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How to Make the College Application Process Less Stressful and More Meaningful

Most families begin the college search and application process with heightened anxiety, but it doesn’t have to be a stressful experience. As an independent educational consultant, my goal is to alleviate the stress on both students and parents so that the path to college is positive and meaningful. Here are some ways that I help to reframe the process.

Defining a “great” college

One of the most commonplace questions I hear when I first meet with families is, “Will my student land at a ‘great’ college?” I begin by addressing definitions. What exactly is a “great” college? My definition includes a beautiful, well-appointed campus, professors who care, and a student body filled with bright, ambitious, and friendly students. The map on the wall in my office marks 1,400 colleges throughout the US, and most of them fit this definition of a “great” college. The handful of colleges that are most discussed in the hallways at school often represent local popularity contests and are not indicative of the many excellent options found in every region.

Another important realization is that college admissions scenarios have transformed over time. Here’s an example: Vanderbilt, by all accounts a “great” college, accepted 67% of their applicants in 1998. Today, they accept less than 11%. Part of the excitement of my job is finding “new Vanderbilts,” high quality institutions that accept more students while offering a dynamic range of majors, research opportunities, and vibrant campus activities.

Creating a balanced college list

Creating a balanced college list is one of the best ways to minimize admission anxiety. All students should have college lists with three categories of schools:

  • reaches: colleges where applicants may be on the lower end of the admission bracket and/or the college has a low acceptance rate
  • targets:colleges where an applicant sits comfortably in the admissions window
  • likely options: colleges where an applicant sits solidly at the high end of the range

With a well-crafted list, a student can be confident that admission options will be safely in hand at the end of the process.

Customizing rigor 

Students are often concerned about their worthiness as applicants. When I meet with students alone, I ask, “Are you trying as hard as you can in school, or is it possible to try harder?” For some students, sleep is severely limited and stress is high. Those students need to strike a balance to be happy and ultimately successful in college. Maximizing rigor is right for some, and overwhelming for others. For students who comfortably seek a challenge, I encourage them to put the foot on the accelerator as they move through high school. For other students who are still building their skills, I suggest applying rigor gradually to individual interests and passions.

Using organizational skills

I remind students that organizational skills deprogram stress: they need to use a calendar to schedule study time, work, plot assignments, and keep an eye on future college deadlines. When students are organized, they naturally find the balance necessary for reaching their academic potential and feeling successful.

Closing thoughts

There is no one formula for admissions success. College campuses are filled with a wide variety of students following all sorts of pastimes. I encourage students to resist thinking of themselves as walking, talking college applications. When students pursue activities just to “get into college,” their lack of authentic interest comes through in application essays and in interviews. Students should pursue subjects and activities that truly interest them. The excitement an applicant brings to campus is impressive, regardless of their particular focus. I like to describe the college search process as “making the most out of high school.” If a student does that, striking an academic balance and pursuing activities that bring them joy, then the college application piece comes easily. The student is just capturing their successful high school journey and sharing that with colleges.


Lisa Smith is the founder of Lisa Smith College Consulting and an Associate Member of IECA. She works with students and families throughout metro Atlanta, all over the United States, and in Europe. She believes that, while the path to college is increasingly complex, it doesn’t have to be stressful. She helps students and parents navigate the college application process into a personal, meaningful and positive experience.


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