Just (can’t) do it: thoughts on completing the college application

As the 2012-2013 college admissions cycle rolls on and as application deadlines draw ever nearer, I’ve been thinking a lot about “DRB,” which is my shorthand for “deadline-related behavior.” It will come as no surprise to anyone that the most common DRB is procrastination. This DRB provokes a lot of stress between high school seniors and their parents, and between students and their college counselors.

Over the years I’ve employed a variety of strategies to help student procrastinators finish their applications and hit “submit” before the deadlines fall. I have a new perspective on procrastination, though, as a result of reading John Perry‘s book “The Art of Procrastination.” Perry, a professor of philosophy at Stanford and host of the radio program “Philosophy Talk,” has written a book that is humorous and full of insight. I find particularly useful a distinction he draws between two types of procrastination.

The first type is “structured procrastination.” In Perry’s words: “All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things…The procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely, and important tasks, however, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.” (p. 2-3)

A second type of procrastination can look very much like “structured procrastination,” but it springs from a different source. Perry urges readers not to confuse structured procrastination with procrastination intended to prove to someone that he or she does not control you. (p. 76) Anyone with teenagers in his or her life will be familiar with this type of procrastination, I’m sure. I have labeled this second type “stubborn procrastination.”

If you work with students who have trouble completing their applications, or are the parents of such students and you are wondering how to help them, a bit of triage is in order. Is your student a structured, or stubborn, procrastinator? Once you know which camp they’re in, you can work with them more effectively.

Perry’s book offers a number of tips to help structured procrastinators accomplish their goals, and these translate easily into the realm of college applications. In fact, many college counselors will be familiar with these strategies. Perry notes that structured procrastinators respond well to having the overall task broken down into smaller pieces, and I can certainly vouch for the fact that it helps students to think of the application as a series of distinct and manageable bits, rather than as one overwhelming project. Completing the name, address, and family information section is pretty easy for most students, as is the senior year course selection. As these sections are completed, they can be checked off the list, and this helps build momentum for the more time-consuming sections – the activity roster, essays, and supplements – which in turn can be broken down into their own distinct, smaller tasks.

Perry also advocates the strategic organization of one’s to-do list. At the top, he says, “motivating you to do seemingly less important things will be something that seems of paramount importance but, really, for one reason or another, isn’t that crucial after all.” (p.19) He refers to this as “constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself.” (p.7) Whatever you want to call it, this, too, can be helpful for students who hit roadblocks on the way to completing applications. If there are a few undesirable but important-seeming tasks at the top of the list (cleaning one’s room? bathing the dog? taking a younger sibling to a party at Chuck E. Cheese?) the prospect of completing an application will seem much less onerous (or possibly even desirable) in comparison.

Another of Perry’s tips for the structured procrastinator is to “collaborate with the enemy,” that is, partner up with someone who isn’t a procrastinator, and who can keep you motivated. I know students who have done this successfully when working on classroom assignments, but it’s a more risky strategy when it comes to college applications. The competitive aspects inherent in the admissions process can flare up and negatively color this kind of working partnership, especially if the students have decided to apply to any of the same colleges. This strategy should be used sparingly and with caution when it comes to college applications.

The group I call stubborn procrastinators are challenging for their college counselors – and for their parents! Not to be too psycho-analytical about things, but for these students, procrastination is the visible manifestation of an underlying conflict. Refusing to work on the application is a stand-in for refusing to comply with the (accurately or inaccurately) perceived wishes of someone or something.

Over the years, I have seen many students who refuse to work on their applications just to thwart the wishes of their parents. This often happens when a student and his or her parents disagree about which colleges s/he should apply to. (When parents respond by tightening the screws and prohibiting the student from participating in other activities until the applications are finished, things spiral into disaster pretty quickly.) Other students resist working on their applications because they want to make a stand against “the system,” or because they are afraid they won’t have outcomes as good as those of siblings or friends. I’ve also seen students refuse to work on applications because they don’t feel ready or don’t want to go to college, and they can’t find any other way to get off the conveyor belt that is carrying them in a direction they feel is wrong.

There are, alas, no quick tips for helping the stubborn procrastinator. It takes time, skill, and patience to discover the source of the stubborn procrastinator’s behavior. In these situations, a college counselor often feels more like a family therapist than an educational advisor. And in some cases, meeting with a family therapist is a good step for students and parents who are truly at loggerheads.

(That’s clearly a topic for another post!)

In the meantime, with deadlines looming, I heartily recommend John Perry’s book for its entertaining and informative approach to a topic with which many of us are very familiar.

** Note to college counselors and admissions officers who find it difficult to settle in for a bout of recommendation writing or application reading on the weekends – Perry’s book provides an excellent and educational break from these activities. Call it “professional development.”

Education for entrepreneurs?

