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While the year-end holiday season is notorious for being filled with both joy and stress, the anxiety level at this time of year is often heightened for families with college-bound seniors.

The pressures from outstanding college application deadlines coupled with the demands of senior year coursework can really ratchet up the stress level. Throw in concerns about admissions decisions not yet received and whether a school of choice will ultimately be affordable, and you’ve got a recipe for a less-than-lighthearted year-end.

While it may be inevitable that at least some college-bound senior year stress will creep into the holiday season, here are a few tips to help take the edge off:

  1. Celebrate progress made: While undoubtedly there’s still more to be tackled at this juncture, pausing for a moment as a family and reflecting on just how much has been accomplished so far in terms of senior year schoolwork and college planning can be uplifting. A well-deserved acknowledgment of progress made can be a source of pride and can provide just the momentum needed to garner confidence and energy to fuel the next phase of the college-bound journey.
  2. Make a list of remaining tasks: Help or encourage your student to create a current list of what still needs to be addressed and the deadlines associated with each task or deliverable. This simple accounting of open issues can help your student feel more in control as it’s the unknown that often provokes fear and leads to higher levels of stress. Identifying exactly what still needs to be completed and backing into the steps that need to be taken to get over the finish line can provide clarity and relief. And to the extent possible, addressing a few of those issues before the height of the holidays can both shorten the to-do list and really feel great.
  3. Commit to a well-deserved break: With an assessment of what’s been accomplished and what’s still outstanding now out of the way, collectively decide on a reasonable time frame for a well-deserved family-wide break. Together, make a decision about when the break will begin and end, and be sure to stick with it.  Seek agreement from all involved to put discussions about college planning on the back burner for this dedicated period of time. Whatever the duration, hitting the pause button will provide your entire family with a much-needed reprieve from non-stop college planning conversations.
  4. Be sensible about gift-giving: While college planning anxiety leading up to the holidays may cause you to want to splurge on gifts as a form of stress relief or as a reward for your child’s hard work, you may want to resist that urge.  After all, the second half of senior year can be quite costly with school trips, proms, and other rites of passage. And even before your child decides on which institution to attend and the full cost of college kicks in, there may be a desire to travel to admitted students’ days at one or more schools and funds may be needed for this purpose as well. If extended family members and family friends are looking for gift ideas for your soon-to-be high school grad, remember that you can invite them to contribute to your child’s 529 college savings account. Even small gifts at this juncture can go a long way in lightening your family’s financial load.
  5. Savor the time together: Perhaps most importantly, whatever form your holiday season takes, be sure to recharge, reconnect, and savor this special moment in time. Stepping away from the stress together as a family can provide a circle of support for your child at this phase of their college-bound journey. A much-needed break during which you are all truly present may just be the best gift you can give each other before the transitions of the year ahead formally begin.


Patricia A. Roberts is a motivational speaker, writer, and veteran of the college savings industry. She has led college savings initiatives at premier financial services organizations like Merrill Lynch and AllianceBernstein, and has authored Route 529: A Parent’s Guide to Saving for College and Career Training with 529 Plans. In her current role as COO at Gift of College, she promotes 529 plans as a financial wellness benefit in the workplace.