How High School Students Prepare for College: Tips to Manage Stress & Anxiety

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The transition from high school to college is often one of the largest transitions a teen has made in their life thus far. Entering college involves many new experiences including living independently, making new friends, and navigating new coursework and instructors. The college transition, however, often begins earlier than many parents expect.

For many students, stress levels can peak during their junior year as pressure builds regarding post-high school decisions that they feel may impact the rest of their lives. Juniors in high school feel pressure to keep their grades up and receive enough credits so that they can get into the college that they want, all while pursuing extracurricular activities, preparing for and taking the ACT / SAT, considering career choices, researching colleges, and touring schools.

Stress and anxiety in general has recently worsened for many teens. According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2020 survey, teens who are already under stress due to the normal pressures of high school have felt even more stress in recent years, thanks to the pandemic. About 43 percent of teens surveyed in 2020 said their stress levels had gone up and 45 percent said they had a hard time concentrating on schoolwork. Many reported feeling a lack of motivation.

It’s no wonder that high school students feel stressed, anxious and overwhelmed. A quick google search on preparing for college as a high school student will result in hundreds of websites providing extensive lists of recommended steps for high school students to take starting on the first day of freshman year.

Yet oftentimes these sites focus on helping your teen prepare academically for college and development of a post high school plan. However, it is equally important to help your teen learn how to strengthen their resilience and ability to manage stressors before walking onto a college campus.

Importance of Preparing Ahead

Ask any college freshman how their first year of college is going, and more often than not, you will hear stories about the ups and downs of being new to college. For many students, stress and anxiety can worsen during those first months of being away from home.

The American College Health Association’s  (2019) found that 87% of college students felt “overwhelmed by all they had to do” in the past year and 54% of students reported anxiety that had affected their academic performance (Coiro, Bettis, & Compas, 2017; Houston et al., 2017). In addition, many college counseling centers on campus are overwhelmed with the demand for services causing students to wait weeks or longer to begin short term care.

Knowing this, how do we as parents help ensure that our teens have the skills needed to safely navigate to rough waters of life after college and have the ability to handle any unexpected problems that come from this experience? How can we help our teens gain the skills needed that will allow them to go through difficult times and still bounce back?

What is Resilience?

As humans, one key factor that allows us to “bounce back” during challenging times and when faced with adversity is resilience. Resilience is the ability to withstand, address, adapt and adjust to difficulties in life, to overcome obstacles, and to bounce back from perceived failure, disappointment, or rejection.

Building resilience is key to helping high school students develop the ability to overcome stressful and challenging experiences that they may have in college and beyond. But just like building strong muscles in our body takes time and intentionality, building resilience does as well.

When building resilience, there are several core areas to focus, two of which are building and strengthening connection, and developing and maintaining healthy thinking. Ensuring that your teen has solid skills in these areas prior to heading to college is a great step to strengthening their resilience.

Building and Strengthening Connection

  • Before your teen heads off for college, help them identify the players on their support team – the people that they can contact during stressful moments or when they need to laugh or cry. Encourage your teen to take a few minutes to think about who then can call when they need to laugh, need to vent or need a good distraction.
  • Ensure that your teen is aware of resources on campus as well. Take some time to identify the school specific mental health resources available on campus and determine ahead of time what steps need to be taken to schedule an appointment. Ask what mental health resources are available to students after hours as well. Many campuses also have an active chapter of Active Minds, a club that focuses on mental health well being on campus, which can be a great way to begin to develop connections on campus.
  • As your college student begins to make social connections on campus, it will be critical that they are able to express their thoughts assertively and learn how to set boundaries when needed. Both are important steps in maintaining healthy social connections. This may mean helping your teen talk through current difficult situations with their friends and exploring steps that they can take to establish boundaries within these friendships.

Maintaining Healthy Thinking

Managing the Self-Doubt that Comes with Growth

  • It is not uncommon for college-bound kids who were high achievers and self-confident in high school to lose their confidence, doubt their ability to succeed, and question their ability to make friends once they get to college, leading to a loss of identity at times. It is common for college students to struggle with imposter syndrome and question if they are smart enough to be at college even though they made it there through hard work.
  • As a parent it can be heartbreaking to see your child go through this struggle. Although some self doubt is normal, as a parent, there are steps you can help your teen take so that they rebound from this self doubt.
    • Take time to normalize that these feelings are often a part of the growth process of moving from high school to college and are temporary feelings that will come and go.
    • Sharing your own experience of being a freshman college student, if this is applicable, can be helpful at times.
    • When you hear your teen or college student expressing feelings of defeat or self doubt, or questioning if they are smart enough, help them challenge this thought by asking: “What would you tell your best friend if they were feeling the way you feel right now?” This can be a great way of helping your teen tap into their own self-compassion.

Setting Realistic Expectations of Self

  • Make sure that your college student’s expectations about college are realistic even before they get to campus so the challenges and associated feelings of self-doubt they will certainly experience during this new stage are understood as being normal and expected.
  • If your teen didn’t need to apply much effort in high school to succeed, alert them to what’s coming: new and more difficult academic demands that can leave a freshman feeling discouraged and defeated. Your child may falsely conclude that she is not smart enough, and effort would be futile.
  • Share with your teen that it is okay and normal to have some difficulty adjusting to a college course load and talk through where they can go for academic help when this occurs.

Addressing the All or Nothing Thinking

  • All or nothing thinking is one of the most common faulty thought patterns that we can develop over time that makes us more prone to negative thoughts and conclusions. All or nothing thinking is a negative thinking pattern that polarizes situations, experiences and people leading people to place everything into boxes of either good or bad, leaving no room for a more balanced perspective while ignoring conflicting or ambiguous information.
  • For many of us, stress magnifies all-or-nothing thinking. In the college setting, this might mean that when a grade or one’s performance falls short of your teen’s expectation, it is seen as a complete failure. When these moments occur, help your teen remember that each time they have learned a new skill, whether learning how to tie their shoes or learning how to drive, they weren’t proficient from day one. Rather, it took time to master those skills. Help your child recognize that there are degrees of success versus only two options: success or failure.
  • Help your teen become aware of when all or nothing thoughts are surfacing so that they can take some time to question the accuracy of this thought. For example, if you hear your teen say I am a complete failure because I failed this one test, ask them to argue the opposite view point of this: why they are not a complete failure because they failed one test. The more this skill is practiced, the more automatic it will become.
  • Finally, as cliché as it sounds, help your teen and college student remember that they are not alone. Knowing you’re not alone also extends to knowing that feeling nervous or overwhelmed during big life transitions is normal – it doesn’t mean you don’t belong there, nor does it mean that they can’t handle the challenges that they are currently facing.


Blog written by Sentier therapist Becky Lawyer, MA, LPCC, LPC.

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