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Tips for taming college application stress season for students and parents

It’s easy to look forward to attending college while thinking about stimulating classes, new friends and Saturdays spent cheering in football stadiums. For high school seniors immersed in the time-consuming college application process, that view can be blocked by a varsity-level set of stressors.

"There’s always some excitement — tempered with fear," said Sandra Sohne-Johnston, who is director of college counseling at St. Anne’s-Belfield School. "For those of us who are adults, either we’ve applied and gone to college, or we know someone who has." For teens, "they’ve never done this before."

In addition, "they’re seeing that their parents are even more anxious than they are," she said. "You have that elevated anxiety of the unknown."

Spending some time recognizing and acknowledging the different stresses for parents and students and planning for success together can make the journey a little smoother for the whole family.

Bridge the generation gap

If it looks as if your college-bound students need to jump through more hoops than you did in search of fewer opportunities, welcome to 2023.

"We’ve come to appreciate how much harder it is to get into school" today than it was for many applicants’ parents, Sohne-Johnston said. "I am seeing some of that elevated anxiety."

Break the big task down

It’s easy to get overwhelmed, so "I encourage students to process it in several pieces," Sohne-Johnston said. Some students can cut back on stress by checking off smaller tasks, such as writing essays or collecting recommendations. Others may benefit from completing one college’s application at a time, as requirements can vary from one school to another.

"We worry about the things we can’t control," she said. "Think of the process not as an end goal, but as, ‘I am in high school. I am acquiring skills. I will find things that ground me and center me and find my purpose.’"

She recommends visiting and looking for the maroon "College Application Resources" button. The College Application Tracker, "for the student who is very organized," can help the teen check items off a list to build confidence. It also can be helpful "for less organized students and the parents who would like to help," Sohne-Johnston said, as many can benefit from trackers that allow family members to check the site to gauge a student’s progress.

Parents also can start checking out financial aid calculators and getting a sense of how much money will be required by what dates. Such sites as MyinTuition ( can help parents and students prepare for the actual costs of enrolling that remain after financial aid and scholarships are subtracted.

Crunching numbers this time of year instead of waiting for spring can help reduce future sources of stress. If parents and students find out now that they can’t afford an early favorite’s tuition and other expenses, "you still have time to pivot and come up with a slightly more affordable set of schools," Sohne-Johnson said.

Commit to communication

Sohne-Johnston recommends that parents and students set up a weekly check-in session to gauge progress — and boost communication.

A student who feels intimidated by the application process or gets stuck on a certain step may appear to be procrastinating, which can upset an organized parent. A parent who keeps asking what progress the student is making may leave him or her feeling nagged, pressured or bombarded. A parent’s stress may result in part from not knowing exactly where the student is in the application process.

Staying in touch with each other about which tasks have been completed can help tame tension levels for both.

"Designate a time of week," she said. "It could be Sunday afternoon after your child has finished their homework."

Weekly check-ins also can help parents recognize when college application chores are overloading a student during a week packed with tests, papers, rehearsals, sports practices or other high school responsibilities.

"We’ve all been there when everything is due and we don’t know where to start," Sohne-Johnston said.

Let the student lead

Sohne-Johnston sometimes has to remind exasperated parents not to fill out the applications themselves. Students need to learn the skills and accept the responsibilities to complete big projects on their own, and "allowing the possibility to fail" can help them build essential life skills for success in college — and beyond.

"College planning is life planning," Sohne-Johnston said. "We are teaching our kids how to be strong adults and giving them the skills to soar when they leave our homes.

"This is not about helicopter parenting or crazy parenting. This is good parenting. Our instinct is to protect, to help, to do."

Parents often help the most by encouraging students to do tasks for themselves. If the college does not have the student’s SAT scores, for instance, let the student make the email or call to track them down, she said.

Now also is a good time to make sure students who haven’t been helping around the house are gaining skills for college life in shared spaces, such as making their beds daily, clearing the table, putting clothes away and making sure homework, papers, sports gear and other items are packed and ready for school.


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