Roving around the web this week, I came across Inc. magazine’s 2012 list of “America’s Coolest Young Entrepreneurs,” a feature in which they highlight thirty up-and-coming companies in a variety of areas and profile the founders, all of whom are under the age of 30.

Because I’m a geek about college stuff, I decided to do a little research and see where Inc.’s group of “cool kids” had done their undergraduate work. I couldn’t find this information for all of the individuals highlighted in the article, but what I did find was interesting.

Of those for whom I found information about their undergraduate schools, their launching pads were split pretty evenly between public institutions (not always the flagship campuses in the particular state systems, though) and Ivy League or other highly selective universities. A few had attended institutions offering specialized curricula (in the arts or in business, for example) and a few had dropped out of college in order to pursue their business opportunities.  I was surprised that only one person had attended a liberal arts and sciences college. (Way to go, Amber Case, from Lewis & Clark College! A shout out, too, for the University of Colorado at Boulder, which, along with Yale University, had the largest number of graduates represented on this year’s list.)

Another interesting finding was that several of the individuals had pursued undergraduate majors that lay in the liberal arts – subjects ranging from anthropology to history, philosophy, and women’s studies. (That helped to restore my faith in the value of a liberal arts education.) Of course, majors in computer science, business, or some type of engineering were very well represented among this year’s honorees, as one would expect.

This is a very small and decidedly not random sample of individuals, so it’s impossible to draw any firm conclusions about educational backgrounds that contribute to this type of entrepreneurial success. My limited research did lead me to several questions, though:

Why is there just the one graduate from a liberal arts and sciences college on the list? Does this suggest that students who attend liberal arts and sciences schools don’t have the same kind of entrepreneurial verve as those who attend larger institutions? Is this result an artifact of the methodology used by the magazine and its writers? Or is it just a blip in this year’s list – if I went back over lists from previous years, would the roster of undergraduate alma maters look different?

How and why did those individuals with traditional liberal arts majors make the jump onto the entrepreneurial track? Who or what gave them the nudge toward the business world?

At the risk of oversimplifying, this look at the undergraduate careers of the 2012 honorees also raises a variant of the old “nature vs. nurture” debate: did these individuals already have the entrepreneurial “right stuff” before they got to college, or was it something they developed while they were there? Doubtless it’s a combination of the two, (with a healthy portion of luck and timing thrown in!) However, when so many high school students and their parents currently seem to believe that their lives will be set if they can just gain admission to a college with high name recognition, (i.e., they’re placing their bets on the “nurture” side of the equation) we would do well not to underestimate the role that “nature” plays.

This brief exercise with the “30 Under 30 list” also puts me in mind of a line from the movie “Ratatouille.” This small sample does seem to bear out the words of the critic Anton Ego,

“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

What do readers think?

Oh, the App, it is a-changin’

(with apologies to Bob Dylan.)

In a post to “The Choice” blog on October 10, Hannah Steinhardt of the New York Times reported on one of the announced changes to the Common Application for 2013 – specifically, that the essay prompts will be revised and the “topic of your choice” prompt will appear no more. The post generated a number of comments, mostly from people who were dismayed to see that prompt vanish.

I had the opposite response. I think the prompts are in need of revision, and I’ll be happy to see “topic of your choice” take a hike.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I think that students find the more focused prompts easier to respond to – structure helps. Furthermore, in my experience as a reader of many, many application essays, the “topic of your choice” prompt doesn’t add much of value to the roster of questions available to students using the Common Application. The essays that students write on a “topic of their choice” often focus on a significant event in their lives — an option already offered by the first prompt in the Common App set of questions.  It also seems to me that the “topic of your choice” prompt yields the least interesting responses. In my previous post, I pointed out that students tend to focus on the task (writing an essay) rather than the goal (writing an essay that introduces you effectively and engagingly to an admissions committee).  In the absence of a specific question to serve as a focus for their essays, many students recycle something written for another purpose – a class assignment, for example. Those essays, even when well written, often don’t provide the type of personal insight useful to admissions officers.

So I say onward and upward, Common Application! Revise away!

For those who feel that the new essay prompts show that “the line it is drawn, the curse it is cast,” one can but hope they’ll get over it, because, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan: “the present now will later be past, the order is rapidly fadin’…for the times they are a-changin’.”

Application essays: the voyage begins

Now that October has arrived, Early Action and Early Decision application deadlines are creeping into view and students are focusing their attention on application essays and supplements.

Over almost thirty years in admissions and college counseling, I estimate that I have read upward of 80,000 individual application essays. As an admissions dean, I worked closely with my staffs at different colleges to create essay prompts that would be interesting to students and useful to us in the evaluation process, and then eagerly awaited the responses. As a college counselor, I helped students decipher those “interesting” prompts, saw them wrestle with ideas for their essays, and encouraged them as they worked through various drafts.

