The Wait for the Acceptance Letter: How to Cope with Stress

The time of year has finally come when you’re starting to receive letters from colleges. The brief breath of relief you felt at mailing in your final application has likely given way to holding your breath in anticipation of hearing back from schools. This period of waiting can be one of the most stressful times in a person’s life. For many of you, hearing back from colleges means facing the final assessment of your high school career, a decision that feels like it will determine your next step in life. All your cards are on the table, and all your hard work being measured. The pressure of this moment should not be understated, nor should the effect it can have on your sense of certainty and security, even your sense of self.

When preparing for college, it’s easy to get wrapped up in practicalities and planning, setting goals and meeting deadlines, listing long shots and safety schools. Yet, most people aren’t fully prepared for the emotional aspects of this journey: the shame felt at being rejected by a certain school, the jealousy of having a classmate accepted, the anxiety of being the last friend to get a letter, or the identity crisis sparked by a future that looks different from what you pictured and planned for. No matter which schools do or don’t send acceptance letters, it’s important to pay attention to your emotional state during this intensely transitional moment in your life. Here, I’ll share what I’ve found to be some good strategies to help you understand, accept, and cope with the feelings that are stirred at this time.

The first thing to recognize is that what you’re going through is both really hard and completely normal. As you navigate this uncertain time, you can expect a million mixed feelings to come up. What matters most is that you stay on your own side throughout this process. You can be a friend to yourself by understanding what you’re going through and meeting whatever that is with curiosity, kindness, and compassion. Here are some of the common types of thoughts and feelings that high school seniors have struggled with that they’ve shared with me.

Critical Inner Voices

So much of our anxiety and suffering is perpetuated, not just by what’s happening but what we’re telling ourselves about what’s happening. Unfortunately, it’s way too easy to put ourselves down in times of uncertainty, particularly those involving evaluation. We all have an inner critic that’s there to pounce when we’re feeling our most exposed or vulnerable. There are many self-critical thoughts or “critical inner voices” that get triggered in graduating teens. Common critical inner voices I’ve heard from students have included:

  • You’re not going to get accepted anywhere.
  • Why haven’t you heard from that school yet? You don’t have a chance.
  • How can you tell your friends/parents/teachers that you didn’t get in?
  • You’re so stupid. They’re so much smarter than you.
  • What’s wrong with you?
  • It’s over. You’ll never have the future you want now.
  • You’re a loser. Everyone will be disappointed in you.

Identity Crisis

There may be no greater shift in the foundation of your identity than when you go from being considered a kid to being an adult. Graduating high school tends to be one of the most formally recognized symbols of this transition. Thus, it’s normal at this time to experience a lot of uncertainty about who you’ll become and what your life will look like in the near future. It’s not uncommon for a student’s very sense of identity to get wrapped up in the schools he or she does or doesn’t get into. Many students experience an identity crisis when certain plans don’t materialize. The loss of an opportunity can feel like losing a version of yourself or a specific picture of your life that you imagined or anticipated.

Anxiety and Pressure

Many of you are experiencing an intense level of anxiety and pressure, sometimes sourcing from your family and sometimes from inside yourself, often from both. This anxiety only heightens when your friends and other students start to hear back from schools. Comparing yourself to others is an easy and immediate way to awaken your critical inner voice. These comparisons can lead you to feel shame, competitiveness, jealousy, embarrassment, or guilt, as friends and fellow students find out where they have and haven’t been accepted. If you don’t meet these feelings with compassion and acceptance, you may turn on yourself or act out in ways that strain your friendships, which usually leads to more distress.

Once again, it’s important to absorb the fact that all these feelings are normal, and there are real steps you can take to feel more relaxed and stop listening to your critical inner voice.

Stand up to Your Critical Inner Voice

The first thing to do is to recognize that the mean way you’re treating yourself is NOT a way you would talk to a friend going through the same thing. We all have a critical inner voice that, like a sadistic coach, is just there to fill our heads with garbage and self-doubt. Whether you’re feeling shame over not having been accepted somewhere or guilt at getting in when a friend didn’t, try to identify the cruel thoughts (“voices”) you’re telling yourself. You can even write down these thoughts in the second person (i.e. “You are such a failure.” “You should be humiliated.” “You don’t deserve to get in.”

Next, respond to these voices in the same way you would talk to a friend with a more realistic, kind, and compassionate point of view. Be strong and persistent in standing up to this inner critic and in maintaining a caring, respectful attitude toward yourself no matter what you’re experiencing. (i.e. “I have many qualities I respect that will get me where I want to be.” “I have nothing to be ashamed of. I don’t need to be perfect.” “I deserve friendship, love, and acceptance no matter what any school sends me.”)

Learn Strategies for Calming Down

No matter what, waiting to hear from college will likely do a number on your nerves. I recently helped create a toolkit for PsychAlive.org describing seven helpful ways of managing and coping with anxiety. We gathered tips and tools from experts, which include reflective exercises that can help you make sense of what you’re experiencing and breathing exercises that actually help your brain calm down. It may be helpful to look through this toolkit to discover strategies that may work for you in moments of stress.

 Look at the Big Picture (not in the way you think)

Graduating from high school is already a tremendous milestone to anticipate on both a symbolic and entirely tangible level. As a senior, you’ve likely spent years enduring new and immense pressures to succeed, all with the promise of going on to “better things.” The degree of pressure you and fellow classmates have faced have already left many people questioning whether our current focus on academic success is taken to an extreme. Is it being pushed too far at the expense of a person’s mental wellbeing and ability to lead a balanced life?

Life, of course, has many meaningful parts, and academics is only one of them. Your connections, your values, your ideas, your creative and personal experiences are all of great significance in determining who you are and the life you will build. There are so many parts to who you are, and no single school or even degree will define that fully. There is no such thing as the perfect school or perfect future. There are many worthy paths and ways to achieve your goals, and one of the most useful tools you can carry with you in life is your own self-compassion. It’s always much more than okay for you to to take the time to tune in to how you’re feeling, practice self-care, and seek support at any point in this enormous transition. This is an important principle to adopt no matter which school you go to, because pretty much every student who leaves for college (even their dream college) is in for a new sea of emotional challenges.

Taking your emotions seriously is part of taking yourself seriously. It is not a characteristic of weakness or defeat, but one of strength and resilience. Emotional intelligence can lead us to more successful lives. Even a highly uncertain time like waiting to hear what your academic future holds can also hold valuable lessons about how you really feel about growing up, becoming more independent, or moving on to another chapter in life. Voicing your struggles can help you get to know and actively challenge your inner critic. It can help you strengthen your resilience and enhance your self-compassion, two things you will need to achieve any of the other things you seek in life.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012).Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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