How To Deal With College App Stress

Alex wrote me this short and sweet email which I almost declined to answer because it was so brief and general. But then I thought, hey, maybe the high school folks out there getting ready for college need a little bit of a primer on what to worry about and what’s not worth stressing over.

So here goes.

I’m a junior this year and i’ve slowly grown to realise how stressful college pressure from parents, teachers, and also myself can be. i haven’t even completely decided what i even want to major in. i’ve taken multiple online tests and every single test i’ve taken has come up with either arts, media arts, or culinary. I’m officially stuck. what’s your greatest advice for where i go from this point now?? (help)

college app stress
College Prep Tip #1: Stay Out of Jail

Succinct, but there’s a lot under the surface there.

Yeah, I know the process is much more stressful than it used to be, because it’s very competitive out there.

Competition is tough on parents, too, because of course they’re hoping you’ll get tons of scholarships and financial aid so that they don’t have to take a third mortgage on their house just to educate you. And if they’re like a lot of people with college-bound kids, they’ve still got a lot of debt of their own they haven’t paid off. Plus, their own parents are getting close to that nursing-home age and they’ve gotta look after them, too.

Stressful times indeed.

However, it shouldn’t have to be that way for you. I mean, for you, college is the fun part. Yeah, it’s hard work sometimes, but it’s still supposed to be fun.

It’s also true that the years leading up to college — your junior and senior years — are “critical” in that what you do during those years will have some impact on how your college life (and by extension, your career) turns out.

OK, so that’s the stressful part. Now, here’s the less stressful part.

You don’t have to know EXACTLY what to do right now. You don’t have to know where you’re going to go to school, and you certainly don’t have to know what you’re going to major in, and good GOD, you definitely don’t have to have your career chosen at 16 years old.

Let’s use a traveling metaphor, shall we? Let’s say we’re on a road trip across the country, starting in New York and driving to L.A. Some serious things are going to happen in L.A., important things.

But for now, you high school students — you’re in, like, rural Pennsylvania. You don’t have to white-knuckle the steering wheel and start having a panic attack in rural Pennsylvania about the highway exit you’ve gotta take in Los Angeles. JUST CHILL AND KEEP THE CAR ON THE ROAD. That’s all.

What does that mean? It means: Study hard and get the best grades you can. Don’t drop out of school. Don’t get a DWI. Don’t get pregnant. Don’t get anyone else pregnant.

On college applications, write the best essays you can. Don’t smoke weed (if you want to, there’s plenty of time to try it later, believe me. And who knows, it might be legal then.) If possible, get a part-time job and try hard to do good work while you’re on the clock.

Study. Get A’s and B’s if you can, and keep C’s to a minimum. Bring D’s up in a hurry and don’t get F’s. Don’t ride with your dumb-shit friends who drive drunk or high (again, if you insist on trying this, there will be plenty of opportunities to do so later).

Don’t get in fights (with fists or worse) if you can help it. Sooner or later, both the winner and loser of a fight regrets that the fight ever occurred. The relatively small percentage of people still gloating about fights they won in high school are some of the saddest and loneliest adults you will ever encounter.

If you can follow that general advice, you will probably get into college just fine. I haven’t studied this, but I think the things that most often derail otherwise college-bound students are pregnancies, car wrecks, and jail.

The hardest of these to avoid is car wrecks. We all get in them, and often they aren’t our fault. Drive carefully and you’ll minimize your risk. I’m not joking. As a father, I’m 50 times more worried about my kids being in a car wreck than I am of them not doing well in school or getting into college or whatever.

I think everyone reading probably already knows how to avoid unplanned pregnancies and jail, so I’ll skip a detailed description.

So, that’ll get you into college. Is it necessarily enough to get you into the most highly selective college? Maybe. Maybe not. Does getting into the most selective college make a giant  difference in how happy your life will be?

Not really.

Please don’t take this as a license to screw around and do nothing your senior year, because I don’t want to answer 500 emails from pissy parents. But honestly, no, I don’t think it does.

Are your chances of making a lot more money throughout your career increased by going to an Ivy League school? Sure. If you don’t go to an Ivy and opt for a state or even a regional college, alongside students who clearly couldn’t hack it at tougher schools, does that mean you’re bound for a life of unhappiness and depression? Of course not.

