The Waiting Game: App Season’s Final Challenge

Tom Petty wrote a song about it. Waiting is the hardest part. T.S. Eliot likely didn’t have college admissions in mind when he suggested it but for high school seniors, April can the cruelest month. After months (years!) of activity, at a certain moment in mid-winter, the applications are in, the die is cast, and students can only wait to learn their fate.

We’ve reached that season where students and families at many grade levels have submitted all the forms and logged all the test scores. It is an anxiety-inducing time. We can block it out with work, but worry has a way of sneaking through the cracks and needling us. These periods of anticipation are mysterious, too, because time always seems to stretch when we’re in them. We know that once the decision comes we’ll look back and know that it was just a brief couple of months, just a blip, but when we’re in it, this phase can feel eternal and agonizing. So, how do we manage it?

Of course, as we say, keeping busy is rule one. The daily grind of homework and classes and extra-curriculars is, at long last, our friend. The more our minds are occupied with work, the less we can spin out dark fantasies of destroyed hopes and dreams.

The second key to managing the stress of the waiting game is to recognize our panic for what it is: panic. When anxiety strikes, it’s not because we’ve gained any new data or had some mystical insight into the future. It’s really our fears dressing themselves in different clothes. We’re freaking out because we’re freaking out. Simple as that. So, we need to unwind the narratives we’re building about ourselves and the assured failure we imagine is on the horizon. Just let it go. No amount of perseverating will change the outcome now.

Third, we must remind ourselves that the present is seldom the place to solve the problems of the future. You can’t put yourself on the waitlist until the option is offered. Even a gap year in Europe or on an organic farm in Marin County can be planned any time after word comes down. Trying to control the unknown with scheming only feeds the underlying worry. Better to deal with present concerns and stay grounded in them.

Finally, and this one can be very hard, remember that despite everyone’s claims since you were applying to pre-K, no single school admissions decision is going to seal your future. We’ve gotten very good, as a culture, at reinforcing certain habits of thought. We exaggerate the importance of the step we’re on right now over the long, cumulative story of our lives. Preschool A versus Preschool B is definitive. Dalton versus Stuyvesant is definitive. Harvard versus Cornell is definitive. We forget all of the times a step we thought was wrong led us to useful and perhaps even preferable places. We forget that nothing is ever wholly irreparable in the course of an 80-year life, especially not in the first 18 years. Even the worst outcome now is only a minor episode in a long thread of living.

It’s all easier said than done. Worry will break through our defenses. Anxiety will eat at us. We at Partners with Parents suffer these things, too. And we hope only that our friends, clients, and colleagues can manage them as well as possible. It’s a tough season, folks. Keep breathing.

Tags: College Admissions, College Applications, Kindergarten Admissions, Middle School Admissions, High School Admissions, Stress & Anxiety
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