As admissions experts, mental well-being professionals, and parents ourselves, we saw a gap in college counseling that needed to be addressed immediately. We have brought together leaders in admissions and mental health to launch what we think college counseling should look like: a personalized journey with a foundation built on mental well-being strategies and resources.
In this article, we will discuss:
- Developing mental well-being in the college readiness process
- My 25 years of experience in psychotherapy
- An example of working with a student to develop inner strength
- How to handle rejection in life (and college decisions!)
- An example of working with a student to resolve conflict with a roommate
- Why a focus on mental health is imperative during the college application process and the transition to college
Why is mental health important to college readiness?
When you look at college readiness programs, they typically talk about the conventional things that are important for college admissions: test scores, excelling in extracurriculars, college applications, essay writing, etc. But how often do they talk about the importance of mental health and mental well-being?
The competing priorities high school students face is quite laborious. After a full day of school, high school students frequently attend a club meeting, then go to a sports practice, then off to a passion project or community event. And after all of that they have to get their homework done, eat dinner and hopefully shower. The devotion to this exhausting and pressure-filled schedule of competing priorities are all achieved with the college admissions process looming in the back of their minds. The drive to do it all; be the perfect student, the perfect athlete, the perfect community citizen all in hopes of being admitted into their dream school. This constant state of “be better, do better, what you are doing is never enough” creates a thought process in these students that is difficult to shake. It’s the house guest that doesn’t get the cue that they’ve had their cake and coffee and it’s time to go home. And unfortunately, I have seen all too often students carry this perfectionism into their college careers. The goal is to address it early so that students do not create a self induced pressure cooker mindset for the rest of their lives.
According to a study from the Pew Research Center completed in February of 2019, “anxiety and depression are on the rise among America’s youth and, whether they personally suffer from these conditions or not, seven-in-ten teens today see them as major problems among their peers. When it comes to the pressures teens face, academics tops the list: 61% of teens say they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades.”
The Washington Post reported similar findings in 2019, stating 75% of high schoolers and 50% of middle schoolers described themselves as “often or always feeling stressed” by schoolwork. And 66% reported, “often or always worried about being accepted in their chosen college.”
The college admissions process and college applications are one of the first ventures kids take on as ‘an adult.’ Because the first time we get introduced to something is often how we feel about it going forward, this is a very sensitive time in an individual’s life; their first experience with adulthood. Think about the first time someone is introduced to a cat. If the cat scratches them or bites them it is likely they will grow up disliking cats. If their first introduction to cats is filled with soft fur and purring then they will most likely enjoy cats. This is similar for our introduction into adulthood. One of the first things we do as an adult is complete college applications, and boy is it not fun! It is filled with competition, repetition and overwhelming feelings of inadequacy. It can set the tone for a future where one is always looking ahead and not enjoying the present, it can enforce a habit of procrastination and imprint feelings of inferiority. This is why gaining stress management techniques at this juncture of an individual’s development can set them up for their future success.
The skills they learn now are skills they will take well into their adulthood to improve their self worth, and improve their motivation to decrease issues with procrastination and avoidance of necessary tasks. Just like you can’t unlearn how to ride a bicycle, you can’t unlearn coping skills. Just like with a bike, you may need a refresher but it will come right back to you.
My 25 Years of Experience in Psychotherapy
As a psychotherapist for almost 25 years in private practice, starting in New York City and subsequently expanding all over New York State, my clients have always included a majority of high school and college students. These decades of experience have taught me that at the core of all of us is the need to be accepted, heard and validated. This is part of the crux of our emotional and mental well-being. I can not think of a time when that is more important than when we leave all that we have known and enter a new environment, such as college. When these core needs are not met, we stop operating out of strength and start operating out of fear. When working with students approaching this transition, I utilize cognitive behavioral techniques such as, reframing and rational thinking, along with other stress reduction techniques to help them relinquish their fears and alternately operate from strength; giving them new skills, building on existing skills and teaching them to cultivate their self-worth and confidence. These skills enable students to tackle the social, emotional and academic stress that school brings, as well as handle the rigor of the college application and college admissions process. It is so rewarding for both myself and my clients.
