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The Great College Application Panic
Melanie Ortega
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Senior year is supposed to be the best year of my high school life. But for a while, it seemed like the most stressful. At the beginning of the school year I knew that I was going to have to pick a college and a major, but I thought that I was going to major in journalism. I had already taken numerous college tours. But one day I thought about it and asked myself, “Do you really want to do journalism? Do you really enjoy writing that much to make it your career?”

I didn’t know the answers to my own questions, and I felt lost. My college research had focused on journalism. Now that I doubted my major, I began to doubt the colleges as well. I feared that all that time spent visiting colleges was now a waste.

After this realization, I started to get really stressed. My friends kept telling me what they wanted to be and what college they wanted to go to. It seemed as though everyone had their lives planned out while I was still stuck on what my major would be.

One day in October I was on the train with some friends and they were all discussing their dream colleges and how they were so pumped about the major they chose. One of my friends told us that she had known she wanted to do nursing since her sophomore year. I felt jealous—I wasn’t even thinking about college two years ago. Then someone asked me, “Mel, what college do you want to go to?”

I was caught off guard, “Uh, what?” I said, trying to buy some time.

Then my other friend jumped in, “Yeah, Mel, what major are you going to be?”

“Um, I’m not really sure,” I said. “I haven’t decided yet.”

The world seemed to stop moving for my two friends. “What?! How could you not know yet?”

‘You Better Get On That’

After this conversation, I began to ask people in my classes how they knew what they wanted to do. One girl told me that she had been confused like me, but just recently decided on a major. I asked her how, as if there were something you can eat or drink that will force you to choose a major. But she told me that she stayed home one day from school and just thought. Just thought about what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. I told her that I still had no clue what I wanted to do. Her response was, “You better get on that.”

I wasn’t just stressed about what major to choose. It was the whole process in general: the admission essays that I had to write, the SATs. I had taken the SAT junior year and was not satisfied with my scores. I worried that no college was going to accept me. So I put all this stress on the retake in November, telling myself that it was my last chance, that if I did not do better then there really was no hope for me.

Paying for college was a whole other thing to worry about. Both of my parents have full-time jobs, so I won’t get much of a financial aid package. But all that money that my parents are making goes to bills. We can’t really afford tuition. Whenever I bring this up to my parents, their immediate response is, “You don’t have to worry about that, just apply wherever you want to go.” That’s great to hear, but I still feel I have to choose based on what we can afford.

During all of this confusion, my mom decided to sign me up for a college application workshop at my church. I know she was just trying to help, but honestly it just added to my stress.

The moment I walked in, I was given a handout that asked: What major do you plan on choosing? What college do you plan on attending? How are you planning on paying for college?

I couldn’t answer any of these questions and tears began to well up in my eyes; I had to excuse myself. As I was walking to the bathroom, trying my best to stay calm, I saw one of my friends. She saw my face and simply said, “Do you need to cry?” She came with me to the bathroom and I started telling her all of the stress that I was under.

She told me that in her school, she is supposed to report senior stress and that she was going to report me. We began to laugh and she told me that she didn’t know what she wanted to do either and that her plan was to start off at a community college, figure out what she wants, and later transfer to a four-year school that has her major. I was so relieved to find out that I was not the only one who was unsure about my college life. And it was refreshing to learn of her plans because they truly made sense to me.

image by YC-Art Dept

OK to Be Undecided

The following Monday I decided to talk to my guidance counselor. I had never asked her for advice before, but I’d never been this stressed before, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Her door was already open and I said, “Hi, Ms. Vongerichten. Can I talk to you, are you busy?”

I could see that she was eating her breakfast and thought that she was going to ask me to come back later, but she said, “Of course not, what is it you want to talk about?”

I signed in and sat at the chair closest to her. “Um. It’s really just the whole college thing. I thought that I wanted to do journalism but now I’m not so sure. I really don’t know what I want to do and it’s really stressing me out.”

“Oh yes,” she replied, “typical senior stress.” I didn’t expect to hear that because I honestly thought that not a lot of people felt the same way that I did.

“You are not alone in this, Melanie. A lot of seniors are going through the same thing and it is perfectly OK and normal,” she said. “People change their major multiple times when they get into college. You shouldn’t stress over it too much.”

She told me that her husband had gone into college right out of high school to be a math teacher. He earned his bachelor’s degree and was teaching at a local elementary school but he wasn’t happy. He decided to go back to school and is now studying to become a dentist. That showed me that it is never too late in the game to change my mind and that it really was OK for me to not be 100% sure on a major.

She then began to go through my grades and told me that I should be proud of how I was doing in school. She encouraged me to apply everywhere that I found interesting, and it motivated me greatly.

Another thing that helped was talking with one of my favorite teachers, Mr. Canovas. I told him what I was stressing over and he told me that he’d heard the same thing from his daughter last year. She had no idea what she wanted to do and felt she had no options. So he told her to go to a community college until she figures it out. He told me that attending a CUNY or SUNY (public colleges in New York, which cost much less than private schools) could be a good choice.

Good Stress

Hearing these different ideas really helped me clear my head. I always thought that jumping into a four-year college was the only option I had.

In November, I re-took the SATs and did a little better. I know that it’s the best I can do, and don’t want to worry over it any longer. These days I am still under stress, but I like to call it “the good stress.” I’ve figured out a plan, and now the stress just comes from finishing applications.

I decided to apply to 11 colleges: a mix of public and private, two-year and four-year schools. The only way I would go to the private universities is if I get major financial aid, and I consider the CUNYs my smart financial choices. I also have some community colleges as a back-up.

I am applying for journalism or communications as my major at most of the schools, instead of “undecided.” I felt that I would rather pick a major and see if I like it. If not, I can always change it. I learned that in the first two years of college you are mostly just taking the core classes, and in most schools you don’t have to declare a major until your junior year.

For seniors who don’t know what they want to do in college or juniors who believe they will be in the same situation next year, here’s my advice: It’s going to be OK. It is perfectly fine for a 17- or 18-year-old to not know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. As I finish up my college applications, the stress I felt about my future is slowly turning into excitement and anticipation.

(NYC-2013-03-21)