Introducing Applerouth’s Anxiety Series
College-bound teens and families are increasingly feeling the pressure in today’s competitive college admissions environment. Just ask any parent or professional who works with this group. In Applerouth’s annual Decision Day survey, we surveyed a number of IECs (in addition to students and parents) with some startling results. Ninety percent of IECs surveyed indicated that their students are more anxious about the college admissions process than they were five years ago. And here is what’s especially concerning: the vast majority (78%) of IECs who participated in our survey do not believe students have the appropriate coping skills to manage current levels of academic pressure/anxiety.
We all want to find ways to relieve the pressure these students are facing, and we all want to help them and their families develop tools to navigate this process. But how? There are no easy answers. In November 2019, we coordinated a half-day workshop at the fall conference for IECA, the Independent Educational Consultants Association. Titled, “Under Pressure: Addressing Admissions Anxiety,” this workshop shed light on some important shifts we can make in our approach to this issue. In the year ahead, we plan to share these insights more broadly through our newsletter and upcoming webinars.
Expert panelists for the IECA workshop included our founder, Dr. Jed Applerouth; Dr. Carrie Poline, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist; Dr. Shari Obrentz, an Associate Dean at Emory University; and Dr. Gary Glass, a licensed psychologist and the Director of Counseling and Career Services at Oxford College of Emory University. The workshop also included a session on practical strategies to use with students and families, led by Lisa Smith, the founder of Lisa Smith College Consulting and an Associate Member of IECA, and John Cadenhead, Applerouth’s Senior Director of Tutor Services.
Each speaker had a wealth of insight to offer, and it’s impossible to cover the breadth and depth of each presenter’s ideas in one short blog post. Today, we’ll be sharing some of the overarching themes. In upcoming posts and events, we’ll provide more specific insights from some of the individual speakers.
One of the workshop’s objectives was to offer new language, tools, and perspectives to shift the conversation around admissions anxiety in a helpful direction. In conjunction with this goal, the experts discussed the pitfalls of dichotomous (or “black and white”) thinking. Dichotomous mental frameworks – success vs. failure or mental health vs. mental illness – make it difficult for students, families, and college planning professionals to navigate the process.
Our experts also spoke about society’s current demands and how these demands impact individual students. Dr. Glass’s recent article on campus mental health addresses both dichotomous thinking and contextualizing student anxiety. As he put it at the workshop, perhaps we have to think about “treating the water, not just the fish.”
In the spirit or breaking away from dichotomous thinking and of questioning some of the demands society has placed on young people, we’d like to share a few of the reframing questions that helped shape the dialog at the workshop.
- What is failure? Is it the opposite of success or part of a natural cycle in the learning process? The more we can frame “failure” as a natural part of learning and growth, the more we may be willing to allow young people to experience it. Dr. Poline spoke to the importance of developing skills to cope with the difficult emotions that we all experience. Building resilience through life’s natural setbacks is one important way to develop such skills. Also, students experiencing failure or setbacks may cope better with a more nuanced view of “failure” and its role in their long term growth. Dr. Glass noted how important our language is: does a student experiencing setbacks think that they “are a failure” or that they are merely “experiencing a failure”?
- How do we define success? Are there really certain “right ways” to do things to ensure success? And can the path to achieving one’s goals be winding, or does it have to be a straight line? Dr. Obrentz spoke about how helpful it is to model for our young people that there is no one “right way” to do things. She also noted that it is helpful to share stories of “successful” adults who have taken non-traditional paths, or who can speak to setbacks along the way.
- Why do we think in black and white terms about mental health? Is there no middle ground or grey area in between the extremes or “mental illness” on the one hand and “mental health” on the other? As Dr. Glass offered in his presentation, can’t a person experience an “emotional bruise?” A more nuanced understanding of the emotional ups, downs, and challenges that we all experience might open the door for more open conversation and connection.
- What makes a “good college?” Lisa Smith helped to frame a conversation about college that moves away from focusing on names, and instead begins with the criteria that parents and students are looking for. A student who would like a beautiful campus, excellent professors, and an active student life can rest assured that there are many, many colleges across the country that fit the bill.
Each of the above points merely scratches the surface on the important themes that experts and participants explored in greater depth in the workshop. We walked away convinced of the power of sharing this information – both to address the pressure that students feel, and to give them (and their caring adults) an enhanced set of coping skills. We look forward to covering the ideas that emerged from this workshop in greater detail in the year ahead.