Why Are College Applications So Stressful?

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Applying to college is overwhelming for students. About half of the roughly 1,000 students in a recent National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) survey said applying to college was their most stressful academic experience.

The poll also found that over three-quarters of students agreed that completing college applications felt like “such a decisive moment” in their lives. Additionally, about three-quarters reported fearing one small application error could lessen their admission chances. 

Time Management

Applying to college takes 60 to 200 hours from start to finish, depending on how many applications one completes. Therefore, time management is one of the most significant stressors during college application season.

The college application process starts by narrowing down the final college list. Then, prospective students must study and complete the college entrance exams like the SAT or ACT, collect information about different colleges’ application guidelines, and apply for financial aid and scholarships.

Individuals generally need a month or more to gather additional materials, including letters of recommendation and transcripts from teachers and staff. 

Depending on the content and number of edits, writing the essay and personal statements for different colleges can take a few days to a few weeks. Notably, some colleges also offer extensions and additional time to submit materials that may take a little longer. 

Every college applicant must put in the time and effort during college application season, which means nobody is alone in the stress or anxiety. Great college applications take hours of work, and each hour will make a difference.

Cost & Debt

College tuition inflation has risen faster than medical services, child care, and housing. While financial aid usually helps students pay far less than the “sticker price” of tuition, the net price of public four-year colleges has more than doubled over the past 20 years.

In fact, a 2022 NORC study found that 75%  of Americans believe people do not attend college because they cannot afford it.

Aside from tuition, students also face costs from required testing and college applications. Although many schools are becoming test-optional, taking the SAT or ACT costs between $60 and $103 per test and can get pricier with additional fees for late registration, cancellations, or testing site changes.

The average college application fee is $55, with the most expensive college application fees coming in at $100. And graduate programs charge $66 per application on average. These costs can add up if an individual applies to five, ten, or even 20 schools. 

For international students, applying to college costs even more. On average, students outside the U.S. pay about $60 per undergraduate application. 

How Can Students Cope With Application Stress?

According to college counselors, one of the most common pitfalls in the college process is the search for the “best” college instead of the best fit. Students are more likely to deal with high anxiety and stress when letting college rankings, media coverage, and social media shape their perceptions. 

Additionally, students are more focused on colleges guaranteeing them a job after graduation, leading them to believe only a few schools will provide those opportunities. 

Instead of starting with the perceived results, counselors recommend returning the process to the beginning. 

One way to get ahead of college application stress is to start the process early. Prospective students can build and finalize their college list by the end of junior year, but once the spring semester hits, they can begin multi-tasking to cross other items off the to-do list. 

Additionally, students can prepare to ask two teachers to write a letter of recommendation during the spring of junior year and conceptualize essay ideas in June and July before senior year. 

Keeping a detailed application schedule will make things less stressful, provide a solid plan for each part of the process, and generally know what to expect at each step.

Time management, cost and debt are two of the most significant stressors during college application season. But one way to avoid this stress is to have a solid plan for each part of the process.


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