College Application Stress: What Parents and Teens Should Know

Published on

Health Tip of the Week

College Application Stress: What Parents and Teens Should Know Consuelo Corazon Cagande, MD, DFAPA, DFAACAP, Division Chief of the Community Care and Wellness Program at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and mother of a college freshman, shares insights from her recent experience with the application process with families going through the same ordeal.

Why are college applications so stressful?

The college application process is stressful simply due to all of the unknowns. Teens might not know what their goals or aspirations are, much less what or where they want to study.

For those who do, there’s still the stress of not knowing whether they will be accepted, whether they picked the right school or the right major and overall, not knowing what the future holds.

A lot of this stress is felt by parents too. While they might not be the ones submitting transcripts or writing essays, parents can’t exactly sit back and do nothing.

But as much as parents may want to help, they might not know how. And if they aren’t mindful, parents might end up pressuring their child down a certain path, which only adds to their stress. Luckily, there are better ways to go about it.

How to recognize college application stress  

If a teen fails to keep up with their grades or application deadlines, it could be that they are too stressed about college applications. But don’t expect teens to come forth and say it. Parents need to be proactive in asking their child if they're fine, how applications are going and where they need support.

If ever teens don’t want to talk, parents should let their child know they are still there for them whenever. Whether they start withdrawing themself or just not acting like themself, any sudden change in usual behavior or interests can signal stress. If a teen is more irritable than usual, it could just be they need time to cool off.

When push comes to shove, parents should retreat rather than risk pushing their child further away. Once the teen has had a chance to process some of the stress on their own, they will naturally open back up. In the case that those signs of distress last for more than a couple weeks — long enough to interfere with school or everyday life — something bigger could be the cause.

Whereas stress can be managed with a little help from family and friends, depression is a much more serious matter that requires professional help. Parents who fear that their child might be depressed should schedule them for an appointment with their primary care doctor as soon as possible.

How to support teens during college application stress

Life doesn’t stop for college applications, and neither do friendships, sports or extracurriculars. Parents can do their part by checking up on their child’s overall wellbeing and not just their application status.

If nothing else, parents should continue being role models to their child how they normally would. Not all teens will follow their parents’ wishes when it comes to college, but they can still follow in their footsteps when it comes to managing stress.

Parents can step up and take the lead by:

  • Asking their child to go on walks
  • Offering to brainstorm together on essays
  • Arranging fun family outings — to the movies, mall, restaurants, etc.
  • Helping them set a schedule or priorities (for example: homework first, applications after)
  • Suggesting their school counselor as another source of knowledge or advice

How to deal with college application stress (for teens)

Life doesn’t stop just because you are in the midst of making a life-changing decision. If anything, college application is just one more thing to deal with. And like with any kind of stressful situation, you have to know when to give yourself a break.

Teens don't have to search for colleges or apply around the clock. And as a matter of fact, they shouldn’t. Instead, they should try to make college applications a part of their usual routine — in addition to homework, after-school activities or whatever else they might have going on during the weekends. The busier their schedules are, the more they can benefit from having some structure, which parents can help provide.

Parents and teens will experience stress differently, but they can both relieve that stress the same way they would with any kind of stress — whether they need to talk it out or sweat it out. No matter what you do, just “don't let it consume you,” says Dr. Cagande.

Stay in Touch

Are you looking for advice to keep your child healthy and happy? Do you have questions about common childhood illnesses and injuries? Subscribe to our Health Tips newsletter to receive health and wellness tips from the pediatric experts at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, straight to your inbox. Read some recent tips.

Contact Information

Next Steps
Mother and daughter talking


With our patient portal you can schedule appointments, access records, see test results, ask your care provider questions, and more.

Boy getting height measured

Subscribe to Health Tips

Subscribe to our Health Tips enewsletter to receive health and wellness tips from the pediatric experts at CHOP.