Today’s students face unprecedented levels of technological change, mental health concerns, and record low college admissions rates—among other things—that have made today’s educational environment vastly different from the one their parents grew up in. I’ve seen how these shifts trickle down to daily feelings of anxiety for children and adults alike.

Many educators and professionals can feel at a loss for how to support students, especially during transition times such as the college admissions process, when pressures are especially heightened. Too often, we can let our anxiety guide us, focusing incessantly on the “checklist” of grades, test scores, endless extracurricular activities, and awards—and in the process, we overlook the essential skills that are in fact needed for a successful transition to college, as well as lifelong well-being.

As an academic advisor who has spent over two decades working with thousands of teens, I have seen the importance of executive functions—the set of skills required to plan ahead and meet goals, emotionally regulate, and stay focused despite distractions, among others—in helping students navigate the college application process, and also transition from high school to college.

Below are five tips for school leaders and educators to better support students during the college application process:

  1. Encourage systems.
    It’s no secret that the college application process can be anxiety-inducing for all involved. Many students today struggle to organize, plan, prioritize, start and complete tasks, and adapt when things might not go as planned—and the college application process is a great way to develop these skills. It can be liberating and relieving when high school seniors have a clear system—including a set timeline and structured plan, often involving weekly to-do’s—during application season. As educators, it is important to realize that not all students have these skills, and when we work collaboratively to create online folders, design weekly milestones, and set up proactive check-in times to encourage progress and work ahead of deadlines, we reduce feelings of stress and anxiety all around.

  2. Nurture the “savvy consumer” mentality.
    In the frenzied race to have the “perfect” resume and application, students and families can easily lose sight of the fact that many students can thrive in many different environments, and there is never just one perfect school. I encourage students to ask themselves: “Why are these schools on my list? What qualities are important to me in a college experience—and what are the multiple schools (across selectivity levels) that share those qualities? Am I applying because I think I should or others want me to? In my latest book, Erasing the Finish Line: The New Blueprint for Success Beyond Grades and College Admission, I use the term savvy consumers as a way of encouraging students to evaluate their own preferences, questions, and personal, social, emotional, and intellectual goals. For every student, I emphasize the approach of finding the multiple places where they can thrive.

  3. Emphasize connection-building.
    The college admissions process can feel isolating, even as it results in endless chatter from friends and family (“Where are you applying?” “Where do you want to go next year?”). All that noise can create a heightened sense of loneliness. Intergenerational connections can be key—both within a school building with peers in other grades, as well as trusted adults, and outside the building with those older and younger individuals for whom college admissions is not the most pressing issue. Educators can open up an entire network of resources for students by encouraging relationship-building—whether that be through connecting with teachers and counselors for recommendations, trying a new activity or hobby, or reaching out to fellow students/alumni to provide insight on the college experience.

  4. Broaden perspective.
    Sometimes I ask high school students: Instead of thinking of where you want to be next year, tell me where you want to be in six years? The question releases the pressure around a narrowed vision of what a “successful” transition to college looks like—which may unintentionally limit students’ sense of their future options. It’s crucial to do our own reflection as well, and make sure that we are exploring alternative pathways that may be a better fit for each student’s needs, even if those pathways might not match what might be seen as a “typical” or preferred college experience within the high school community.

  5. Empower students to lean into their unique strengths and opportunities for growth.
    At the core, what I’ve seen to be the most concerning effect of our toxic achievement culture is the effect on students’ sense of competence and self-acceptance. Students can feel surrounded by an influx of data around how they could be doing more, or won’t ever measure up, and lose sense of their own worthiness and their unique capabilities. As educators, we can play a crucial role in nurturing students’ strengths and identifying opportunities for growth while helping them avoid the comparison trap. Through supportive mentorship, we can make the college admissions process one of exploration, encouraging students to design their own blueprint for success in academics and beyond.

For more on supporting students in the transition from high school to college and career, check out the February issue of Principal Leadership.

About the Author

Ana Homayoun is the author of four books, most recently, Erasing the Finish Line: The New Blueprint for Success Beyond Grades and College Admission. Learn more at

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