Three ASC students walk down the path next to the science quad.

Coping with Decision Stress

Give yourself a break and find strategies for coping with decision stress

For many students, making decisions around college can be the biggest decision they have made for themselves to date. While, if you’re anything like me, you may find that idea exciting, it also can bring about some stress, leading students to feel overwhelmed.

The thing about “the college decision” is it is not a singular decision. It’s often simplified as “choosing a college,” but that’s simply not true. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of just some of the decisions that are a part of “the college decision.”

  • Which colleges & universities should I apply to?
  • Which colleges & universities should I visit?
  • What application should I use? How should I order my activities list? Which essay topic should I choose? 
  • What deadlines should I apply for? Early Decision vs. Early Action?
  • When should I fill out the FAFSA? (Though this might be a shorter decision this year.)
  • Should I complete an interview at my colleges?
  • What are my non-negotiables for the college I want to attend? How do I narrow them down?
  • How do I understand and make decisions about financial aid offers?

And all of those things happen before “which college should I choose?”

The other thing to keep in mind as well is that your college decision is not the only decision you are making. You make thousands of decisions daily, and in your senior year of high school, those might be amplified. That leads to what is called decision fatigue.

 

What is decision fatigue?

Decision fatigue is a psychological phenomenon surrounding your ability or capacity to make decisions. Also called “ego depletion,” the theory surrounding decision fatigue is that your capacity to make decisions gets worse after making many decisions. People experiencing decision fatigue may feel tired, have brain fog, make impulsive choices, or (if you’re anything like me) avoid making decisions altogether.1

 

Carton of figures sitting around a table with text that reads "Of course we'll make a decision...once we have considered the 5243 factors."
Source: cartoonresoiurce / Adobe Stock Photo

 

How can I deal with decision fatigue to make it easier to make my “college decision”?

You gotta get some coping strategies.

 

1) Remove some choices from your life. When you feel overwhelmed by a big choice, it can help to remove smaller choices from your life. Maybe you don’t want to pull a Steve Jobs and wear the same thing everyday, but you can choose your clothes the night before or eat the same thing for breakfast every day. This can conserve your decision-making energy.2

2) Prioritize sleep and exercise. Sleep-deprived people have worse impulse control and emotional regulation skills. You’re proven to make better decisions early in the day when you are well rested, so give yourself that chance. Additionally, doing moderate-intensity exercise (like walking) can improve your executive function and make the decision-making process easier for you.3

3) Take physical distance away from the problem. Have you ever been unable to stop thinking about a decision? It can feel like every moment of the day you’re thinking about one thing you need to do or a decision you need to make. If you want to make better decisions, you have to give yourself distance from the problem. This might be as simple as taking a break and doing something else, like going on a walk. If you’re anxiety-prone or unable to stop thinking about it, however, distraction is the name of the game. Watch a movie, listen to your favorite music or podcast, meditate–whatever you need to do stop fixating on the problem.4

4) Find time for self-care. It’s important to take time to relax and fit in things you love, whether that’s taking a nap, doing some good skincare or spending time with friends. This can help free up mental space to make decision making easier!2

5) Give yourself time to think–with a deadline. You can’t think about the college decision (or any other decision) all the time. Schedule time in which you’ll do your research, talk things out with key advisors (like your family) and do whatever you need to think through things. Try not to focus on the decision outside of that scheduled time. Give yourself a deadline to make the decision. Maybe that’s the enrollment deadline (May 1). Or maybe you tell yourself you want to make a decision by April 20. As long as you know you’ll have all the information by then, it’s good to have a hard-stop.4

6) Check your assumptions. There isn’t a “right way” to make a decision, and decision-making for someone else is not going to be the right choice for you. Focus on your values and priorities. This decision is a big one, but it’s also not the end of the world.5

 

If it helps, give yourself some affirmations, as I wrote last year:

  1. There are successful people at every college. Choosing one college over another is no guarantee of success or lack thereof.
  2. What college you go to doesn’t actually matter that much in the end; what matters is what you do with your college experience- what opportunities you take and where you grow.
  3. You are already successful; colleges would not have accepted you if they didn’t already know you would be a great fit for their campus.
  4. Other people’s opinions don’t matter. They aren’t going to college; you are. Sure, there are some people that have to get on board (parents, especially financially), but if you know that one college would not be a great fit for you academically, no amount of someone else wanting you to go there can make you successful there.
  5. You will find your place and your people. There is someone else out there, right now, making the same decision as you; they are your future roommate, classmate or best friend. You’ll find them, regardless of the decision you make.

 

Give yourself grace, time and space. You got this!

  1. Johnson, J. Reviewed by White, M.A. (2020, July 7). What is decision fatigue? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/decision-fatigue#is-it-real
  2. Kaiser Permanente. (2022, October 10). Feeling stressed from making decisions? Here are 4 tips for dealing with decision fatigue. https://healthy.kaiserpermanente.org/southern-california/health-wellness/healtharticle.tips-for-dealing-with-decision-fatigue
  3. Cleveland Clinic. (2023, May 31). 8 signs of decision fatigue and how to cope. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/decision-fatigue
  4. Zencare Team. (Accessed 2024, March 1). 8 ways to make decisions when you’re overwhelmed with choices. Zencare. https://blog.zencare.co/decision-fatigue-how-to-make-decisions/
  5. Stress.org. (2017, December 5). 5 ways to make decisions less stressful. https://www.stress.org/5-ways-to-make-decisions-less-stressful

 

Rachel West is the Director of Enrollment Marketing at Agnes Scott College. She hates decision fatigue and thinks you should try her decision-making tactic: pacing while talking out loud.

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