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College-Application Jitters

Paying For College Without Going Broke (Princeton Review) is a terrific resource and the title certainly addressed our main parental anxiety, so we bought a copy. In our practice we see high school students and their parents who are anticipating or working through the process of selecting a college or vocational school, and the anxiety level tends to be high in this group.

For high school students, selecting a college is one of the first significant decisions they confront. Parents are also going through emotional changes, some similar to their adolescent’s, some different. Both parents and kids are facing a slew of unfamiliar acronyms (PSAT, SAT, SAT2, ACT, FASFA), not to mention forms, deadlines and demands on their schedules. Questions applicants ask include: Are my grades good enough? Will the financial aid package cover my expenses? What about my roommate? There are many unknowns to deal with.

The way you think about the decision-making process will influence the way you experience it emotionally. Denial—a primitive defense against anxiety—is not helpful in making important decisions. We encourage our clients to take a breath, confront their fears and take the first step: gathering information.

Knowledge really does take the fear out of a situation. There may be a lot to learn but there is also an abundance of helpful resources: books, websites, guidance counselors, colleges and universities. Talk with other parents who have been through the process. Suggest your child do the same with his peers. You may feel fearful initially, but don’t let fear push you around. Do what you have to do and drag your fear along. Once you get started, you will feel less fearful.

Worry can make a situation worse. Worries are not to be trusted. Worries lie and exaggerate a situation. Worries will use your greatest fears to create the worst possible scenarios in your thinking. If you worry throughout the day, work on allowing yourself to worry only for a few minutes each day. Set aside some time and worry out loud with someone you trust. After 10 minutes, you are done for the day. As worries try to intrude, fight them off, distract yourself and save them for the following day’s worry time. Eventually the worries will dissipate from lack of attention and energy.

“Logical thinking” also makes worries less powerful. Think about what is true, not what you are afraid might happen. Logical thinking reminds us that really bad things don’t happen often and you can get through setbacks.

Use your (financial) imagination. There are many ways to skin a cat! The same is true about finding a way to pay for college or a vocational program. Work on being open to different alternatives and flexible in overcoming obstacles. Your son or daughter might have to start off part time while working a job and living at home. Community colleges are typically an excellent value. Some students go to a community college and then transfer to a university to finish a four-year degree. If your child struggled with grades in high school, many community colleges offer remedial programs that teach skills on how to become academically successful. There are online courses and even entire degree-granting virtual universities. Some employers will pay or reimburse a student for taking college courses or training while working at a job.

There are no perfect decisions. When making big decisions, rarely, if ever, do people feel 100 confident about their choice. Make an informed, thoughtful decision, and then make it the right decision for you and be done with it. Mistakes are what help us learn and adapt. When you make a mistake, look it over carefully and try something different. Don’t burn up energy up on regrets and worry; try to use your “psychological energy” to fuel new action. Allow yourself extra time and be mindful of the various deadlines that you will encounter. Rushing intensifies anxiety.

Physical exercise and relaxation techniques can help relieve the symptoms of anxiety. Diaphragmatic breathing (a simple relaxation technique of breathing deeply) and progressive muscle relaxation (both can be found through Google) are two good examples of relaxation techniques that are quick and easy to use.

Character traits of persistence, resilience and the ability to work hard are more important in terms of future success than attending the country’s most prestigious universities or colleges. These traits will serve your child well throughout his or her life.

Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to editorial@familytimes.biz.

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