Directing Your College Future

What’s the Fear All About?

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What’s the Fear All About?

Junior year is basically a nightmare. It’s the beginning of the most arduous academic year in high school. In addition to coursework, students are also intensely pursuing sports, visual and performing arts, extracurricular activities, jobs, community service. Ever more important is a social life that keeps parents awake at night with their own fears of the power of peer persuasion and temptations that never existed before the attainment of a driver’s license. For many families, the presumed culmination of the high school experience, and the next step into the future, is college. Doing well in school, taking the PSAT, tutoring, and taking AP exams and SATs, ACTs and Subject Tests in the spring become the elephant in every room of students’ lives. It is difficult for students to deny the reality of this pending event that shakes their world to the core. The word “college” pounds like a drum in their heads, beating in rhythm to a metronomic constancy. A lurking companion also materializes – fear.

What is this fear about? I suspect for many, it’s a fear of the unknown. For some, it’s the fear of losing the parental support they’ve actually mostly resented, starting sometime in middle school. It is a fear of finding the right school, separation, and heading out a free agent, alone. “Everyone is applying to college and it is so competitive!” Students believe there is no way they’ll get into a good college. Students genuinely fear that whatever they did in high school (honors for academic excellence, varsity sports, school newspaper, choreographing theatre productions, jazz ensemble, assembling computers and designing video games…nothing) will not be enough to get them into a good college, a college they can be proud of, a college peers won’t smirk at because it’s really a safety school They see many seniors, in spite of their resplendent profiles, being rejected from their top choices with a 4.3 GPA, 2310 SAT, sports, class president, 300 hours community service, and summer internships at Google and Yahoo. So, what’s the point?

Students feel they are a disappointment to their parents, knowing they will not attend the school of either parent’s alma mater, regardless of legacy status. They worry they will never be able to explain how they blew their GPA junior year, and even after taking the SAT three times, failed to get a score higher than 1580. If they decide to take a gap year, they worry they will be labeled a loser, if they settle for anything less than administering to orphans in Haiti. And, if they don’t go to college, they fear their parents will continue to meddle in their lives, moving their arms and legs like puppeteers.

Students wonder if college is really when life begins, what about everything they did in high school (see above), all the events that flooded the available word count on their applications? Is the college really accepting them, or their application? Will they be able to handle the work and might they fail? Can their family afford it? Will they be paying off a huge debt until they are 40! What if their roommate believes she was a shaman in her former life and burns mysterious herbs, while chanting every night for five hours? Will they make new friends…find their tribe? Will they stay in touch with best friends from home? Will they be able to handle the weather? Will they like the food?

Irrational? I don’t think so. For all of you who went to college and can remember this time in your life, the question is “who wouldn’t be afraid?” College is about leaving the nest and severing ties. And, getting into college has become a stressful, time-consuming process of endurance and tenacity with no guarantees of getting an “A”, being accepted at the college of choice.

As I guide my students through the college admissions process, I impress upon them that college is about discovery, finding direction, creating opportunities, getting better at whatever one is good at, and embracing whatever is fated, as the next volume of life experiences begins to reveal itself. I remind them that life is about change. As a noted Buddhist, Pema Chodron, says: “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” The true test is how one meets the challenges ahead. Hopefully, they will all be approached with courage, curiosity and self-compassion.

Regardless of their fears, students who go bravely forward will probably gradually feel the fears dissipate, and wherever they do end up, all their questions and worries will be replaced by excitement, fun, adventure, new challenges and actual interest in all that life has to offer. They may still have a lousy roommate and hate the food, but hopefully they will attend a school that is a good fit and meets, if not exceeds, at least most of their expectations

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