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For me, college application season is nothing new; it happens every year at about this time. But for many, this is uncharted territory.

For me, college application season is nothing new; it happens every year at about this time. But for many students and their families, this is uncharted territory. First, a vague sense of unease begins to nibble away at the back of their minds. They make lists, fill in calendars, and buy how-to books, but there’s still a mild undercurrent of panic swirling just below the surface.

Trust me, there’s no need for that. Here are six suggestions from an admissions season veteran on how you can banish that panic for good.

1. Start now. Haven’t started your essay yet? I hate to add to the stress, but you’re behind the curve. All of my students have done multiple versions of their main essay at this point, and they’re nearing their final drafts. The essay is a crucial piece of the application puzzle. It deserves and requires a lot of focus, especially in the early days of admission season. But it’s not too late yet. You can still conceive, execute, and hone a spectacular college admissions essay (here’s some help on that front). But don’t wait any longer.

Also, be sure you schedule all your on-campus interviews as soon as you can. Popular schools–USC for example–fill their interview schedules very quickly, so don’t assume you will get a slot if you wait.

2. Get real. Most seniors have a pretty good idea of which schools they want to apply to. Now it’s time to step back and assess the reality of your particular situation. Look at each school on your list and be honest about your chances of admission. If your entire list comprises “reach” schools, you are setting yourself up for a difficult spring. Keep your favorite reach schools, but balance your list out with schools that range in selectivity. Feel free to reach for the stars, but make sure you pick a few schools here on Earth just in case.

3. Learn to love stress. I’m only half-kidding about this one. This is a momentous time in a student’s life, so there will be a certain amount of stress involved. There’s not a college applicant in the country who doesn’t feel stressed at some point during the process. But know that this particular brand of stress is different. It is for a very good cause. And know that it will turn out fine in the end. More on that in a minute.

4. Ignore the chatter. One way to diminish said stress is to train yourself to ignore the gossip that always accompanies admissions season. Whether so-and-so applied early, or whats-his-name got a nod from School X should be of little importance to you. Everyone’s educational trajectory is different, and there is a rich experience waiting out there for you as well. Now is not the time to compare yourself to others, or to agonize that your friend may have taken the last slot at Berkeley; now is the time for you to focus, in a vacuum, on your own applications, and make them the best they can possibly be.

5. Think short term. For your entire high school career, long-term goals have loomed over you. On some level, you’ve been expected to view everything you’ve done–even the things you’ve loved doing–within the context of how it might make you look to prospective colleges. Well, rejoice: those days of long-term planning are about to come to fruition. Now it’s time for some short-term planning, both to help relieve stress and to make sure you maximize the quality of your application.

So make a list of short-term goals. Request your recommendation letters by mid September, finish filling out the Common Application and main essay by the end of September, etc. Compile a list of your supplemental requirements, and check them off the list as you go. It will feel very good as, one by one, these items get lines drawn through them.

As your list gets shorter and shorter, you’ll realize that this stress is a different kind of stress, in a number of ways, from any stress you’ve felt before. That’s because this stress is born not of obligation but of promise, both for the monumental change this process will bring about, and for the exciting future that comes with it.

And before you know it, it will be over, and you will be learning to love your new school colors–no matter what they end up being.

[AUTHOR: Cassie Nichols, College Specific]

September 2, 2014

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