The Stress of Admissions Decisions

If you have been following the College Confidential discussion forum at all, or if you know a high school senior who has applied early (ED or EA) to college, you may have seen a flashing red light on their stress meter. Of course, I follow the forum quite closely and what I see there is at times sad.

In a sense, it's not unlike the Academy Awards. The applicants are the actors, directors, composers, etc. and the colleges are the Academy (appropriate, eh?). The applicant's high school career acts as his or her latest motion picture work and decision day is the night of the big gala, when “the envelopes" are opened in the form of emails and, in a shrinking group of cases, actual “fat" envelopes.

Today — the very day that I'm writing this — is decision day for a number of early applicants, those to Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, in particular. I've been following the comments on a few Penn-related threads and have been surprised at the stress level of some of the CC posters there.

The purpose of my post here today is not only to highlight the effect of highly competitive college admissions on high school students but also to offer a few words of advice to future applicants about how to think of the future. In other words, I'd like young people to know that to which college they are admitted and end up attending will most likely neither set them up for life nor stamp them a future failure. That sounds extreme, but I have seen those exact sentiments expressed year after year in these forum threads.

So, let's take a look at what I'm talking about. Here's a Penn-related thread discussing Decision Day. It serves as a good example of the wide dynamic range of emotions. Accordingly, here are some representative posts (working backward from the most recent) that illustrate my point:

Can't sleep either omggggggg tomorrow night is going to be a struggle

– ive never felt more uncertain and stressed about this whole process until now

– anyone's stomach in knots ??

– After waiting so long for the decision it's just now starting to hit me that after Friday we will all know and I'm honestly not ready to be crushed and have to wait until April to know where I'm going to college.

– There is no point of comparing scores and legacy at this point. It just stresses people out. Please don't do that.

– Same. 1 day and 14 hours away!! Can't focus on anything at all lol. I applied to SEAS, but my physics sat subject test was pretty low and I feel certain that it's going to solidify my rejection lollllllll send help

– I'm worried my peers will hover around me when I check.

– But I also don't know if I could wait three hours until I get home!!! Such a struggle.

– Same. I'm also 3 hours behind so results come out at 12pm so I'll still be in school, and I don't know if I could bring myself to check the results at school…

– I'm tempted to take the day off when ED results are posted to just relax and enjoy myself before horrible news haha. I doubt I'd be too focused on school anyway

– same here..I applied to SEAS with a low physics score… I'm waiting for a miracle lol

– me too I think I'm gonna Netflix binge I'm only gonna toss and turn if I try to sleep

– Y'all I can't sleep it's tomorrow

– but I totally understand feeling the need to mentally prepare for devastation

– 39 hours left man! And I have a upenn rejection letter on my wallpaper to mentally prepare me for my rejection lol

– I can already tell this weekend is going to be one of the most unproductive weekends I've ever had no matter how the decision goes …

– yoo that video brought tears to my eyes, i'm so emo guys. Thank you for sharing!!

– honestly like im so paranoid ive actually been checking my horoscope

– friday is less than two days away but it honestly felt like a year has passed since monday and i am not ok enough to dismiss superstitions ahaha

– same here, im normally not a superstitious person but i need all the luck i can get

– omg i've been having bad luck all last week kinda too, and i'm just hoping it's all leading up to a great friday with an acceptance letter.

– random but my favorite show just got cancelled i hope this isn't a bad omen


Okay. All these angst-filled comments came from just the final four pages of that Penn thread. Currently, there are 166 pages of posts, 2,445 posts in total, in a thread started in February of this year. That's a lot of concern and, as you can see, stress, leading up to today's announcements.

Multiply this times the other Ivy League schools, Top-50, Top-100, highly competitive institutions, etc., etc. and you'll see the larger picture of the pressure cooker that squeezes so many applicants every year. Plus, this is just ED/EA admissions, where there can be a second chance of getting in for those who are deferred into the spring admit pool. Talk about holding one's breath! The May 1 enrollment deadline resounds with a worldwide, collective exhale in honor of final enrollment decisions. What a process!

Now, take a moment to consider the consequential totality of the college admissions process …

Stress affects parents, too, you know. Here's what I noted in a previous post:

“In an interesting article, current college student and author, Zac Bissonnette, addresses the issue of college admissions-related parental stress. Read and heed.

Stressed Out About Your Kid's College Admissions? Get a Life!

