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.”