A Student Developing Inner-Strength
One particular student I recall working with, a high school senior, was so focused on avoiding uncertainty in her life that everyone in her life knew her as ‘the anxious one.’ She had based her whole identity on being fearful. She was constantly checking to see if her doors were locked, asking friends for reassurance that they weren’t upset with her, doubting her academic capabilities despite excellent grades, leaving places because she deemed them unsafe for reasons others did not comprehend and other countless uncertainties. She came to me because she was ready to shed these fears and the label she had carried for so long, and she wanted to do so before leaving for her university. In only a short time of working together, she was able to employ the techniques I gave her in order for her to build her confidence and self-worth to a point that she was noticeably able to evolve into a strong, smart, capable individual. Her family saw her growth right away, as did her friends.
They all noticed her asking for less reassurance, doing a lot less checking behaviors; no longer was she checking the door locks, checking repeatedly that her flat iron was turned off, nor was she obsessively studying for exams and quizzes she already knew the material for. To her delight, it didn’t take long for everyone to begin to see her as ‘the strong one’ after seeing her as ‘the anxious one’ for so long. Friends began inviting her to do more things because they trusted she would stay at an event for its entirety, and her parents were no longer concerned about the new found independence she was about to embark on as a college freshman. Once she got to college, her new friends had no idea she was once plagued by worry and fear. They were shocked when she told them about her history. Being strong, smart and capable remains an amazing growth she maintains to this day, many years later.
How To Handle Rejection in Life (And College Admissions!)
For anyone who has studied Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs, we know he ascertained the most basic of human needs is our physical well-being: food, air, water, etc. And right after our physical needs being met is our need for safety. Maslow defines safety to include emotional security and mental well-being. Now as a psychotherapist, when it comes to order of importance, I put mental well-being at the top of all lists. However, once I studied Maslow’s hierarchy, I had to give it up to air; breathing is important. But right after that, it’s mental well-being. And not just for adults, it is just as important, if not more important, for adolescents too.
In regard to college readiness, the fact that an individual is in late-stage adolescence does not automatically make them emotionally stable enough to manage the freedom, independence and the overwhelming workload that comes with college. College undoubtedly transcends high school and therefore requires a new set of skills.
Have you ever taken a moment to consider the enormous amount of choices, decisions, and distractions there are on a college campus?
In addition, the herculean amount of responsibilities: budgeting, nutrition, healthcare, time management, and of course the managing of relationships with friends, professors, and partners just to name a few? This is a great deal for an adult to maintain, much less someone who was still having to have their parents sign permission slips only a few months earlier. I am a firm believer in ‘it is easier to prevent pain than to reverse it.’ This belief is what drives my desire to counsel high school students during the college application process. My goal is to alleviate some of the stress associated with the college admissions process in order to subsequently alleviate the lifelong perfectionism that it can spawn. Understanding the importance of emotional stability through Maslow’s hierarchy, along with understanding the vast undertaking that college is to a young person, is the reason why mental health is so important to college readiness. Without our physical well-being and mental well-being anchored in stability we are not able to utilize all that college has to offer.
Currently in our society, the manner in which college preparation has been cultivated has people focused on academics, standardized testing, the universal essay questions, extra-curricular activities, etc. And while those items are important, we also have to stop and ask “how psychologically ready is this student for college and all that comes with that transition?” After years of treating adolescents, I have long wished our education system taught kindergarteners how to regulate their emotions, how to negotiate conflict and how to assert their needs in a way that is not too aggressive nor too passive. Growing our emotional intelligence is just as important as growing our intellectual intelligence but unfortunately, in our culture, it is not valued as strongly as it needs to be.
How wonderful would our world be if everyone had the ability to manage their disappointments effectively, communicate assertively and see situations from multiple points of view?
As a result of this oversight, none of us were ever taught to manage our emotions in a universal way; therefore, we go on instinct.
In the field of psychology, we often encourage individuals to listen to their instincts but unfortunately, this is one of the times when our instincts may not be the most effective. As children, our brains are not fully developed enough to think outside of ourselves, so we interpret everything in relation to ourselves. This misinterpretation can make us question things, real or imagined, in a way that triggers our limbic system; our fight, flight, freeze response. Consequently, at a young age, we might have figured out that barking at people in anger gets them away from us or shutting down will make the situation end even if there is no real resolution. Our instincts are built to get us to safety quickly; whether that be physical safety or emotional safety. But they are not necessarily the most effective in regard to our mental well-being, our growth and our relationships.