Don’t get me wrong — there are no absolutes in life, no guarantees. But almost every person I’ve ever known who went to school and worked hard and pursued something they thought they’d enjoy eventually ended up with at the very least a job, and often a job they enjoyed.

Some of the happiest people I know went to schools you’ve never heard of in majors that are considered “noncompetitive” (that is, easy). And I think we’re all already familiar with the thousands of hypereducated hyperachievers on, let’s say, Wall Street, making millions of dollars whose spouses leave them because they’re never home and whose children see their faces once a month for any length of time. And, consequently, they grow old alone and die miserable.

Nothing against hyper-achievement, folks, if that’s what you’re after and that’s what gets you up in the morning. I’m just saying, there’s plenty of room for everyone in the world to be happy, and that includes C students at state colleges. And everyone in between.

But it’s hard to let those plans develop and grow if you’re in jail or dead or raising an infant at 15.

Take care of those three, and you’re keeping your car on the road, steady as she goes, until it’s time for bigger decisions.

— That’s all I’ve got today. Comments? I’m sure there will be plenty today. Leave ’em below.

32 thoughts on “How To Deal With College App Stress”

  1. Also, try to avoid being pregnant or getting anyone pregnant in college. Again, this may sound easy but it’s one of the things that derail so many (woman especially!) people.

    I went back to college in my late 30’s. Unexpectedly, I became pregnant. Now, I’ve been married for nearly 20 years and we always wanted a child but…it made things very difficult.

    My school didn’t allow me to take time off and I was hospitalized 6 times during my pregnancy. I couldn’t sit up or look at a computer screen. I failed several of my classes and had to retake them. Since this was my senior year, my classes were all 7 credit classes and VERY expensive. I went from a 3.75gpa to being on academic probation.

    We had insurance, but it still cost us nearly 20k out of pocket. I had a C-section and in total, it was 70k, so 20k was not that much to pay. However, a normal pregnancy is still 40k. Do you have that on hand?

    My child’s daycare will be 13k (and that’s cheap around here) a year once I go back to work full-time. I’ve been lucky enough to stay at home with her for the past 2 1/2 years, but that’s with a strong savings and a husband who works. However, our savings have run out and I still have over 50k in college loans to pay off.

    Once I return to work, I should be able to make roughly between 45k and 75k and we’ll have my husband’s income as well. I already have a history in my field that I can fall back upon. Even so, with the economy, I expect it will take some time before I have full time employment (I’m working part-time now).

    Someone coming from high school and then college has no real work history in their field. It’s much harder to get work and get work that pays well. Having a child at this time is brutal. Waiting until you’re older, settled and have a decent work history is MUCH better.

    Good luck.

  2. Judge Josh,
    I’m a little offended about your “don’t get pregnant” comment. Perhaps you meant for this to apply solely to those students who are just entering college as freshman straight from high school, and who are 17 or 18 years old. However, I am a college student, I’m 24 years old, and am going to college for nursing. Oh yeah, I’m also 27 weeks pregnant. I understand that it’s certainly more difficult to handle school with a baby, and that living on campus won’t happen, but I don’t see the similarities with being pregnant, and then being in jail or dead. It almost seems as though you’re grouping them into a category that no one can overcome. Perhaps my resolve and confidence in my abilities as both a student (4.0 GPA) and as a future mother, but at least give pregnant women (no matter how old they are) kudos for continuing their education regardless of how difficult it may be. It’s not impossible, and certainly not similar to being dead or being in jail. I’m not asking you to promote getting pregnant, but please don’t make it seem like I should drop out of college just because I am. It’s offensive.

    1. I did not see him mention anywhere that pregnant women should drop out of college and I’m sure it’s just a recommendation to not get pregnant when school can be stressful to begin with. I think he would indeed give you kudos for being able to be such a terrific student while being pregnant because not everyone can do that.

