The Waiting Game: How to Help Your College Applicant Cope Until Decision Day

Posted: January 18, 2024 | Word Count: 626

By Whitney Soule, Vice Provost, Dean of Admissions, University of Pennsylvania

This time of year is a parade of college application deadlines (generally between October and February) depending on the application round. It’s also the time of year when college-hopeful teens have polished off their application details, refined their essays, proofread (we hope!), and submitted their applications. By this point, they’re worn out and waiting. They’re balancing the relief of "submit" and managing some anxiety about the subsequent "what if?"

I get it. As a mom who has parented through the college process with multiple children and as a dean of admissions, I have insight into both the anxiety and the strategies to short-circuit some of the escalating stress.

On the college side, we have a responsibility to minimize unnecessary stress for students — looking for ways to make our instructions clear, our processes simple, and our questions aligned with what it is we need to know. For Penn, that means making application fee waivers more accessible than ever, eliminating the enrollment deposit, and expanding the role of who can write recommendations. And (one of my favorites), we added an essay prompt framed as a thank-you note because our faculty’s research shows how expressing “thanks” ignites good feelings. (Bonus — it also shows admissions evaluators how applicants appreciate others!)

Here are three things parents can do at home to minimize the teen stress while waiting for decisions:

1. Listen more, talk less. Kids are processing the full range of emotions. Their eyes are on social media which is not an accurate source of information about chances or how decisions get made. Focus on making home a place where your teen can manage their emotions without judgment — perhaps by listening during a needed vent or giving them a quiet space without explanation. You know your teen — follow their lead on what helps them feel secure. Perhaps suggest saying “thanks” to those who have had influence — like a friend or teacher. It’s a mood lifter and builds their sense of community.

2. Don’t make college topic #1 (or even #10). Everything that can be done up to this point has been done, so where possible, encourage letting go. Your student needs a break from all things college. Focus family conversations on just about anything that doesn’t circle back to the "what if" of college admissions outcomes. What songs have you added to your playlist? What’s the nicest thing that someone did for you that day? Or even, “Can you even believe what is happening on this show?”

3. Promote the importance of flexibility. The ability to overcome stress or simply to adjust to changes quickly is one of the first superpowers college students need when they hit campus. Now is a great time for your student to practice flexing this muscle. Sharing stories from your own life is invaluable, especially from when you were their age. As a leader and a mom, I talk openly about the circumstances that challenged me, how I feel when things don’t work out the way I planned, and how I decide what to do. My undergraduate alma mater is not where I was focused when I first started my college pursuit. And yet, I’m confident that I was in exactly the right place and am so grateful for every experience embedded there, including an unexpected launch to the career I have now.

Your student is about to embark on a big and exciting journey. They will look to you to set the tone during this period, which can be hard since you are also experiencing a range of heightened emotions! But you can reframe this wait so it is focused on excitement rather than stress.

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