These instincts create neural pathways in our brains at a very young age. Rewiring these neural pathways, our instincts, to include assertiveness, confidence and self-assuredness is the core of psychotherapy. It takes skill and expertise to do this but it is very attainable. While utilizing the correct therapeutic interventions, it means taking the “fight” in “fight, flight, freeze” and turning it into a positive. Essentially, staying present and dealing with it assertively. Some of the greatest joy in my work comes from teaching these skills to my clients.
Resolving Conflict with a Roommate
In my practice, a college junior came to me because she felt she was being taken advantage of by her roommate; keeping her up late at night, using her belongings without asking and having frequent guests. If she said anything to her roommate her roommate would “bark” at her. So she kept putting up with it, saying nothing but slowly becoming more and more defeated and angry inside. Together, we worked on the skills she could employ to build her confidence, command respect and assert her needs with what I call The Warm Rock technique. This is where I taught her specific phrasing on how to be firm but warm. Over time, she was able to build her confidence and set the necessary boundaries with her roommate. Her roommate had more respect for her in the end and their relationship grew closer as a result. The exact opposite of the fear she had when previously thinking of confronting her roommate.
As humans, we frequently operate out of fear of rejection and abandonment; rejection from friends, loved ones and even colleges. This kicks in our fight, flight or freeze response as well. We are also pleasure seekers and pain avoiders, making us what I call “certainty seekers.” Hence, all of the uncertainty that comes with picking a major, researching colleges, and the ultimate fear of rejection from a particular school elevates the “fight” that students frequently engage in with their parents regarding researching colleges, the avoidance, or “flight,” of deciding on an area of interest to study, and the “freeze” that is the cause for many household arguments; students being paralyzed in the college application process causing them to avoid completing the applications in a timely manner.
Over the years, I have had countless parents ask me to try and get through to their child the importance of executing the tasks surrounding the college admissions process. It is a universal issue that I see with almost all of the high school students I have worked with throughout my career. This is where the procrastination that all students experience goes into high gear. That is my cue to teach the student how to dismantle the procrastination monster that lives inside all of us. Some of us just have bigger procrastination monsters than others. When that monster has been well fed and it takes over, I take great pleasure in teaching my clients to win the battle.
Recently, I was treating a student and his mother together, as the college admissions process was impeding their relationship. With just the initial interventions they both saw progress. We started by helping them both link their “liking” and “wanting” systems in the brain. Scary for all of us to realize that our liking and wanting systems are not linked! That is why we like the way we feel after we go to the gym but we never want to go. Once they were able to gain a greater understanding of the situation and implement a few techniques, the mother was less agitated about her child’s actions, or lack of actions, and the child was more motivated to get the necessary tasks completed for his college applications. It was a win- win.
The Imperative Focus of Mental Health in the College Counseling Process
In our lives, I can not think of a time when mental health is more important than when we are transitioning from high school into college. When you think that for the majority of us, by the time we are high school seniors, we have been doing the same thing every day for the last 13 or 14 years, with the same people, in the same place. Then we go to college and are thrust into a new environment, with new rules and new people. It is scary! It is scary because there are so many unknowns, uncertainties.
As “author” (and popular podcaster) Tim Ferriss says, “people would rather be unhappy than uncertain.”
This is why, by nature, humans don’t like change, despite the happiness it could ultimately bring. To combat this innate fear that change elicits, I prefer to replace the word “change” in our everyday vocabulary with the word “growth.” Change is scary but growth is good. I encourage you to try this minor tweak in your vocabulary and see how easy it can make a difference in your communications. Besides giving yourself a positive message and decreasing your anxiety about change, it attracts others to you subconsciously. Without even realizing it, we as humans are drawn to positivity and that one addition to your communication skills can give off a positive vibe that others will be attracted to.
Despite all of the stress and mental overload that comes with being a high school and college student, luckily, the current generation of young people are much different than their Gen X parents that are getting ready to send them off to college. The stigma and secrecy that had once plagued mental health is being lifted, and being lifted by the young people who are no longer ashamed of their mental health struggles. It is now not unusual to have a therapist, it is not shameful to talk about emotions other than joy and it is not a secret to have been prescribed medication to help manage your mood. It is a welcomed change, scratch that, a welcomed growth!
Undeniably, we all have stress. As a result, managing our stress and attending to our mental well-being is something we can all benefit from. It is just that much more imperative during the massive undertaking that college admissions can be. The goal is to create a positive mindset and effective habits so that students can go into adulthood free of the burden of never feeling good enough despite all of their efforts; to make the college application process less of an undertaking and more of an endeavor. A journey to look back on with joy, not tribulation.