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5 Ways to Avoid Unnecessary Stress in the Admissions Process

As many of you know, my oldest child is a high school senior. I am happy to say that her college admissions process is done. She was admitted to her Early Decision choice college in mid-December and I couldn't be happier. (Above is a photo of my daughter right before her interview for the college at which she will be enrolling!)

I know how fortunate she was to be able to apply to an Early Decision program. But even if she hadn't, she had some wonderful acceptances even before the holiday break.

A lot of families have asked me what I have learned about the process going through it as a parent. Honestly, I haven't learned anything new; I have reaffirmed what I already know. This process of applying to college doesn't need to be as stressful as it is.
While the current high school seniors are in the thick of it, I want the younger students to know how to control your outcomes without letting this process get to you. Here are five things to do that made my daughter's experience—dare I say—manageable and fairly stress-free.

1. Go on as many college visits as possible before the fall of senior year.

I'm not going to lie, this was difficult to do with my daughter. My job never lets up and it was hard to squeeze in college visits that coordinated with her schedule. But we started seriously visiting colleges in the fall of sophomore year. We managed three here, three there, one here, and one there whenever possible. We even had time to revisit two of my daughter's top contenders twice. These visits allowed her to narrow her college list, helped determine which college to apply to in Early Decision, and provided support for the supplemental essays she had to write. The few colleges that weren't visited were ones that didn't track demonstrated interest (and didn't require supplemental essays that demand a deeper understanding of the college). If need be, we could have visited those colleges if she was seriously considering enrolling at them (after she was admitted).

2. Write the main college essay in the summer between junior and senior year.

It was close, but my daughter managed to write her main essay on a last-minute trip to visit my in-laws right before her senior year started. She had tried multiple times throughout the summer. Every other topic and draft didn't come together. But getting stuck in a car for six hours straight was what allowed her to write the essay she had been wanting to write all summer. My advice for not starting the essay sooner, like spring of junior year, comes from experience. I never get a solid draft from a student until junior year is behind them. And waiting until the fall of senior year is difficult with pressure to do well in classes, filling out applications, and the need to write supplemental essays too.

3. Keep the final college list shorter than you think! 

My daughter's list had only nine colleges: three reach colleges, three target colleges, and three likely colleges. While she only applied to five of them before finding out her Early Decision outcome, it meant that she wasn't writing a ludicrous number of supplemental essays and filling out different applications. She filled out the Common Application only—all of her colleges used this platform. Hallelujah. And she wrote three supplemental essays for the five applications she submitted. Yes, she would have had to write a few more supplemental essays if she didn't get admitted to her Early Decision college. But that's reasonable. The students who apply to countless highly selective colleges end up having to write dozens of supplemental essays and the stress is almost unbearable.

4. Be smart about where you apply "early."

Two out of the nine colleges on my daughter's list have a Rolling Admissions process which means she could apply as early as August. In the end, she submitted her two Rolling applications in September. Within a few weeks, she got admitted to both of them, one even gave her a merit scholarship at the time of acceptance. This gave her peace of mind that she was already admitted to two colleges. She also applied to two Early Action schools. But these weren't just any Early Action schools; these were schools that released their Early Action results BEFORE the holiday break. This meant less waiting! And these weren't colleges with shockingly low acceptance rates. She got admitted to one (with a merit scholarship) and deferred from another before hearing from her Early Decision school.
Be careful with Early Action schools like the University of Michigan, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, University of Southern California, Northeastern University, and others that have single-digit (or close to it) acceptance rates and don't release decisions until after Regular Decision deadlines pass. Some of the large universities with Early Action are becoming out of reach for most students. This leaves students waiting to hear back when they could be applying to colleges with better odds and earlier decision releases. 
5. Apply early to a dream college that is still within reach.
You should be objectively competitive for every college on your list including that dream college. Be smart about when you apply to that dream school. If it has an Early Decision program, consider applying through this binding program as it can increase your chances of admission. For colleges with Early Action programs, especially Restrictive Early Action programs, pay close attention to the acceptance rate. Harvard University admitted only 8.74% of its Restrictive Early Action pool this year. Is applying "early" to Harvard really worth it? 

READ MORE: Setting Limits in the College Admissions Process

I have been asked whether this process was stressful for my daughter and our family. Besides those last few days waiting for the Early Decision results, we kept things chill and in perspective. Why? Because I ensured that my daughter wasn't applying to too many colleges or colleges out of reach. In the end, she got several surprises that made this process truly special. Not only did she get admitted to her Early Decision school, she got an unexpected merit scholarship. To top it all off, the president of the college wrote her a handwritten note congratulating her. I doubt the Ivy League presidents do that!
The point of applying to college is to get acceptances. Where you apply and when you apply can change your outcomes. If you want to avoid unnecessary stress, apply to the colleges that will appreciate you instead of the colleges that want to deny you.