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  • Adrienne Frumberg

Recently Published in the IECA September Insights Magazine

“Generalized Anxiety in the Application Process: Signs and Symptoms during the Most Academically Stressful Experience”

Written by: Joanna Lilley, NCC, M.A. & Adrienne Frumberg, M.A.

Students are struggling not just to meet deadlines for essay drafts and letter of recommendation requests, but to even just get started. Consultants are faced with the task of decreasing the burden of the admissions application stress for students, but even with a reduction, we’re still befuddled. We are frustrated by their lack of communication, motivation, and drive in some of the students we are working with. Confused as to how to help? We need to look at the root of what’s really going on.

Announcing a 8% decline in enrollment in higher education isn’t decreasing the demand for independent college consultants. For students applying, we’re actually seeing a spike in the quantity of applications, particularly in “reach” colleges. Anxiety in high school seniors is at an all-time high. Following checklists, balancing schoolwork, and being pressured to stand out in a more diverse student body than ever. The stress of it all is taking a toll on our students, and on us. In this article, we look ahead to better understand what anxiety actually looks like in an effort to better support the students we’re helping.

What Anxiety can look like during the college application process:

Rose is a current junior at a small boarding school in Connecticut. She spent three months of the spring of her sophomore year being treated for her anxiety disorder. During junior year, Rose spent her time adjusting to her new school, getting involved in activities, engaging in community service, and felt like college was in the distant future. Rose started to visit colleges last May and started to hone in on a college list of small, mostly liberal arts colleges. Typically the summer before senior year, most students complete as much as they can of the application and essay. Rose became increasingly disengaged with the process, missing meetings, responding to messages days later, and refusing to begin outlining the main college essay. Excuses piled up, and before she knew it, it was time to return for her senior year of high school at her boarding school, the main essay not completed, SAT test scheduled for later in the fall, and a number of supplemental questions to complete. As her college counselor, I’m concerned about her anxiety disorder flaring up due to the stress of the college application process and looming list of to-do list items. The goal of the summer before senior year is work on these items to lower stress when schoolwork begins to pile up again during senior year; unfortunately, this wasn’t the case with Rose.

From a non-clinical perspective, here’s some signs of what we might identify as an “anxious student” or behaviors we may mistake for not relating to anxiety:

  • - Someone who is restless or fatigued

  • - Impaired concentration and/or responding with “I don’t know” to any question asked of them.

  • - Irritability; which usually is directed towards parents, and you may not observe until it’s at a breaking point

  • - Difficulty sleeping because they are overwhelmed and their mind is racing

  • - Avoidance; in responding to communication, task deadlines, and anything that requires a decision.

A. A period of at least six months with prominent tension, worry and feelings of apprehension, about every-day events and problems

B. At least four symptoms out of the following list of items must be present, of which at least one from items 1 to 4

Autonomic arousal symptoms

  1. palpitations or pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate

  2. sweating

  3. trembling or shaking

  4. dry mouth (not owing to medication or dehydration)

Symptoms concerning chest and abdomen:

  • 5. difficulty breathing

  • 6. feeling of choking

  • 7. chest pain or discomfort

  • 8. nausea or abdominal distress (e.g. churning in stomach)

Symptoms concerning brain and mind:

  • 9. feeling dizzy, unsteady, faint or light-headed

  • 10. feelings that objects are unreal (derealisation), or that one’s self is distant or ‘not really here’ (depersonalisation)

  • 11. fear of losing control, going crazy or passing out

  • 12. fear of dying

General symptoms:

  • 13. hot flushes or cold chills

  • 14. numbness or tingling sensations

Symptoms of tension:

  • 15. muscle tension, or aches and pains

  • 16. restlessness and inability to relax

  • 17. feeling keyed up, or on edge, or of mental tension

  • 18. a sensation of a lump in the throat, or difficulty with swallowing

Other nonspecific symptoms:

  • 19. exaggerated response to minor surprises or being startled

  • 20. difficulty in concentrating, or mind going blank, because of worrying or anxiety

  • 21. persistent irritability

  • 22. difficulty getting to sleep because of worrying

C. The disorder does not meet the criteria for panic disorder, phobic anxiety disorders, obsessive–compulsive disorder or hypochondriacal disorder

D. Most commonly used exclusion criteria: not sustained by a physical disorder, such as hyperthyroidism, an organic mental disorder or psychoactive substance-related disorder, such as excess consumption of amphetamine-like substances, or withdrawal from benzodiazepines

Executive functioning challenges can be a product of students who are suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Students may consciously or subconsciously avoid the application process altogether if they are having symptoms of anxiety. This might look like missing meetings with their college counselor or IEC, “forgetting” to work on their college essay or waiting to ask recommenders for letters at the very last minute.

It is important to understand that some diagnoses may also need to be ruled out before we assume that your student is struggling with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. It could be Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you are seeing that your students are shutting down, your job as a college consultant is not to make a diagnosis, but be familiar with symptoms that escalate enough to make a professional referral.

Tips EC’s can use to help students decrease anxiety during the application process:

  • Refer to a licensed therapist with experience working with students with anxiety disorders

  • Review your application checklist and identify ways to break down tasks into sub-tasks

  • Use tools or programs to assist with to-do list items (ie: College Planner Pro)

  • Have more frequent check-in meetings to track progress; and celebrate successes!

  • Encourage students to visit colleges to demystify perceptions they may have about schools on their list

  • Create a truly balanced college list with reach, target, and likely options; students need to also be enthusiastic about their likely (safe) options!

  • Connect with former clients who are in college and ask about their experiences; sharing these specific experiences can help allay anxiety with your students.

The college process will never be completely stress-free. As an IEC, the key with anxiety disorders is to act when you begin noticing shifts with your students. Take note of the concerning symptoms, and if they persist over a number of weeks, it is critical to share your observations with their parents or guardians so a referral to a professional can be made.

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