Ask Petal: I feel so overwhelmed by the college process. Any advice?

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Question: Do you have any college advice? I feel so overwhelmed and stressed. 

Oh, I wish I could give you the biggest virtual hug right now. I understand the heaviness and stress that comes with the college process deeply. It’s one of those experiences that is full of financial and social pressure, and also so much mental exhaustion. Just thinking about “starting over” whether you’re staying close to home or heading out of state is enough to make someone overwhelmed. Add on FAFSA form deadlines, student loans, personal essays, and those hefty college ranking books? Jeez, my heart is starting to race just writing this! However, even though it’s stressful and often isolating, it’s an exciting time, too. 

First and foremost, don’t forget to congratulate yourself for getting to this point in your life. No matter if you’re just starting your college search or deciding between your final schools, reaching this moment took a lot of hard work, homework assignments, and probably many locker combinations. 

It’s understandable to want to fast-forward through time and just get to your next chapter, but try to find moments to acknowledge the work and growth that is happening in your current chapter. While this may seem like an obvious point, I find a little self-reflection can be really helpful when making big decisions, like where to go/apply to college. Checking in with yourself about how you’ve come to be the person you are today can help you make decisions about where you want to be in the future. 

But the good news is: wherever you go or don’t go, you’re still you. Your college doesn’t define you. And there is no “right” way to get to where you want to go. I’m sure if you interviewed your role models, you’d see every one of them took different paths in their journeys. Some probably went to four-year colleges or community colleges right after high school. Others may have traveled first or skipped college altogether. All this to say, if your path looks different from the person next to you in English class, that’s ok. 

One of the best pieces of advice I got during my college process was from my dad. He said, “Life is all about options.” This reminded me to apply to colleges besides my “reach” school and to remember that going to college is in itself an option, but not the only option. When I looked at it this way, I found empowerment in knowing that I didn’t need to have my whole life figured out by seventeen - and that I was allowed to change my mind. In my case, I almost went to two different schools before I ended up going to the one that put me on a waitlist. Looking back, I am so happy with the choice I made - but I am sure I would have had an equally fulfilling (and fun!) experience at the other schools. 

Here are some other tips that helped me when navigating the college process: 

  • Ask for help! Your counselors are there for a reason - to help you through this process. Especially when it comes to comparing financial packages - it’s very wise to look at the details to be sure you’re putting yourself in the best position you can be. If you don’t feel supported by your school counselors, I suggest reaching out to a trusted adult in your life - teacher, friend, or family member. 
  • If you’re visiting a college in person, consider taking a minute to be alone on the campus. When I was looking at schools, I was very fortunate to have one or both of my parents with me and sometimes even my sister. (Yes, this was long before COVID!) But I’d urge you to sit on a bench by yourself for a few minutes or go for a quick solo walk. Try to envision if you feel like this is a place you’d be happy spending your time. 
  • When I was applying to schools, so many people said “don’t think about what school specializes in your major, you’ll change your mind a million times.” This advice may be true for some, but if there’s an area you are deeply passionate about - I wouldn’t hide from that. I believe your passions should guide your actions - of course, in a way that makes sense for your personal situation.
  • Remember to listen to yourself. Your parents, teachers, best friends, boyfriends, girlfriends are all hugely important - but they are not the ones living your life. You are. 

Above all, even though it’s easier said than done, be kind to yourself and try to do things that help you “zoom out” every once in a while. Read a book for a mental escape or go for a hike to experience this wonderful world that will be here for you no matter where your college journey takes you. 

Cheering you on through this exciting - although stressful -- time in your life! 

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