Action Points: Finding Joy in the College Search

Summer 2024

By Holly Burks Becker, Jeff Durso-Finley

This article appeared as "Action Points" in the Summer 2024 issue of Independent School. 

Every year in our college counseling office, a senior sits down to review their plans for an early decision application and says something like “I really like this college—it’s my favorite—and based on my conversations with you and my research, it’s very likely I will be admitted. [Long pause.] Is that a problem?” Or we’ll chuckle along with the student who finished their essays with a smile in November, filed four or five well-thought-out applications, and spoke with confidence about where they would enroll in the spring and who says something along the lines of “I thought it would be more stressful. Huh.” 

As co-college counselors at The Lawrenceville School (NJ), we have front-row seats to the impact that the college admission process has on students. There’s an expectation that, by definition, it must be a stressful and anxiety-ridden rite of passage. It’s sobering to watch how this plays out, especially when we know that the process is not and certainly doesn’t have to be as stressful or accepted as the norm. Yet each year, we have the same conversations with colleagues across the country and on our campus about how we can reverse the psychology and work to undo the accepted narrative that dominates the college process in our schools.

When you look at the bigger picture of student experience, college admission seems more like an innocent bystander—and it is. Living as a teenager in today’s world is stressful enough; teens are constantly navigating incredible social, emotional, and developmentally appropriate challenges. Common sources of student stress—family dynamics, social standing, relationships, concerns about the future, as well as the ever-present “Who am I?”—are often exacerbated when the college process is added to the mix. 

Troubling signs of stress abound in teens. Today’s teens average roughly two hours less sleep than recommended, according to the National Sleep Foundation, and the decrease in unstructured time and physical activity among teenagers is equally troublesome—data from the Journal of the American Medical Association state that 80% of teens are insufficiently active. Their extracurricular pursuits are often résumé-driven, designed intentionally to impress college admission officers, complete with personal coaches and hired mentors. 

Adolescents live in a world where their self-image stands constantly in question—amid a constant stream of social media distortion and interpersonal distancing—and identity formation underlies much of what they do. They’re constantly wondering Who am I? What do other people think of me? What does my future hold? In Think Like a Monk: Train Your Mind for Peace and Purpose Every Day, author Jay Shetty quotes the late 19th century sociologist Charles Horton Cooley, who said: “I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am.” That’s an apt way to describe the mindset of a teen—and it helps explain how students can’t help but worry about what others think about them (and their college search and what it says about them). 

So, how can schools help students and families mitigate the stress and anxiety of the college process? Rather than using logic, statistics, and reason—which we’ve found to have almost no impact on the underlying emotions—or pulling from our professional experiences, we’ve started to use a big-picture, emotionally driven approach that includes each group that plays a role in supporting college-bound students.

College Counselors and Advisers

Conducting a communications stress test. Several years ago at Lawrenceville, we received an email from our test preparation company for distribution to our students. “Are you ready for high-stakes testing?” it started off, suggesting that the SATs were the academic Hunger Games. We immediately corrected the tone before we sent it out and that led us to assess our communications and what signals we were sending to our students. Going into the process, which involved examining everything from email to PowerPoint presentations, we felt confident that we wouldn’t find very many problematic areas. We were wrong. 

Unintentionally, too many suggestions were admonitions—don’t do this, avoid that, and stay away from this pitfall. Instead of helping students, our messages scared them, or told them that the process was rife with trouble. We started to notice that we were enumerating the to-do list with urgent formatting instead of communicating the joy of the college search. 

Coming out of this exercise, one of us taped a message to the computer that reads: “Understanding how students feel is greater than them knowing what to do.” With each communication moving forward, we went through a simplified stress test and modified language and tone to positive and achievable. 


Creating boundaries. Most people respect confidentiality or personal space when it comes to medical or relationship issues, yet for some reason, that does not seem to apply to the college process. Many students have seen how a loud and raucous holiday table of relatives can be reduced to complete silence when someone asks them about their college plans. Generally, people want to show interest, but doing so often puts the student’s choice on an interpersonal scale to be weighed and measured by everyone who hears the answer, only heightening stress and anxiety.

We remind students—and parents, who need to hear it even more—that no one needs to know their college plans and it’s OK to create a boundary that allows for privacy. This approach is especially important as it relates to social media, which feed insecurities and judgments. 

In our programming, we’ve shared some examples with parents: If you go on a trip to Boston to see five or six colleges but only post a picture of your kid by Harvard’s gates, what are you signaling to your child? Or, if on that trip, the only sweatshirt you buy is one from MIT, think about that message. It feeds the child’s anxiety that where they go is all that matters and will determine if they make their parents proud. And, what about the parent who says, “I am simply proud! Why can’t I be proud?” Pride is not a subject for the digital world—it’s between you and your child. 

Faculty and Staff 

Keeping college news out of the classroom. Given the meaningful and enduring relationships that students form with the caring adults in their lives, school faculty, advisers, mentors, and coaches can serve as invaluable allies to reduce stress and reframe challenges, although those conversations should be one-on-one, positive, and proactive. In meetings and emails, we remind our faculty members to keep college application conversations out of the classroom, however innocuous or well-meaning they might be.