My experience on both sides of the admissions desk confirmed my long-held belief that high school students and college admissions personnel exist in parallel universes.

Photo credit: “Star Walk” app, Picture of the day

Though everyone works on the same process with the same application materials, the perspective of each world is, to some extent, self-limiting. This creates a significant communications gap between the two universes. The “what was asked or said” vs. “what was heard” discrepancy between “Admissions Officer World” and “High School Student World” can be seen pretty clearly through the lens of the application essay.

Broadly speaking, I’ve observed that:

In “Admissions Officer World,” the application is seen as a uniform structure or framework that prompts students to represent themselves clearly, authentically, and in some detail…while in “High School Student World,” students tend to view the application as a constraint, into which truncated information about their lives must be squashed.

Inhabitants of “AO World” think of the application essay as a vehicle for self-introduction (“tell us about yourself”)…while inhabitants of “HSS World” often look at the essays and ask “what do the colleges want to hear?”

Admissions personnel hope the essay will elicit self-reflection on the applicant’s part…while students often see the essay as a means of reporting or describing events, and worry that discussing the personal significance of those events will seem trite, formulaic, or, worst of all, uninteresting.

Admissions personnel at colleges that use institution-specific applications or that request supplements to the Common Application work hard to create interesting essay prompts…which are often viewed by students as contrived (at best) or downright baffling (at worst).

So essay questions are frequently as open-ended questions as possible…which can be frustrating for students who tend to wish for more direction and specificity.

Overall, I think much of the confusion about application essays stems from the fact that students tend to focus on the task itself (“I just need to write the essay”) while college admissions personnel tend to focus on the goal (how does the essay enhance the picture of yourself that is created through the application.) The gulf between what college admissions officers say about application essays and what students hear is widened and muddied by the amount and variety of (frequently contradictory) information available to students from multiple sources, not all of which are reliable. We may not be able to do much to turn down that noise in the system, but those on both sides of the admissions desk can help students as they craft their essays.

In an effort to avoid a further “War of the Worlds,” I offer these suggestions to facilitate reconciliation of the parallel universes:

For college admissions officers:

Offer more information about the context and purpose of the application essays, to let students know how the essays fit into the application as a whole. Over the last decade or so, I’ve listened to a number of admissions reps describe the application process to prospective students, and very few offer “big picture” information to their audiences. It’s obvious to admissions officers that the essay supplements and enhances the information about the applicant that is elsewhere in the application, but students aren’t always able to think about the essays in that broader context. It’s task vs. goal orientation again, and admissions officers could provide more information about the overall goal of the application. I know that not every college or high school can offer “case study” sessions, in which students have the opportunity to review complete sample applications, but these are so useful. Seeing a whole application that is not your own helps one understand how the individual pieces work together.

If you want essays that are less narrative and more reflective, rephrase the prompts. As written, most essay prompts lead with the invitation for students to describe an event, a person, or an issue – and then conclude with a short phrase asking for some reflection. As a result, students often feel they should focus their essays on the event, person, or issue, and include just a sentence or two about what the event means to them. If you’d rather learn more about how the student processes his or her experience rather than how he or she reports it, use the question to direct the response. Flip the standard phrasing and try something like: Please reflect on an event or person important in your life. We don’t need to know a lot about the event or the person you choose – but we’d like to know why either was significant for you, and/or how you have changed as a result of that experience or from knowing that person.

For students:

Before you begin the application, think about the personal qualities you want to present to the admissions officers who will read your application. Take a step back and think carefully about the information each piece of the application will provide about you: the transcript and test scores say something, teacher and counselor recommendations say something – what do you want admissions officers to know that won’t be covered elsewhere? Once you’ve decided what you want to present, then look at the essay prompts and see which one gives you the best opportunity to illustrate the points you want to make about yourself.  When you are submitting multiple essays or supplements with an application, make sure each response complements the others, and adds new information about you to the application.

Detail will win the day. Many essays fall flat because the writers don’t offer sufficient examples to illustrate the points they want to make. Details make individual essays vivid and are unique to each writer. So don’t just say that you learned a lot from working for the Parks Department last summer – let the reader know, specifically, what you learned or how the experience changed you. Don’t leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions – if you don’t illustrate your points, the conclusions drawn by readers may not be the ones you intend.

Quality of output is proportionate to quality of input. I know that some students feel they do their best work under pressure, with a deadline only hours away. I also know that the best essays I’ve read are NOT first drafts. Trust me on this. Your essays will improve if you allow yourself the time to brainstorm, try out a few different ideas, and revise. And revise again. An ancillary bonus to getting an early start on your essays is that it will make your parents happy, and let them know they don’t have to hound you about deadlines.

Good luck to all as we boldly go into this next phase of the admissions cycle!

Photo credit: “Star Walk” app, Picture of the day