How Not to Freak Out When Applying to College – 3 Smart Tips To Stay Calm


When it comes to college applications, this parent knows firsthand how “getting in” can feel like a cruel test of mental and emotional stamina. How much editing help to give on the essay? Which extracurriculars currently appeal to admissions officers?

Feeling Alone in the Madness

The most challenging element of the college planning process for me has been feeling alone in the anxiety as a parent. Fellow parents seem reticent to share much information. Things are competitive out there. So it was a relief to discover the book Getting In Without Freaking Out by Arlene Matthews.

A professional college consultant, Matthews says college-bound students and their parents need to chill. The guide is full of practical tips for tackling college application angst, and if you have vocal chords, you WILL laugh out loud.

The following smart tips (from the book and personal experience) may increase your optimism.

Smart Tip #1: College Admissions is TRENDY.

It used to be that kids who were bright and well-rounded were placed by admissions officers at the top of the application heap. The acronym BWRK (Bright-Well-Roured-Kid) was all the rage a few years ago. Then parents everywhere made the mistake of taking this too far, pushing their kids into activities and community service. BWRKs fell from favor. Turns out colleges now prize “angular” candidates who sport a sharply focused interest or talent.

Whether your child is well-rounded or angular, rest easy knowing the planet needs all shapes and sizes. Well-rounded types do well in a variety of fields from medicine to movie making, and angular types create great art and discover new technologies.

  When completing the college application process, Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz, author of adMISSION POSSIBLE: The Dare to Be Yourself Guide for Getting into the Best Colleges for You, suggests, “Through your words, descriptions, personal stories and essays, simply be who you really are. Don’t try to guess what the admissions reps want; ‘Dare to Be Yourself!’”  

Instead of trying to package your teen based on current admission fads, you should cherish and celebrate your teen’s uniqueness. Jay Mathews, an education reporter for The Washington Post, suggests that stressed-out parents repeat this mantra: “People succeed because of the quality of their character, not the notoriety of their college.”

Smart Tip #2: It’s Who They Are, Not Where They Go.

  Very successful people once attended some uncool-sounding colleges. (A sweet guy named Ron Reagan went to Eureka College in Illinois and sort of did okay.) Our society has become so competitive within the realm of parenting that many people believe where their kids attend college is reflective of the job they did raising them. Ever heard a version of this at a cocktail party? William wishes he could say yes to BOTH Stanford and Yale! Fabulousness just runs in the family!

We are all charmed by designer schools, but generic is underrated, and it is simply pointless to freak about getting your kids into the “perfect” designer school since that school does not exist. Not even in the Ivy League!

Matthews, with great comic verve, likens the Ivies or “trophy schools” to “trophy wives.” While the name of a trophy school may leap out on a graduate’s resume, like a trophy wife, those schools can also be expensive and notorious for investing more in new prospects than current students.

Lloyd Thacker of The Education Conservancy, contends, “A commercialized point of view is what turns the admissions process into a game. There is very little evidence that correlates the status of a college with effective educational practice. Parents need to listen to the facts, not their friends at cocktail parties.”

Matthews reminds us that in the scheme of things, there is a point where college credentials cease to matter. When college days are history, employers in the workplace want to know what you have accomplished and whether you will continue to deliver. You may not be aware of what college your friends, co-workers, or employer attended, but you ARE cognizant of whether your friend has strong moral character or if your co-worker has a notable work ethic.

Smart Tip #3: Late Bloomers Can Finish Strong.

If you have a late bloomer, you may feel concerned. Your child may be bright with multi-potentiality but has yet to discover his niche. Perhaps she has no published articles, patents, or a single hospital named in her honor. What is frustrating is sensing that colleges want to see greatness demonstrated now.

The reality is there are plenty of teenagers just getting warmed up. Deferred blooming may also have a silver lining. After all, peaking at eighteen may spell disappointment down the line. Matthews points out the deferred greatness of Cervantes who completed Don Quixote at age sixty-eight and Grandma Moses who began painting in her late seventies. History reminds us that finishing strong is honorable.

Muddling through “getting in” requires stamina, chocolate, and a sense of humor. Let’s face it. Worrying won’t appease the admissions gods or increase anyone’s chances of acceptance. So arm yourself with reality-based facts instead. 


  • College Board ( is a nonprofit organization created to expand access to higher education, helping more than seven million students annually with programs and services that help prepare students for a successful transition to college. Their You Can Go website ( offers inspiration for students facing significant hurdles to attending college.    
  • College OPTIONS ( works to strengthen the college-going culture in the North State by increasing opportunities for students to pursue post-secondary education and by helping ensure all students can make informed decisions about their education and future. Located in the North State, offers a Redding center and offices in Red Bluff and Weed.
  • The Education Conservancy ( ) is a non-profit organization committed to improving the college admission processes for both students and educators.
  • Book: Getting In Without Freaking Out by Arlene Matthews. Matthews, a college coach, wrote this book specifically for parents and their college-bound teens. It offers an insider’s guide to the application process and is as entertaining as it is practical.
  • Article: “Seven Really Smart Things to Do When Filling Out College Applications,” by Marjorie H. Shaevitz, published in Huffington Post. Offers tips for making sure your application stands out from the crowd.
Michele Ranard
About Michele Ranard

Michele Ranard has a husband, two children, and a master’s in counseling.

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