Any way you cut it, anxiety and stress are only growing more common among teens. Factors range from social media use to the pandemic’s impact. And planning for life after high school might trigger plenty of worry as well. So how can colleges contribute to keeping stress levels lower, to a simmer instead of a boil? We talked about it with two college enrollment leaders in Minnesota, gathering their perspectives and some advice. Melissa Huybrecht is vice president of enrollment management at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Jeff Allen is vice president of admissions and financial aid at Macalester College.
Q: When it comes to stress about the college search, are things changing?
Allen: “Collective stress is not something we can quantify or measure over time, but the general perception is that the college search process causes families a great deal of stress and anxiety. When current students or recent alumni reflect on their college search, many will note how challenging it was to navigate a really complicated process – sometimes with help from parents or family members, sometimes not – on top of high school academic work and other commitments. That the selection process at some institutions has become less predictable today than it was twenty years ago only adds to the anxiety some feel while in the process.
Q: What are some drivers for stress when it comes to college search?
Huybrecht: “I think the college search process has always been a struggle for folks. What is changing is there are so many search sites, they’re overwhelmed by the amount of information they can find now in a quick Google search. So there’s an analysis paralysis; they can be overwhelmed by information — it can stop them and drive more stress.”
Allen: “Sometimes I worry that families believe that there is the college or the university at which their student would be happy and from which they’d launch into a successful career and life. For many of us working in the space, however, there are dozens of institutions that would challenge and support the student in their educational journey.
It is also hard to divorce anxiety about the college search process from other anxieties. We’re in the aftermath of a global health pandemic and we need to do more work on reconciling a whole bunch of inequities; students and families are concerned about racial justice, environmental justice, mental health and well-being, and much, much more.”
Q: What are some ways that your admission offices respond?
Huybrecht: “MCAD requires a visual art portfolio, which can be overwhelming and we hear that. So we offer informational sessions and personal meetings to assist students; we’re really trying to help them through it. Each student has an individual admission advisor; they’re there to support you in putting forward your best work.”
Allen: “We are trying to make the process more transparent, to help families understand what is or isn’t happening, and on what timeline. One example is that we run ‘Workshop Wednesdays,’ a series of admission workshops in the summer. They are not designed to exclusively promote Macalester. Instead, we are trying to share what it means to apply early decision, what phrases like ‘meeting 100 percent of demonstrated need’ mean, or walking students through how to think about the college essay, or picking teachers who might write their recommendation letters. The workshops are about informing the public about just what they’ll experience while going through this process.”
Q: What is something parents can do?
Huybrecht: “I think it is about supporting students to start the process early, not leaving it to the summer before senior year or that fall. Parents can strongly encourage that exploration early on. There can be resistance from students – but just say, ‘Let’s go out and do some college visits before at least junior year,’ so there will be this taste they’ve had. But it is a delicate balance for sure, between parents and students. . . . It is just realizing, the earlier start, the easier the process.”
Q: How early should students start exploring options?
Huybrecht: “If not earlier, then between sophomore and junior year is a really good time to start visiting colleges and learning about the expectations of the process, so to help students find out earlier in their high school experience that they’ll need to submit a portfolio to apply to an arts college, for example.
“An event like Minnesota Private Colleges Week really helps you hit so many schools, really with no commitment. It is not as scary as a personal appointment or sitting in a class or having lunch with a current student, so it is an easier step to take at an earlier time.”
Allen: “If I were talking to a high school sophomore, I’d encourage the student to make introductory, exploratory visits to colleges and universities if possible. Visiting colleges during Minnesota Private Colleges Week is a great example. Such visits inform how students think about location, size or many other factors. Of course, many campuses have great virtual opportunities, so a student can go experience them that way too.”
Q: How do those who aren’t parents of high schoolers make it worse — or help out?
Huybrecht: “When you’re at that family gathering or birthday party, don’t just jump into asking, ‘What college are you going to?’ or ‘What’ did you pick?’ Instead ask, ‘Is there is a career you’ve thought about? Have you looked into that?’ And keep the pressure off, keep it casual. But it is good to talk to them; students have a lot to say.”
Allen: “When the lead question is about where a student is going, that can seem more about prestige and name recognition. And we all know there are thousands of great institutions educating students around the world. . . . I wonder if a better question is, ‘What are you excited about when you go to college?’”
Q: What other advice would you have for students?
Huybrecht: “Taking those small steps will make it that much easier. And it should be enjoyable, to think about where you’re going to go to college. It is supposed to be an exciting time, an exciting next step for high schoolers.”
“And don’t apply to colleges you aren’t going to be a fit at, really narrow it down. We’re seeing students applying to eight to 10 colleges – if you are really a fit at each of those colleges, go for it . . . but I encourage students to focus on fewer. Otherwise you are making it more difficult. If students have such a big net, they can find it hard to drill down and they can feel overwhelmed. It will be really hard to keep on top of who is saying what to you, on top of all your studies and the fun of senior year, with so much going on.”
Allen: “The college search process is, at the core, a great opportunity to look inward – to reflect on who you are now, who you want to become, and how colleges or universities can help you on your path. Enjoy the journey to the greatest extent possible.”
By John Manning
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.