How parents help students tame academic anxiety

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

Alice Rush, M.A., MCC-Owner and Founder of CareerU® Counseling Center,

by Alice Rush, M.A., MCC  — Owner and Founder of CareerU® Counseling Center

This article is for kids who are stressed out in high school, don’t know how they’re going to make it; parents who are not sure how they are going to afford the new “6 years” of private college tuition or UC System tuition for a Bachelor’s Degree; the high achiever kids that surprisingly ‘don’t get in’ and are wondering what to do? 

This article is for you.

Know that you have many options!

I just viewed the trailer and visited the web site for “Race to No Where,” and I applaud the film makers for taking a stand to change our education paradigm. As a Career and Educational Counselor, I have strong passions and devoted knowledge about education and teen stress, having worked in the education counseling field for the past 18 years. Here is what I have observed to be one of our biggest problems and aggravators to teen stress:

1)      The perception that “our kids are only as secure as where they are accepted into college.”

As a parent of two college-bound children as well, I get this one.

We feel if our kids are accepted into the best college right out of high school, their future will be golden, right? This may be good for some, but not for all.

The problem with this perception is that many 4.0 GPA, or 4.5 GPA high school graduates (with the right extra curricular activities) are NOT getting into the colleges of their dreams. Colleges in CA in particular are heavily impacted. We know this. We also know that if our kids are accepted into the college of their dreams, it could take 6 years to complete a bachelors degree- due to the impossibility of getting the classes needed to graduate (again because the colleges are so impacted.) Six years of expensive private college tuition fees?

Even if they do get in, can we afford this expenditure? How about if you have 2-3-4 kids?

2)  The second issue around college acceptance involves something even more serious. The life and death equation: “I have to get into that college or I will disappoint my parents, they wont love or approve of me anymore, my friends will think I’m a loser…”

…and then we get the note: (which really happened in Palo Alto, where I grew up). Where the high school student said in his note, “I just don’t think I will ever measure up” and threw himself in front of a train. Teen suicide is very real and at some point we have to think, “Is all that pressure really worth it?” OK, this might sound extreme, yet the majority of high school students these days, particularly high achievers, will tell you they experience some form of anxiety – especially ‘fear of failure.’

xjasonrogersx's photostream (Flickr)

Photo: xjasonrogersx's photostream (Flickr)

The best way to combat this anxiety and ‘fear of failure’, however, is to let your kids know that if they don’t get in, they can get in eventually and that there is time.

What if I told you that our kids do not need to be accepted into the college of their dreams  right out of high school in order to be accepted and graduate from the college of their dreams?

What if I told you that all those AP classes and extra curricular activities in high school were great for challenging one’s brain and capabilities, yet that they had additional time to work on their academic, and diversified social value (community service, studying or working abroad) over the next few years? 

What if I also told you our kids could then earn a degree from Stanford, Harvard; a college of their dream – for half price?

All of this is true. Your child can go to a community college while completing their general education units, then transfer after two years to any college they target. Breath, feel the resistance?

Read on.

Example: I was a straight A student in high school, went to a local junior college because I was paying my own tuition, I then transferred to a four year college. I joined the honor society while at the junior college, and my friend and President of the honor society transferred after 2 years to Stanford University. That’s right, Stanford! She received her degree from Stanford at half price.

Example: Most recently, my niece was a highly driven academic student, private high school, Saint Francis in Los Altos,  all the right tutors, all the right grades, all the right extra curricular activities- we were all surprised when she- like so many- were not accepted into UCLA (her dream college.)

She decided then to go to a community college in Santa Barbara for two years to complete her General Education, and then transfer. Guess what happened? She was accepted into UCLA and will be graduating next year with her prestigious degree! Did it matter that she took AP classes high school? No, Extra Curricular in high school? No. If you talked to her now, she could have lived without all that stress and anxiety in her life. In actuality, she had plenty of time to reinvent herself- if need be- during the community college years.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If your child is not stressed and instead challenged by the AP classes and really wants to go away to college or university for the entirety of the Bachelor’s degree program- go for it. This is a great option, too; and a wonderful goal to strive for. In fact, this is how I make my living, helping students understand their best fit major and help them position themselves for acceptance into college. This article, however, is not for the kids who ‘get in’ and who thrive on challenge. This is for the kids who are stressed, disappointed and suicidal.

Paradigm shift #2:

Popular belief: Our kids really need to be accepted to their #1 top pick University out of high school, in order to be successful.

True or false? False!

The reality is that our kids have more time than we think, and it could save your family a lot of money, stress and heartache in the long run, if they completed their general education at a community college first, then transferred- giving them more time to grow up, appreciate their education, figure out what they want to be when they grow up, study abroad, work in impressive community service capacities…, and impress the heck out of the ‘college of their dreams’- Two years later. It’s all about positioning.

Furthermore, the reality is that general education, is general education, regardless of where you go. English 1A, is English 1A, wherever you go. The most important years of ‘where we go to school’ will be during our degree concentration, our final two years when we’re working on our upper division units. So why are we stressing ourselves and our kids out superfluously?  I received some of the best education ever from Foothill Community College. My professors from Foothill had graduated from Oxford and Harvard, and were truly outstanding in their field. I remember struggling in high school Biology, only to take Biology from a highly enthusiastic and knowledgeable professor, Dr. Adler- who lived and breathed biology- and his enthusiasm and 30 years of passion for the field were infectious. I not only got an A in Biology at Foothill- because of him, I went on to be a Teacher’s Assistant in biology!

Photo: Arbron's photostream (Flickr)

I hope I have inspired a few of you to consider the alternatives. If your child is not accepted into the college of their dreams- it is NOT the end of the world, and we always have a choice to allow our kids more time to grow up and enjoy their education.

For questions or  more information: Contact Alice Rush, M.A., MCC, CareerU® Counseling Center Director, 916-349-7855,



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About Joanna Jullien

Joanna Jullien

Joanna ( and her husband have raised two sons in Roseville, CA. She has a degree from U.C. Berkeley in Social Anthropology (corporate culture). Her honors thesis was awarded the Kroeber Prize and funding from National Science Foundation grant. Joanna writes to help parents with the modern-day leadership challenges of raising children. She is a contributing writer for The Granite Bay View, the Press Tribune, the Sacramento Examiner, and editor of Banana Moments.