    2. I honestly think you read into it the wrong way… I congratulate you on the pregnancy though! 🙂

      He was saying “this is what not to do your junior and senior years of high school” and my sister got pregnant at seventeen… she ended up going to an ‘alternative’ high school and does have a diploma, but it was hard for her to get into even technical school with her grades at that point… she goes to tech. school part time now, but she’s twenty-six and still has half of her credits to complete. In her case the pregnancy stood in her way a lot. (Although I love my niece and nephew to death!!) And he’s just saying that if you can manage to not get pregnant/get someone else pregnant the process will be less of a struggle.

      And he also said that it would *probably* be a good idea to finish college without getting pregnant, which would make things easier, but I don’t think he was condemning anyone — simply pointing out roadblocks that some high school students face before they even get into college.

      I hope that you are a little less offended now, but either way, congratz on the baby, and keep working on that degree! Sounds like you’ve got all things going for you!

    3. Yup. This advice was geared toward 17 year olds just going to college. I know a few girls who got pregnant in high school. The one’s who had a supportive family enviroment were able to succeed in school and go to college. Children who get pregnant and do not have a strong support system are going to struggle. That’s just the way it is. It doesn’t mean that they will not succeed in life, it doesn’t mean those that have strong support systems will succeed. It means that they will have more obstacles to overcome. He wasn’t bashing teen moms or moms in general, just stating a fact. Kids are a huge responsibility, and a huge joy. Teens, who are still children, are not ready for that responsibility-at least financially. I know a lot of women who got preggers in high school and were phenomenal mothers.

    4. I’m a little late viewing this post I know, but on the whole pregnancy note I agree with the people who commented before me. You’re in college and have a good head on your shoulders, I would assume anyway based on your comment. Where I am from, 5th graders get pregnant and by the time some of the kids get to high school, as in their freshman year, they are pregnant again with either a second or third kid- all by different fathers. My guess would be that the advice is to not get pregnant before going to college, because it causes a lot of extra expenses and stress. I must congratulate you on sticking it out, staying in school, and going with what you’ve been handed. At least where I live, its not very common to see someone in your position not finding an excuse to get around things, so I am very impressed, and congratulations and I hope all goes well with the little one.

  3. Cheers Christie!!! Couldn’t have said it better myself. Glad to know not everyone has their head stuck in the middle ages, definitely unsubscribing from this post.

  4. Christie,
    I don’t think Judge Josh meant to imply that pregnant girls and women (or their respective partners) are any less deserving or capable of a college education, just that it can make an already tough period of decision-making and adjustment even harder. Pregnancy was even commonplace at the womens’ college I attended for my first year of undergrad, and at the most people would take a semester off to bond with the new baby and then jump back into classes.

    Pregnancy ought to be in another category than “dying or being arrested,” though, along with other occurrences that, despite their rather innocuous nature, can affect a student’s health or social life and limit or modify decisions about where and when to attend. While having a baby can be one of the most awesome experiences, a student dead-set on a university far from home probably won’t be making that trip with a baby in tow unless she has some equally amazing financial aid to boot.

  5. Great response. I don’t see any problem with advising HIGH SCHOOL students to refrain from getting pregnant/getting someone pregnant while attempting to break into the world of applying to college (in response to Christie). He was answering this particular person’s letter, so this most likely does not apply to you–therefore, no offense should be taken. He never mentioned that you should drop out if you do happen to get pregnant/get someone pregnant.

    Anywho, I think another thing worth mentioning in your response is to give yourself some choices if you are unsure about which college to attend. In other words, don’t apply to only 3 colleges if you can help it. The fewer choices, the more you’ll be backed into a corner when it comes to finally deciding what you want to major in.

  6. I can’t believe that you are jumping on Judge Josh for that comment. He makes a great point, especially if the pregnancy is unplanned. Today, nearly all high schoolers are unprepared to handle having a child. Even though you can still succeed while having children young, it does not mean that it will be easier than not doing these things. Your choices will be limited because you have to consider another human being. What you criticize is pointless.

  7. Definitely stay away from the drug part. I think it is the pell grant and other financial aid that asks about anything dealing with drugs and will disqualify you. Drinking isn’t looked at as bad but it still doesn’t look good. Not that I am recommending it. But I have never had to report any of those arrests when I have applied to college. Yeah, I did some really dumb stuff in my late teens and twenties and it will affect you every time you apply for a job. When I go to apply to the CPA board to sit for the exam next year it is going to be embarrassing since I have to report every single misdemeanor ticket or arrest. I just hope I’m okay since I never shoplifting or forged checks or anything like that.

