Applying to college is scary. Young people carry into the process all kinds of fears that can paralyze them, making it difficult to make good decisions and following through. In this post, Brennan Barnard looks at why it is so difficult applying to college and suggests how young people can get beyond their fears. Barnard is director of college counseling at the Derryfield School, a private college preparatory day school for grades 6-12 in Manchester, N.H.

By Brennan Barnard

I look out at dozens of high school seniors, geared for greatness but paralyzed by panic. Onscreen, the Common Application flickers, the immediate source of their torment.  The questions there are simple enough: What courses are you taking? What are your activities? Do you have any siblings?  But another set of questions, far darker and more terrifying loom in their minds:

“Am I good enough?”

“Will I be successful?”

“Can I measure up?”

“Will I let them down?”

“What am I missing?”

“Will I make the right decision?”

“How can I be happy?”

“Will they approve?”

“Can I do it?”

I have gathered the seniors together before classes to set a game plan for college admission.  The palpable paranoia has rendered them speechless, only words of worry emerging in their limited responses.

As a “coach,” the health and success of these young people comes first, but to extend the metaphor, I really have to ask, what is the game we are playing and what would winning it even mean?  There will be ups and downs, goals met and goals missed, but my hope for each of them is that they find their voice and confidently share it with college admission offices.  The goal is to apply to schools that will honor their ambitions, dreams and unique strengths.

Many students, however, seem to be gagging on anxiety, inert in the face of fear and stifled by the threat of failure.

There can be no doubt: we are educating in an age of fear.  In his 1933 inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt famously declared his belief that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Here are some of today’s pervasive terrors:

Fear of the unknown

Fear of economic ruin

Fear of anger

Fear of shame

Fear of our own weakness

Fear that we are not enough

Fear of abandonment

Fear that we do not matter

Fear of disapproval

Fear of our own potential

Fear that we will not belong

Fear of violence

Fear of discomfort

Fear of vulnerability

Fear of failure

Fear that we will somehow fail our children

Fear of terror

Fear in classrooms and hallways undermines the very skills educators seek to develop in students.  It debilitates discussion, crushes creativity and reviles risk.  We want students to think outside the box, engage in dialogue and challenge themselves and classmates in unique ways.  Increasingly schools are embracing “makers’ spaces,” “innovation labs” and leadership initiatives as pedagogically appropriate paradigms for intellectual and personal growth.  Meanwhile student progress is stunted by an inability to countenance mistakes or embrace uncertainty.

The trifecta of parental pressure, future fixation and the mania of the media in their daily lives seem to have striped teenagers of joy and exploration in their high school years.  Instead they fumble in fear, unable to connect with an authentic voice and a sense of self or hope—simply they do not want to fail.  Paradoxically, this reality makes a certain kind of failure inevitable.

As Roosevelt suggested, we need to “convert retreat into advance.”  It is unacceptable to allow young people at the edge of opportunity to be paralyzed by fear.  We must help them name their discomfort and articulate their identity—encourage them to express their “why?”  With this purpose in mind, the following are questions that I plan to ask each of my seniors as they approach the college search this fall:

Who are you?

What do you love?

How do you learn?

What drives you?

What brings you joy?

How do you show concern for others?

What are you afraid of?

What does success mean in four months, four years, forty years?

How do you stay mindful in the moment?

What is your outlet?

Will students be able to respond to all of these inquiries?  Unlikely, but then again neither could I.  The important part is posing the question and allowing the judgment-free space to explore answers.  We must let them fumble and fail.  This is true fear-free education.  In fact, we could all benefit from considering and openly sharing our responses, as this dialogue would lead to healthier more peaceful communities.

As we wrap up our college meeting, I invite students to shout out their fears and the answers are sundry but sincere.  The calling out is cathartic and it is comforting to hear classmates with the same concerns.  Filing out of the room, some of the weight seems to have lifted and there is life in their eyes.  Outside opportunity awaits as the fear abates.