Issue 58: Thinking mistakes that add stress during college applications

“Teenagers engage in… ‘all or nothing’ thinking.” This week, SocratesPost interviews psychologist Dr. Aaron Montgomery on how the college admissions process impacts mental health and what parents can do about it.

Exclusive Insider Interview: Adolescent and Adult Psychologist from The OC Psychology Center for Assessment & Psychotherapy

SocratesPost: Dr. Montgomery, What’s your experience working with college bound high school students?

Dr. Montgomery: There is a lot of unhealthy stress and anxiety that students experience when applying for college. Excessive pressure from parents, peers, culture and even students themselves is often counterproductive. My goal is to help students, and parents, learn how to balance between drive for success with care for the mind.

SocratesPost: What are the top few mental health effects you’ve witnessed HS students undergoing during the college admissions process?

Dr. Montgomery: The most common problems that I see in college bound adolescents is stress, anxiety, self-doubt, worry and fear.

SocratesPost: What exacerbates those and what helps alleviate those experiences?

Dr. Montgomery: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches us that the way we think is often connected to how we feel. In my work with anxious and stressed college-bound students, I notice four common errors in thinking that play an important role in their distress. In cognitive behavioral terms these are called ‘catastrophizing’, ‘fortune telling’, ‘personalizing’ and ‘all or nothing thinking’. These thinking errors fuel negative emotions by skewing perception, interpretation and expectations in an unhealthy direction.

…the way we think is often connected to how we feel…


SocratesPost: Can you share with us what happens in those four common thinking errors, starting with catastrophizing and fortune telling?

Dr. Montgomery: Students ‘catastrophize’ and engage in ‘fortune telling’ when they believe that the worst-case scenario is the most likely, and when they are overly confident about what will happen in the future. For example: “If I am not accepted into my top choice school, then I won’t be able to get a good job, and I’ll end up homeless.”

SocratesPost: Wow, sounds like students give themselves a little too much credit for knowing how the future will turn out. How commonly do you actually witness teenagers doing this?

Dr. Montgomery: This may sound extreme, but I have heard variations of this from many college bound students.

SocratesPost: What should a parent or counselor do if he or she catches their student doing this?

Dr. Montgomery: If you notice your child engaging in this sort of thinking, then offer a counter. For example: “Many successful people did not attend your top choice school.” Or you can pose this as a question: “Can you think of any successful people that did not attend your top school?” This will promote more cognitive flexibility for your teen and should help to decrease anxiety associated with catastrophizing and fortune telling.

SocratesPost: What happens during the next common thinking error, the “all-or-nothing?”

Dr. Montgomery: Teenagers engage in ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking when they view their options as severely black and white, either/or and dichotomous, while not considering the middle ground.

SocratesPost: Can you give us an example of what all-or-nothing thinking sounds like?

Dr. Montgomery: For example, ‘Either I’ll be accepted into my top choice school and I’ll be happy, or I’ll be accepted into another school and I’ll be unhappy” or “if I go to my top choice school I’ll get a good education, but if I go to my safety school I’ll get a bad education”. The reality in these cases is often not as clear cut.

SocratesPost: What’s the best thing for the adults to do to help kids engaging in all-or-nothing thinking?

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SocratesPost: Alright, the next thinking error called “personalization.” I’ve heard this one before. What are the signs and symptoms of this behavior?

SocratesPost: It sounds like a problem of ignoring other factors that contribute to an outcome. What do you tell your clients to do when their kids do this during the college app process?

Help them learn how to strive for success and excellence while also cultivating self-acceptance and self-compassion.

SocratesPost: Are there other thinking errors that teenagers commonly engage in that also contribute to the stress during college admissions?

SocratesPost: That’s really interesting. What’s an example of something a college applicant would say when they make this thinking error?

SocratesPost: You talk about erroneous thought processes that lead to stress and anxiety during the college admissions process. It seems like eliminating or reguiding this type of thinking can help reduce stress while applying for college. What thought errors make the stakes so high to get into dream schools?

SocratesPost: That’s very insightful. I’ve heard these myself and must admit I’ve even made some of these errors as well. In your experience, what is the biggest misunderstanding about the mental health aspect of college admissions?

Stay tuned for the remainder of our exclusive insider interview with psychologist, Dr. Aaron Montgomery! In the meantime, to learn more about Dr. Montgomery’s work, click here!

Dear Socrates Q&A

This week, we selected a question from a college applicant in San Francisco, CA:

“Are applicants who come across as quiet or introverted at a disadvantage in admissions? I’ve taken up leadership positions in my clubs, but in my classes, I’m not the most vocal in a class that one of my recommenders teaches.”

I’ve reviewed college applications and college essays. Unless you’re really trying to highlight your quiet nature, how you act socially typically doesn’t come out on paper.

But even so, being quiet or introverted only sends red flags to colleges if you display an unwillingness to work with others, a lack of curiosity, a sense of egocentrism, or a disinterest toward contributing to your community.

I’m recalling what Dave, a UPenn admissions insider and alum, told me during a recent interview about red flag candidates:

“Yeah, I remember one person who was extremely strong on academics. I think he had the highest possible GPA in high school but he was odd in a way that I actually made note of. I definitely noted that there were some things that were concerning. I just remember that interaction and he was very socially awkward — which is fine when we’re eighteen; we’re kind of finding ourselves — but what concerned me was every single extracurricular he listed on his CV resume was something that was solitary …”

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SocratesPost is always on the frontlines scouring the news for relevant updates in the college admissions landscape. We look for anything that can help shape our understanding of the latest trends in admissions and help our readers see the direction in which we’re moving. Headlines we explore this week:

  • This huge fast food chain is now going to cover 100% of tuition for its workers. What’s the catch and how do you get in on this?
  • Calling all future engineers: This school just got named the best engineering college. You probably won’t expect this one. Where is it?
  • The UCs might be making huge changes to their tuition. What’s happening and what should you expect?
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