    1. Hi Bridget,

      I would like to commend your honesty. I recently had a lecture about certification in my field, and the speaker told us that when applicants are up-front about their backgrounds, it is much better for them in the long run. Although certain histories would bar them from being eligible to apply for certification, for minor things the honesty is applauded to the extent that if they had to later make a decision about someone staying certified, it weighs heavily in that decision.

      I’m just writing this to encourage others who may be in your predicament (if I may call it that) to follow your lead and be honest from the beginning. It really can save a lot of trouble down the road.

  8. Christie, Alyssa,
    No where does the Judge suggest that if you are pregnant you should drop out of college or worse, not apply. However, the issue of this post is how to avoid EXTRA stress when applying or going to college.

    While a baby is wonderful, they are expensive and time consuming and that’s if they are healthy and happy. They are a LOT of stress. Fantasic, yes, easy, no.

    Also, especially for woman, many of them are penalized for having a baby both in life and the workplace – even in my case, school. I’ve known many young women who have had unplanned pregnancies in college or right out of high school and they’re life is very difficult. The men that they had the children with often left them. They also had great difficulty getting child support. Often they had to work up to three jobs to pay for child care and their home/apt. Most of them dropped out of college. Even with help it was a major struggle.

    That is not to say that it can’t be done. Of COURSE, it can be done. OF COURSE, you can succeed with a baby/child. However it is MUCH more difficult than without a child, especially for a young person, just out of high school. That’s reality.

    Christie, may you and your child have a WONDERFUL and amazing life together! You already sound like a fantastic mother, blazing a trail of high marks and determination for your child to follow. Congratulations and good luck to you both. I did it and it IS incredible. I wouldn’t change a thing. Truly.

  9. I love how people are jumping all over Josh for advising students to not get pregnant. They read the word pregnant and think they are talking specifically about them so they choose to get offended when obviously there was nothing malicious intended about pregnant college students – just the point that getting pregnant while in college or high school does not lead to ideal career/education prospects. Should all people who were in car accidents unsubscribe, too?

    There are many young mothers out there who manage to become successful, achieve good grades, etc. but it’s not easy and quite frankly, most young people SHOULD avoid pregnancy if they plan on furthering their education and jumping right into the workforce. Kudos to the people who get pregnant anyways and trying to juggle both but it can make the career part much harder as it would result in many difficult choices in the future.

  10. You all need to chill out. He wasn’t attacking all you amazing mothers who are going to school, just encouraging young people (specifically teens) to be careful about the decisions (and more likely mistakes) they make with their bodies. I am in my third year at a fairly competative university, where I get A’s and B’s and work part time. I was thinking about having a kid for a short period of time, but I’m only 20, I have no security for the future at all at this time in my life, I’m already super stressed out from all of my classes AND balancing a social life. I’m sure if I had to, I could make the best of balancing a baby in with it all, but I have come to the conclusion that this is a lot of extra stress I don’t need right now. There will be plenty of time for cute babies at a time in my life where I am (hopefully) not already tearing my hair out with stress.
    If you are pregnant or a mother and are still working hard at school, kudos to you, you are doing something that a lot of women aren’t able to, and I am sure that life will reward you greatly for all your hard work.

  11. To the high school student:
    Don’t take those tests to heart. I took one junior year of high school and got – Clergy. I took one senior year of high school and got – Clergy. And in college we had to take a different test freshman year and I got – wait, what? Oh yeah, Clergy. Either it’s a sign from God or someone making those tests put questions in the wrong slot. By all means, if you want to go to Culinary school, go for it. But if you want to be a scientist, a history professor, or an actor, feel free to go for that too. In college you will have MANY opportunities to explore your interests. I’m an English major Professional Writing minor. I never ever ever had interest in joining the Clergy. Go for what you’re good at and go for what you’re passionate about.
    If you don’t know what that is yet that is A-OK! Be undecided in college — over half of the people at my school are– and figure out what classes interest you, then fit that into a career search! Plus, most campuses have a career services center that can help you out with finding what sorts of jobs match what majors, what internships there are for you, and help you make a resume when you ARE sure what you want to do.

