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College Application Stress Pushed One Mom to Her Limit

As a parent of three teenagers and a counselor—I’m a Licensed Clinical Social Worker—you might think that I would have coped better with college application stress when my high school senior son applied to college.

Now that spring is upon us, college decision announcements continue to trickle in. And my nerves are through the roof.

From Calm Mom…

I always believed that an overly pressuring parenting style didn’t bring better outcomes. In fact, I feared that pushing too hard might backfire into complete and total misery for both child and parent alike. So, I tend to make “light suggestions” here and there to mildly sway and steer my children in their educational and extracurricular pursuits. They sometimes listen but rarely take Mom’s advice.

It was also evident early on that my children weren’t overly influenced by the competitive climate of our suburban Southern California public school district.

My soon-to-be high school graduate, a self-identified “introvert,” has been perfectly content by taking a moderate course load, one that he could handle and still enjoy at the same time. He finds a sense of satisfaction in his trumpet, which he’s managed to stick with for seven consecutive years. And he usually relaxes in semi-solitude in his bedroom with video games and his menagerie of exotic pets. He earns good grades and has managed to stay out of any significant trouble. So I have more reason to lie low.

So, for the most part, I hadn’t really taken a particularly proactive role with the entire college admissions process. I believed that everything would eventually just “fall into place.” I’d listened to former New York Times columnist Frank Bruni give a talk about finding the “right fit” versus seeking out prestigious top tiered schools. This totally made sense to me, and I was a believer.

…To Panicked Mom

But as my son’s second semester of junior year came upon us—which coincided with the beginning of the COVID pandemic—my sense of control withered. The college bug finally bit me. My anxiety and college application stress began to grow exponentially.

My son adamantly declined to meet with a private college counselor under any circumstances. He said that he’d “handle everything.” He self-initiated preparation for the SAT exam. But that exam was canceled countless times due to rising COVID infections in Los Angeles County.

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In my own escalating and irrational mind at the time, I had ZERO sense of security that my son was on track for getting into a school.

Around that same time, he completed his applications to his several schools of choice without any assistance or oversight aside from the basic knowledge he had acquired through school and by his own means. He met the deadlines—barely. And what was done was done.

Even though I’d always believed in dialing down the pressure and giving my kids more control, my escalating panic went into full force.

“You don’t have enough safety schools. Please consider adding one or two or five more!” I protested. He tried to reassure me otherwise, but I was not convinced.

My mind really began to take off and wander to unexpected and undignified places.

I began to intensively research the college admissions process and get sucked into the the craze that can come along with it. News articles highlighting the soaring number of applicants to popular universities this past year fueled my worry.  Maybe I should have pushed him harder…. Maybe I should have demanded more from him… I applied to these same schools 30 years ago and now they’re IMPOSSIBLE to get into… How can one be accepted to any of these schools without a full load of Advanced Placement courses and leadership positions?

So yes, I was stressed about college admissions. I tried to dial back several times to self-administer some cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, the kind I practice in my job as a social worker. I continued to listen to Frank Bruni’s voice and try to talk myself down.

But my desperate behavior continued with multiple requests for reassurance from my son’s high school counselor. And then I began to continuously text and call friends who also had seniors (i.e., probing them about how they’ve been dealing with the process).

I was clearly getting on my son’s nerves as well as on the nerves of all those around me. My husband, who is stressed less by nature, couldn’t relate to my instability. I began to lose sleep as I became more consumed.

College Application Stress Nearly Broke Me

And then my own safety, as well as the safety of others, became compromised.

For the first time since I was a senior in high school, I rear-ended someone on the road. Yes, there were less-than-ideal environmental circumstances like glare and blinding sun in my eyes. But there’s no doubt that my intrusive and racing “what if” thoughts about the college admission process had some bearing on the accident, too.

This had all gone way too far: I was suffering and contributing to the suffering of others. I came to a full realization that my mental health had been fully compromised.

Meanwhile, my son has received an acceptance to a university that wants him and where he might want to be, too. Yes, there is a sigh of relief and a reason for celebration. I’m indeed proud of my son and his independent, rational, and overall mature manner.

But I’m also a humbled and humiliated mother who is still rehabilitating.

There is no easy reversal for my irrational state. After all, we’re not only enduring the college admissions process, which can easily become overwhelming and torturous for parents and students alike, we’re also doing it while we brave the unimaginable stressors of a pandemic.

To those other parents and students who may also be struggling with the stress of college admissions right now, know this: You’re not alone, and you deserve support.

Claudia Boles resides in the Los Angeles area with her three teenage children and her husband. Claudia works as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in a pediatric Emergency Department and also maintains a modest teletherapy private practice. Her family cares for a plethora of family pets.

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