application on a particular day. As an admissions officer from U Chicago once told me, ‘Just when you think you’ve figured out what we want, we’ve changed our mind.’ The only thing your child can control is becoming who they are and then putting together the best application that reflects the best of who they are.
“And finally, the last mindfulness lesson I’ll leave you with is that there are times when we might have some thoughts and feelings where we just have to channel our inner Elsa and Let. It. Go.
“Alright — If Disney Cartoons aren’t your or your kids’ style, you can try this story about monkeys and coconuts. Some monkey trappers attach a coconut to a tree, cut a hole in it, and place a banana inside. Then, an unsuspecting monkey comes along, smells the deliciousness, and puts his hand through the hole and grabs the banana. The unfortunate thing for the monkey is that while it’s easy for him to reach his hand in because the hole is big enough for his empty hand to get in and grab the banana, once he grabs the banana, the hole is too small for his fist to get out, so he’s stuck sitting by that tree holding on to the banana. To be free, all he has to do is let go of the damn banana. But the poor monkey is trapped because he just won’t let go. It might be this way for your child or you too if acceptances don’t go their way. Eventually, they (or you) might just have to let it go, recognizing that you can only control what you can control.
“Now, here’s what I love most about college admissions. It can actually be this period of amazing self-growth and development for your child like no other if you allow yourself to recognize that some amount of stress is necessary and good for your child’s development — like the wind pushing on those baby trees. And if we acknowledge that there might be ways to reframe our understanding of college admissions by changing the words and phrases we use about it.
“In the intro of my book I say to the kids:
‘Do you. Be who you are. Open up. Peel back the onion layer and bare your soul. Breathe. Laugh. Don’t spend every waking moment trying to impress others. Colleges aren’t looking for automated test-taking, grade-making machines who race to rack up extracurriculars. It’s not about awards or being valedictorian or playing the flute since you were six (though good for you if you have those things!). I know it feels like that sometimes, but what they want is you — authentic, cool, nervous, funny, scared, confident, serious, personal you.
Stop worrying about what everyone else tells you to care about. Allow yourself time to reflect on what you genuinely care about. Look for the schools that are eagerly seeking students who bring your gifts. The best college for you could easily be one you (or your parents) have never heard of before.
I want you to know that this college admissions journey is stressful, no doubt, but it is also a fantastic opportunity to learn about yourself and grow into the person you can and will be. Don’t waste it. There’s a big, beautiful, badass world out there. Explore. Focus on yourself and what you want. Think about things you are thankful for. Take time to breathe.’
“Moms, when you allow your teen to control their admissions journey, and you incorporate some mindfulness into your lives, you can watch them grow in self-confidence and maturity as they dig in and learn more about themselves than they ever have. Figuring out what they want in a college, developing a list, and writing personal essays all require deep reflection and self-investigation. Letting your child take the reins and handle the details and difficulties of the application process demonstrates to them that you acknowledge their ability, you see their strength, and you have faith in your own parenting skills. You are letting them know that no matter the outcome, no matter where they end up going to college, no matter how painful some of this journey might be, this transformational experience, filled not only with stress but also with excitement and joy, is turning them into a stronger human, ready to take on college — and life.”
If you’d like to learn more about navigating college admissions stress or how to help your child (or parent) navigate the process, head on over to Amazon to pick up a copy of my book, Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit.
You can also find me on r/ApplyingtoCollege, drop into the comments, or reach out to me on Twitter or Instagram or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good luck and stay awesome!
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