    Hope it helps! Don’t stress! College is great. Have a fantastic rest of high school, and participate in all the cheesy senior-stuff. It’s worth the it for the memories. 🙂 Take care!

  12. In addition, leaving aside the pregnancy debate: take classes that interest you (and ones that sound ridiculous!) in high school (big hint- you don’t have to pay for them!!!!) And they could help you decide which class you actually want to pay for alter in life. I know that I took a philosophy course in high school and it lit my fire, and I have taken more courses in college- but would I have ever taken a course in college if I hadn’t in high school- probably not.

  13. In my opinion, getting pregnant would be WORSE than death. At least if you die, you are not aware of your life being ruined…If I were to get pregnant and keep the child that would be the end of my life and my dreams. Lucky for those unfortunate individuals to whom this has happened, there is always adoption.

      1. Victoria, that is a really mean thing to say. I know many girls who feel the same way about motherhood right now, but they will one day make great mothers. Don’t judge people based on one comment on one post of a website.

        While I don’t agree that pregnancy is worse than death, I do agree that adoption is a very valid option for women who get pregnant while in school. I was adopted and I can say that both my biological mother (she was 19) and I have been better for it. Not to mention my adoptive mother got the chance to be just that . . . a mother.

  14. Hi.
    What I was always given from academic adviser(s) is to take classes that are general-such as computer class, science, math, and some business classes. Classes that you will learn about the society and the globe. Does your school has a major in General Education? Maybe major in that…because of the classes that are supplied will assist in you as a start. Then you can develop experience from internships and after college or develop an idea of career.

    I always wanted to be in the art industry, but due to my parents and economy…I decided to take adjust myself.

    I hope you understand my message.

  15. Wow, first a scholarship question, now a typical high school question. Sure sounds like the good ‘ole times, huh Josh?

    I agree with your post completely, and love that the abstract letter allowed you to get back to your personality. Gotta say, months back you were a bit more…..appealing. Maybe it’s that the letters became too specific.

  16. Hey, everyone. I think those offended by the pregnancy remark have been adequately answered by those who clarified my meaning. But just so you can hear it from me:

    I’m referring to high school students and how unplanned pregnancies derail life plans. I’m not saying that anyone who actually DID get pregnant is a dirty harlot or a bad person or should drop out of school (not sure what in my writing gave anyone that notion). I’m just saying that if you don’t specifically and proactively want a baby nine months from now, take the appropriate measures to prevent it. Nothing revolutionary there.

    Of course, children and babies are wonderful. They are, quite literally, the best things in life. I have two and my wife is 6 months pregnant with our third, and she’s going to college half-time to become a teacher. So believe me, I’ll all about pregnant ladies going to college. 🙂

    Thanks for the comments everyone!

  17. well i mean it might sound easy to say u should do well at this point but its kind of difficult if ur already stuck in a rut anyways. both parents are jumping my case about needing to be decided when theres no way i will ever be able to sit back and say”what am i going to do for the rest of my life…” its a very tough rut im in with just how i live my life now. things are very confusing and i guess i just need help in finding my major. is there anyone in college now thats been stuck in my situation??

  18. Hey alex. I hope you’ll come back and read to see if any commented after you. I sure did when I asked him a question. Anyway, I’m a freshman in college right now, and I still haven’t decided on a major. Technically you don’t have to decide on one till end of your sophmore year (most colleges). What my advisor has been telling me is the reason for general requirements is so you can explore every possibility. I began this year completely undecided, and through my spanish and theatre classes, I’ve realized that I love both of those. So even if I don’t end up majoring in either of them, I’m learning about different classes and topics I like. My parents always told me I needed to choose a major, and I said I won’t choose one until I absolutely have to, because there is nothing I am absolutely passionate about. Or at least I haven’t found it yet. As the Judge said, you have a lot of time to choose. Try not to stress, and just do well. Instead of choosing my major in high school, I just did my best work, so I now am attending my 1st choice college, just because I worked to place myself here. Now that I’m in the setting I want to be, I can worry about my major.

  19. Well it might be easier for some people more than others. If you were able to avoid these things, you are lucky (and privileged).

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