It’s May 1, the deadline when most universities ask students to confirm where they’re going to enroll for college for Fall 2015. As an adolescent psychotherapist, I hear all about the college admissions process and the stress that it puts on teens and their families. Some teens begin talking about these pressures as early as middle school. Whether it’s achieving certain grades for a transcript, excelling at sports to land a college scholarship, studying for college entrance exams or being overly scheduled with extracurriculars, many students, parents and teachers are hyper-focused on college admissions. However, this process is even more challenging for teens who are depressed. Educators and parents can help students reduce pressure by promoting less traditional options during the college admissions process. This way, depressed teens can be less overwhelmed, enjoy high school and be in a better place to find success for their futures.
Many 15-year-olds and their parents are introduced to this college admissions process by high school counselors. These counselors often advise students to think about what college they are interested in and what college major they might want to pursue. This information can then dictate what classes they take later in high school to give them the best chance of getting into their preferred college. Also, counselors may suggest that students begin preparing for college entrance exams before junior year, visit colleges as a junior and make sure they have enough extracurricular activities to stand out among their peers. If this seems overwhelming, it is! It can be especially overwhelming for students struggling with depression.
College entrance pressures for depressed students can make life more challenging and their depression more severe for many reasons. I have met with adolescents who already struggle to find the motivation to get up every morning to attend school, complete school assignments, and engage socially. Most of these students are not in a place to make long-term decisions about college or their career path; it will only make them feel more overwhelmed.
The college admissions process also introduces a new sense of competition between peers for the highest ACT scores, class rank and college prestige. Many depressed teens already feel down about themselves and compare themselves in a negative light to their peers. This college hype can introduce a new level of anxiety and worry about themselves and their performance. I often hear students say, “Now there is more I am not doing well with and even more for me to worry about.”
Many teens – some due to depression and others who just do not have the life skills to live independently – are also just not ready to go to college far from home. Students and their families would be smart to take a realistic look at where the teen is with their mental health and level of maturity to decide if he or she is truly ready to leave their entire support system behind to go to a college in a far away and new location. There need not be shame in making the decision to attend college closer to home if that is what is right for that student. Educators and parents can play an important role in helping teens feel that this option is okay.
Fortunately, teens have many options for college and college preparation these days. Ideally college admissions professionals will remind sophomores that it can be normal to not know what college to attend or what major to pursue. Just because high school counselors might recommend a specific timeline for college admissions doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for all students.
It’s important for parents to acknowledge their own concerns and anxieties about their child’s future. Many parents will then realize that they want their child to have a successful future, but not to the point where their child needs to sacrifice enjoying high school or to the detriment of their child’s mental health. On the other hand, many teens put this pressure on themselves. Some teens have told me that their parents expect them to attend a specific college or enter into a specific and competitive field. But when we sit down to talk with their parents, we find out that there are no such expectations. Parents will often say, “I just want her to do her best and enter any field that makes her happy.” Open communication between students and parents to clarify expectations can reduce a lot of stress during this process.
Regardless of where the pressure is coming from, parents, teachers and college counselors can reduce pressure and stress by helping teens understand that they have many options. One of these is taking a gap year. This way, students who are struggling can focus on managing high school first. Then after graduation they can begin focusing on their post-high school plan. This might allow the student to fully prepare for ACT and SAT tests without being distracted by high school. Students who take a gap year can gain life experiences and maturity while traveling or working. By taking extra time it may actually help the teen be more successful getting into and excelling in college. For students who do struggle with standardized tests, another great option is to consider colleges that do not require the ACT or SAT for admissions.
Most teens are excited to think about moving away to live on their own during college. But many do not think through that this often means moving away from their familiar support system. Depressed teens especially might want to consider choosing a local college so they will still have access to parents and familiar mental health professionals during times of stress.
Clearly the hype over college admissions is increasing. Many children, parents and educators feel that teens have to follow specific admissions procedures or they will not be successful. But we all know this isn’t true. There are many adults who have gone to less prestigious colleges, switched majors or taken time to travel and still had amazingly successful careers. If adults remind stressed and depressed teens of these examples and discuss non-traditional college admissions options, it may help ease the pressure.
Contribution from Lauren Gumbiner, MSW
Lauren Gumbiner is an Erika’s Lighthouse Executive Council Member. She is a child, adolescent and adult therapist in Winnetka, IL who specializes in treating teen depression and anxiety.