A goodhearted congratulations in a room full of teenagers could come across as validating their worth for that successful application, while other students in the same applicant pool who fell short might hear that praise as a gut punch.

When students confide in teachers to share disappointing news, faculty can be critical in helping them move forward. We advise faculty members to listen, receive the information, and then inquire about the student’s overall approach and next steps. An acceptance letter shouldn’t express validation of the teacher’s esteem of that student. A denied application shouldn’t lower their opinion of that student. Teachers’ reactions can unintentionally convey these messages. What faculty members say should reinforce the relationship they had before the college process and should not include anecdotes about how their college search process compares with that of kids today. The comparisons don’t help students, given how times have changed dramatically.


Embrace “less is more.” Much like navigating their role in teens’ everyday lives, parents walk a fine line in the college process—the likelihood for misinterpretation is high. A well-intentioned statement such as “You can apply to any college that’s right for you” could easily be immediately translated to “Ugh, you only want me to go to a [fill-in-the-blank] college.” 

As part of our parent programming—email, campus programs, one-on-ones—we suggest that families work with their kids to set up a time once a week when it’s OK to talk about college topics—and to stick to the plan (unless, of course, the student asks a question on their own). We lead an exercise that underscores the importance of this balance and asks students to write a message to their parents about the college process. We collect the answers and share them in a handout that inevitably shows the range of students’ emotions, fears, and confidence: “I hope I make you proud;” “Will you still love me if I don’t go to [fill-in-the-blank] college?”; “Don’t nag me I’ve got this;” “Help! I’m scared!”

Students will most likely want to hear their parents’ feedback and thoughts, but only when they want to. As such, we advise parents to be quiet when they’re driving away from a college visit, to let their student process the visit and allow their thoughts to marinate. Parents have probably thought about these questions and topics for days on end, but when they pause, they give their child the chance to catch up with formulating their own opinions. If their child struggles to reflect on what they’ve observed beyond the superficial features of the campus, parents can ask a few forward-looking and thought-provoking questions to help them consider how such factors might influence their college experience and how they might use the opportunities presented. By asking (not answering) questions, parents can help them deepen their analyses and take ownership of their own opinions. 

School Leaders 

Beware of institutional messaging. Before the early 2000s, our graduation ceremony included a tradition that reinforced a message that we didn’t want to send to students or parents. In the final edition of the school newspaper, we listed where students were going to college and unintentionally emphasized that it matters where they go. What a message to send after four years of hard work. When we decided not to give the list to the paper and explained our reasoning, administrators and others began to understand. Now, we list every college—without student names or the number of students attending—to show that every college has the same value and every student is represented. 

There are many different ways to celebrate the accomplishments of graduating seniors without college T-shirt day. We asked ourselves these questions at Lawrenceville and worked to create more inclusive little ways to celebrate the accomplishments of graduating seniors.


Taking a new approach. Students might not realize it, but they can play an outsized role in controlling the potential stressors in their college search—and they can design a thoughtful, enjoyable, and self-reflective process. 

Beginning in junior year, we advise students through group programming, one-on-one counseling, and other communications to control what they can. One of the great frustrations of the college search is the feeling of helplessness that sets in after students submit their application. They—and their parents—will immediately wonder, “What else can be done?” Not much, which is why we counsel families to be intentional in their college process by starting early, being thorough and organized, and keeping an open mind. 

We also encourage our students to be the friend in their group who says, “Let’s not talk about college today—let’s go get ice cream instead!” We counsel them to avoid asking peers about their process. and to instead cheer them up when they’re down and try to feel happy for their successes. We remind them that friends will still be friends wherever they attend college and they shouldn’t let the college process make their interactions different from when they were sophomores or what they will be after graduation. 

The arc of an education is a lifelong one; senior year feels short. We encourage students to dive into their courses and their co-curricular experiences and to embrace their friendships with faculty and students alike. Give the college process all due attention, we explain, but leave it at that and put the same energy and care into the final year of high school. With that balanced approach, students will remember the experience much more fondly. 

Yes, the college search process can poke the bear of everyday adolescent stressors in a high school student’s life, yet by keeping an eye on the big picture and seeing the college search as a moment in a secondary school career versus the capstone experience, the process can be incredibly fun, rewarding, and deeply imbued with personal growth and perspective. And that’s what we want to share with the people supporting the students. 

Read More

The authors of this article have written on the topic at The New York Times’ The Choice blog in a September 2012 post titled “How to Succeed in College.” Jeff Durso-Finley is the coauthor of Understanding Athletic Recruiting and The Secrets of Picking a College (and Getting In!).

Go Deeper

School communities include many different groups—from faculty to parents—who play a critical role in helping students succeed. Want more ideas on how to connect with each cohort? Check out these articles. 

Holly Burks Becker

Holly Burks Becker is a co-director of the college counseling office at The Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Burks Becker previously worked in the admission department at Dartmouth College.

Jeff Durso-Finley

Jeff Durso-Finley is a co-director of the college counseling office at The Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Durso-Finley previously worked in admission at Brown University.