Preparing for College: I Don’t Have Everything Figured Out!

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If you are reading this, you are likely here because you feel some pressure and anxiety about the next steps in your life! ACT prep, application deadlines, college tours, extracurricular activities, the list goes on and on for all the ways you are bombarded with messages about getting ready for college. More than ever, high school students like yourself are experiencing pressure to have their whole lives figured out at what seems like, younger and younger ages! Well, I’m here to tell you, no one really has it ALL figured out and there are some practical ways to help relieve some of your college preparation fears. Don’t worry, this isn’t a blog on how to get a perfect score on the ACT or SAT, but rather to help you take a breath, and trust that it’s okay if you don’t have it all figured out.

Anxiety About College

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First, let’s just acknowledge the anxiety you are experiencing. It’s real and it might be intense. This anxiety can come from our parents or other trusted adults in our lives, from ourselves and our own drive to perform, or a combination of all of the above.

Just like other problems in our life, the more we can recognize and understand our anxiety, the better we are at managing and regulating it. Ask yourself a few questions to help you get a better understanding of what exactly is stressing you out:

  1. What part about college is stressing me out the most? (deciding on where to go, getting accepted, LGBTQ concerns, standardized tests)
  2. When do I feel the most anxious about college? (when my parents ask me, during classes, at night)
  3. How does my body feel when I get anxious about college? (faster heart rate, upset stomach, sweaty palms)
  4. What thoughts typically accompany my anxiety? (I am not prepared. I am not going to make it. I am behind.)
  5. How long does my high-anxiety about college tend to last? Is there anything that helps relieve it?

After answering some of these questions, consider making a two column list with one side that says “What I CAN control” and the other reading “What I CAN’T control”. List all of the things related to college that you have control over and those you don’t. This exercise serves a few purposes. One, it helps get all of the swirling, anxious, scary thoughts out of your head and onto a tangible place. Secondly, it helps you name and recognize areas you can take action and those you cannot. For example, you can apply to all your top choices, write the best essay ever, but then the decision process is out of your control. Try letting that fear of the unknown about getting accepted or rejected come and go as it enters your brain. Don’t let it consume you if you can’t do much about it.

Normalize Your Anxiety

When it comes to stress and worry about success in college, remember that you are not alone. This is not said to diminish or invalidate your feelings, but more to remind you that at this very moment, thousands of other teens are feeling a very similar way! As you embark on your college journey, every other freshman there is just that, a freshman! They have never done this college thing before, either.

Additionally, most humans experience some level of anxiety when trying something new. College is new! Acknowledge your anxiety and fears, and see if you can allow them to also generate some excitement and hopeful anticipation for what’s to come. Feeling some anxiety when walking into an unknown experience is normal and healthy.

If you feel your anxiety is just too big and consuming you in most areas of your life, it might be time to talk with a school counselor or a therapist. Anxiety and fear that keeps us stuck, frozen, or impacts our mood in significant ways needs to be addressed with a professional who can help give you tangible skills for reducing your overall anxiety and managing your stress.

Explore Your Options

One aspect of anxiety related to prepping for college, can be rooted in a fear of the unknown. When we don’t know what to expect our minds can run wild! Typically, in our anxious brain, our thoughts do not run wild with all of the good and fun things that could happen, but all of the bad and terrible:

“What if I flunk all my classes?”

“What if I hate my roommate?”

“What if I get homesick?”

“What if I don’t find a queer community?”

Explore ways to get a better picture of what college might look like. Sure, you cannot know the ins and outs of what your experience will be like, but learning more about what to expect can be helpful in easing your fears. Some ways for learning more about the college experience:

  1. Talk to your school counselor/college advisor. They are there for a reason, and it’s not just to help schedule your ACT test! They will be able to talk through what to expect with applications, scholarships, deadlines, and even specifics about what certain colleges can offer.
  2. Take a college tour. This is one of the best ways to get a glimpse of what college life might look like. Go into these tours with an open mind. Often I hear high school students can feel intimidated or out of place being on a college campus. Try not to get stuck here because remember, after all, you are not a college student yet. Your time will come. Trust the process.
  3. Do some research on the internet. Have fun with this! See what types of colleges are out there or what major/area of focus might be of interest to you. You may decide that a traditional four year college is not the path you want to take. Technical schools, a family business, the military, or entering the workforce are all other options that you might consider.

Exploring our options and getting a better picture of what to expect gives our brains another choice rather than all of those negative “What If’s?” mentioned before. Challenge those thoughts and try to flip those negative questions:

“What if I don’t flunk all my courses and I discover a new interest or hobby?”

“What if my random roommate becomes my very best friend?”

“What if changing my mind and switching paths actually builds confidence and trust in myself?”

Try giving your brain a different path, positive or even neutral, to diminish some of your fears.

Anxiety Toolbox

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We can’t manage our anxiety without the right tools. When this comes to anxiety about college, there is a lot to consider so start with what feels most important or accessible to you and go from there.

When creating a toolbox for our anxiety, consider adding specific skills and resources.

One skill that can be especially useful for planning for unknowns related to college is the DBT Skill, “Cope Ahead”. This skill is designed to help us regulate our emotions by visualizing and preparing for how to handle an emotional or difficult situation. Cope Ahead can be useful any time you anticipate a situation that causes worry, fear, or anxiety. Follow these basic steps to use this skill in action:

  1. Describe the situation that is likely to prompt uncomfortable feelings.
    1. Check the facts. Be specific in describing the situation. Name the emotions and actions likely to interfere with using positive coping skills.
  2. Decide what coping or problem-solving skills you want to use in the situation.
    1. Be specific. Write out in detail how you will cope with the situation and with your emotions and action urges.
  3. Imagine the situation in your mind as vividly as possible. Imagine yourself in the situation now, not watching the situation.
  4. Rehearse in your mind coping effectively.
    1. Rehearse in your mind exactly what you can do to cope effectively. Rehearse your actions, your thoughts, what you say, and how to say it. Rehearse coping effectively with new problems that come up. Rehearse coping effectively with your most feared catastrophe.
  5. Practice relaxation after rehearsing the scenario.
    1. Doing this kind of visualization can be stressful on your body. Do something that feels relaxing to you!

Cope ahead is a DBT Skill that helps us regulate our emotions by preparing to better handle emotional situations. Cope ahead is useful any time you anticipate a situation that causes you worry, fear, anger, sadness, etc. – especially when your anticipation is increasing your anxiety.

For general tips and skills for managing your anxiety, check out our other blog on anxiety here.

For tips specific to college preparation, check out this blog here.

Give Yourself Permission to Change Your Mind

Struggling with this one? I’ll do it for you… It is okay to change your mind! Yes, you want to do your best to make a decision that will work out well for yourself, but if you change your mind… about your college major, your school, the city you live in… it will be okay! Sometimes we feel so much pressure related to college because of all the time, energy, and money that can go into the decision. But remember, you are still human. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes, change our minds, or not get it right the first time will actually make life more fulfilling and purposeful. This is the common human experience. No one wants or expects you to be a robot. Boring. In fact, we find more meaningful and true connection with others in these places, not the places of perfection.

Blog written by Sentier therapist, Tana Welter, MSW, LICSW

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