An Open Letter to High School Juniors

I am not going to tell you everything is going to work out like you want it to, and I am not going to tell you that everything will be fine. What I will say is this: Millions of people have survived the college admission process, and you will too.
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Dear [insert name here],

I sense you may be a little stressed. Spring of junior year can be a whirlwind of expectations and obligations; and it can seem nearly impossible to concentrate on homework, grades, standardized test scores (here's hoping you get an easy Critical Reading passage!), prom, extracurricular activities, meaningful summer activities that will set you apart in the college admission process, and the fact that your [fill-in-the-blank] teacher rarely gives advance notice for [quizzes/tests/projects worth half your grade]. Maybe the person you wanted to go to prom with is going with someone else, or perhaps you are really struggling in your advanced math class. Clearly, you have a lot on your plate.

It is also likely that your internal anxiety and fear about the college admission process is starting to bubble over. It doesn't help when conversations with your friends (and frenemies) focus on where everyone is thinking of applying. You've probably heard about a few high school seniors who were utterly devastated after getting rejected from the college of their dreams, and it might make you nervous about your own prospects. Your parents might also be on edge, too, depending on which parents they having been talking to. Suddenly, everyone -- even Great Aunt Mildred -- has become an expert on the college admissions process.

I am not going to tell you everything is going to work out like you want it to, and I am not going to tell you that everything will be fine -- it can be really annoying when people say that, so I won't.

What I will say is this: Millions of people have survived the college admission process, and you will too. Keep some perspective, and keep some legitimate distance from classmates who are overly stressed about the college admissions process -- like this year's nasty flu, their anxiety is highly contagious. Some other thoughts:

Realize that universities are great marketers. Colleges and universities spend a great deal of money and resources to make you desperately want to go to their school. Those glossy brochures, slick websites, and peppy tour guides are all part of a cleverly honed, expensive marketing plan. Look beyond the hype and try to figure out which school characteristics are important to you.

Look for similar schools. When visiting college campuses, look for the qualities you like (i.e. welcoming campus community, collaborative learning environment, access to professors, good on-campus dining options, good rec facilities). Do you learn better in smaller classes? Are quality recreational facilities important to you? What about good mental health services? Are costs of concern to you and your family? Spend some time researching different schools with similar characteristics. No one college or university should be the be all, end all.

Resist crowd-think. Colleges typically see a dramatic increase in the number of applicants the year after their football team has been in a Bowl game or their basketball team did well in the NCAA tournament. Even though having a winning sports team can be awesome, it doesn't necessarily mean the school will provide you with a better overall learning environment or school experience. Since you will ultimately be the one attending classes, sleeping in the residence halls, and eating in the dining hall at the school you ultimately choose, focus on finding the best options for you rather than getting caught up in where everyone else is applying or where others think you should attend.

Figure out your fun. Inevitably, there will be times this next year when you may feel overwhelmed. Find healthy, active ways to let off steam, and make them a regular part of your routine. Take a kickboxing class. Go for a hike. Find a relaxing hobby that lets your brain relax. Restorative yoga might be your thing -- who knows?

Control your messaging. Give yourself permission to keep your college dreams, GPA, test scores, and related information private.

Consider taking a break. A gap year can be a way to gain perspective outside the classroom, and may help you discover a newfound interest or sense of purpose that will effectively change your perspective on the course of your academic career.

Manage your (and your parents'!) expectations. Some colleges and universities have single-digit acceptance rates, which means that something like 93 out of every 100 of your closest friends will receive a "thanks for thinking of us" letter. Be open to the unexpected, and be aware of your own strengths, challenges, and opportunities.

The next year may not always go as planned, and that's okay. Years ago, I applied to my "dream school" early decision. I was rejected early -- that's right, I wasn't even deferred to the regular applicant pool, I was "free to explore other opportunities." I was dejected, exhausted, and annoyed, especially after realizing I had 10 days to complete all the other apps I had procrastinated (TIP: don't do that). A few months later, after weeks of actively stalking the mail delivery person, I received a priority mail package from a school I initially applied to as an afterthought because it shared similar characteristics with my dream rejected school. You know how this story ends, right? The afterthought ended up being the dream -- and if March Madness is of importance to you, we went to the Final Four and won the national championship my senior year of college. You just never know.

All the Best,


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