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How to Reduce College Admissions Stress in the Wake of Operation Varsity Blues

The best tips for beating application anxiety in the post-scandal era

Since I launched IvyWise, my global educational consultancy, over twenty years ago, there have been multiple examples of college cheating scandals, but none of them have compared to Operation Varsity Blues. Although most families with college-bound students don’t break laws or pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into unethical and illegitimate services, the underlying sense of panic that compelled these parents to seek out such desperate acts is far more widespread.

With each passing year, nearly every Ivy League institution boasts a new record-low admissions rate. Other highly selective colleges have followed a similar trend; for example, the acceptance rate at The University of Chicago fell from 18 percent in 2010 to just 6 percent this year. Simultaneously, the cost of college continues to climb at an alarming rate, with the price of tuition increasing at nearly eight times the rate that wages are, based on data from the National Center of Education Statistics.

It’s easy for students and parents to read these kinds of statistics and instantly feel overwhelmed. As a former Yale application reader and a college admissions expert who works with students one-on-one every year, a big part of my job is reducing the sense of stress families face throughout the application process. Oftentimes, their anxiety is palpable from the moment they walk in the door; there is so much pressure to get into a name-brand school and little guidance on what it takes to actually stand out.

I encourage students to replace these negative sentiments with a sense of optimism and curiosity. Instead of focusing solely on the twenty or so recognizable colleges so many applicants fixate on, I help my students think big and expand their horizons. There are over 3,000 four-year colleges in the United States alone, so it’s really important for prospective applicants to avoid limiting themselves and instead weigh all of their choices. Let personal interests and passions guide your college search and look for schools that excel in the fields that matter most to you.

Students really need to do their due diligence by exploring university webpages, going on college tours, and scheduling informational interviews with alumni. Applicants that go the extra mile and create a balanced list of target, reach, and likely schools that are tailored to their academic strengths and can help them reach their full potential. This list can certainly include Ivy League institutions if they have programs that are genuinely of interest, but it may also include small liberal arts schools, large research institutions, state schools, and more.

Unfortunately, for many applicants, the stress doesn’t end when they receive their acceptance letters. Beginning college is a major life transition and for many students, it is the first time they are moving away and living on their own. College students are often expected to juggle a multitude of responsibilities, including advanced-level coursework, part-time jobs or internships, and extracurricular activities. Building proper study skills and learning how to optimize productivity in high school can help students prepare for the additional responsibilities and a heightened sense of independence they are likely to face in college.

Students who do the work to find their best-fit schools often have an easier time acclimating to university life because they’ve likely already identified the programs, professors, and extracurricular activities that they are drawn to. Upon arriving at college, students need to make every effort to get involved on campus, meet their peers, and prioritize their studies from Day 1. Much like the admissions process, students who get a head start on their work often benefit, because instead of feeling overwhelmed by last-minute deadlines, they are able to work through their assignments systematically.

When I work with students, I always emphasize the importance of staying on top of your to-do list and being proactive if you fall behind. College students who adopt this mentality and take advantage of the multitude of resources available on university campuses can reach their academic and professional goals while bypassing a lot of the stress and anxiety that some of their peers may face.

At the end of the day, students should view the college application process as an exciting opportunity to reflect on what makes them tick and pinpoint the academic institutions that best align with their ambitions. The skills students learn from navigating the admissions process, such as the importance of diligent research and the value in being proactive and following a plan, can become part of a toolbox that they tap into throughout college and their careers.

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