My mother, a social worker, once asked a middle school guidance counselor what separated the kids who did well from the kids who didn't.

“Oh, that's easy," she replied. “The parents have their own lives."

It's a line that parents would do well to remember as a new wave of high school juniors — and sophomores, and increasingly freshman — enter the college admissions frenzy. Journalist David Marcus recently wrote a wonderful piece on The Choice, the college blog of The New York Times, where he explained coming to terms with the fact that his kid wasn't an academic superstar and wouldn't be going to the same storied institution he had attended. And that that was OK, even great. His column prompted this comment from a reader: “There is nothing wrong with expecting your kid to get all A's, take honors and AP courses, top scores on SAT, and get into a top school. There is nothing wrong with being disappointed if your kid fails to accomplish these goals. It is your failure as a parent, too."

Well, actually, there is something very wrong with having those expectations when they're detached from your kid's interests, talents and passions — and, frankly, something really messed up about branding people “failures" if their kids don't get into elite schools.

Stop Running the Admissions Horse Race

My advice to parents would be to stop looking at your kid and worrying about why he doesn't seem interested in getting into a top school. Instead, look in the mirror and worry about why you do care so much. As I've written in dozens of previous articles, there's overwhelming evidence that going to an elite college doesn't provide nearly as great a benefit as many people think it does. For instance, one study found that students accepted into elite schools who attended less selective schools ended up earning the same amount of money afterward as those who had gone to those higher-ranked institutions. What will determine your kid's success in life is his ability and determination, not his pedigree.

And if your kid isn't academically talented and driven, no $50,000-a-year college will turn him into a superstar.

So here's an idea: Instead of telling your kid to study one of those awful SAT prep guides, unplug the xBox and tell him to read a book. Any book. I don't care if it's Twilight or Choose Your Own Adventure, it will improve his vocabulary and reading comprehension skills, and it just might help him discover what interests him. The real tragedy of the college admissions competition is that it has distorted what should be a youthful desire for knowledge into a narcissistic horse race that has more to do with bragging at cocktail parties than education.

Oh, and follow that guidance counselor's advice and get a life. Or at least a second job so that your kid won't have to take out student loans … "


And for you upcoming applicants, some words of wisdom about looking back over the admissions process:

Be humble in victory and defeat. Finally, at some point, you will reach the end of your quest. For those who are deferred, the final word will come in late March or early April. For those on the wait list, things are less specific. Sometimes, waitlisters can find out where they stand on the list, if the school ranks its list. You may be able at least to find out how many are on the list. Sometimes it's many hundreds. Obviously, if you choose to hang in there indefinitely on a wait list, you're going to have to enroll somewhere else in the meantime. This can happily lead to the loss of an enrollment deposit if your wait list marketing pays off.

In any event, you're eventually going to learn your fate. When you do, I suggest that you remember the lesson of the words emblazoned over the entrance to Wimbledon stadium's famous grass center court. They tell us to treat victory and defeat the same, as the impostors they are. What does that mean? Well, in the context of college admissions, it all goes back to what I said before — in general, things tend to work out for the best.

Accordingly, whether you get the fat envelope or the thin one in April and whether or not you ever hear from the wait list doesn't mean that you're any better or worse than anyone else. Accept it all as good fortune and, if you come up short, don't pout and go negative, blaming this person or that circumstance — or worse, yourself. On the other hand, if you get in, don't gloat and go around flaunting your good fortune. It might have gone the other way just as easily. Be humble and gracious regardless of the outcome. In either case, the best days of your life are yet to come. Trust me on that point.


As a believer in the value of quality mechanical tools, I also recommend that you have your stress meter calibrated by a professional. Sometimes these meters go haywire and they start to give false readings. You may be sitting at breakfast one day in mid-December, thinking about your Early Decision application when you suddenly experience what this CC forum poster did:

– the fact that theres less than a day till I find out if my dreams have been crushed or have become a reality is FREAKING ME OUT

A quick glance at your stress meter will probably show the needle bouncing forcefully to the right, into the FREAKOUT!!! zone. That's when you know you need to have the calibration checked. While you're waiting to have your local stress meter technician do his or her thing, remember my words from above: “… treat victory and defeat the same, as the impostors they are."

In any event, to all of you ED/EA applicants (and RDers this spring) … best wishes for success. Let us know what happens!


Check College Confidential for all of my college-related articles.