Focused, plowing, or creative?

You might make even more progress on your college applications if you choose to work on the right portions at the right time of day.

In the best-selling When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, author Dan Pink explains that our biological clocks dictate our likelihood of performing at our best on a task. That’s because most people experience three stages each day, which Pink calls a peak, a trough, and a recovery. The peak, when we’re best able to concentrate, focus, and ignore distractions, occurs for most people in the morning (not first thing, necessarily, just when you’re ready to get started on your work day). The trough is when that sharp focus and deep thinking starts to wane, which for most of us happens in the early to mid-afternoon. The recovery, when we get some mental juices flowing again, typically occurs in the late afternoon or early evening (one in five people—the night owls—move in the reverse order).

According to Pink, here’s how to make the most of those times:

Do your analytical tasks, those that require you to concentrate and think more logically than creatively, in the morning during the peak. It’s a great time to revise your college essay, but not a great time to brainstorm a new one.

The trough is best reserved for administrative tasks, those that don’t require your mind to be at its sharpest. That’s a great time to fill out the informational portions of the applications—you don’t need to be on your mental A-game to remember your name, your contact information, the name of your school, etc.

And the recovery period is perfect when you need your most creative side to come through. You’ve left behind the lull of the trough, but you’re also more relaxed, more open, and less head-down and focused than you are in your morning peak. This is the time to dive into draft one of that new college essay with the story that just hasn’t presented itself to you yet.

Focus in the morning, plow through during the afternoon, and get creative in the early evening.

Learning and growth

Two of the most valuable experiences you can seek, appreciate, and relate on a college application are learning and growth.

Learning and growth take place in lots of forms, and not all of them present as successes or achievements. Teaching yourself to play the drums and then starting a band qualifies, but so does flubbing your trumpet solo due to lack of practice and resolving never to let yourself or the jazz band down again. Overcoming your struggles in AP chemistry is a pride-worthy achievement, but so is bringing your very best effort, meeting with your teacher regularly for extra help, and still scraping by with a C-. Always doing the right thing is wonderful, but so is the sincere apology you offer to make things right after you let someone down. The learning and growth are there in all those scenarios.

Expecting—or presenting—yourself to move seamlessly from one mistake-free success to the next is unrealistic. Learning and growth come in many forms, but that overall forward progress, sometimes in leaps, sometimes in incremental steps, and sometimes to make up for lost ground, is what helps you get better with age. And it’s what makes you an appealing candidate for colleges.

Seek and benefit from opportunities to learn and grow, and you’ll have no trouble presenting yourself as someone who will continue that progress once you get to college.

Even spare change adds up

Financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz has earned laudable trust in the education space for his willingness to share great advice for free. And with the posting of his latest piece, “Top 10 tips to growing your 529 plan funds faster,” I decided to put one piece of that advice to the hypothetical test.

8. Save the spare change. Every day, dump your spare change in a jar or jug. Every so often, contribute the contents of the change jar to your 529 plans. You’ll be surprised how quickly pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters add up.

SpareChangeHere’s the change jar that’s occupied the same spot in my house since my wife and I moved in five years ago. It’s taken that long to get even this full, mostly due to the advent of debit-cards-accepted-everywhere.

Today, I decided to count the contents. Total amount? $26.33—91 quarters, 45 nickels, and 133 pennies (plus a few Canadian coins and three tokens from a local car wash that did not figure into my calculation).

If we continued to accumulate spare change at the same rate, we’d have about $79  by the time my now 3-year-old starts college. But based on this college savings calculator, if we put that current amount into a 529 plan along with all future spare change as it arrived, we’d have approximately $179 saved for college. 100 extra dollars, just by ditching the glass and investing our (spare change) cash.

Now, I realize that $179 isn’t much when crashed against the expected cost of college in 15 years. But that figure is based on saving about 44 cents a month. Imagine how much you could save just setting aside $100 or $20 or even $5 from each paycheck.

Even spare change adds up. And it adds up even faster when invested with compound interest.

The best application-completion strategy

In what’s now become a September tradition, here’s my past post sharing Patrick O’Connor’s sane, easy-to-follow system to help seniors do the most important college application-related task—just make progress. No wasted time meticulously over-scheduling your every to-do (which rarely works), or worse, procrastinating until the last minute. Just make progress, a little bit at a time. And that state of progress eventually leads to a state of completion.

Don’t let the simplicity fool you—it’s actually a wonderful hack that can be applied to any worthwhile project, whether you’re a teen applying to college or an adult forging ahead in work and life.

Teresa Amabile, Director of Research at Harvard Business School, and developmental psychologist Steven Kramer are the authors of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. As the title suggests, their research found that the single biggest factor for keeping someone excited and engaged with their work is simply making regular progress, even if it’s just a small win. And best of all, they also found that when you experience that feeling, you also become more creatively productive. The more progress you make, the better those applications are likely to get.

A waiting virtual pile of yet-to-be-started college applications is foreboding. And foreboding is a feeling you want to run away from, not toward. But that feeling of making just a little progress, of just completing that first section of an application, or hammering out that first, albeit imperfect, draft of an essay, or even just making a concrete list of to-dos so at least you know where to start, is a feeling you want to come back to the next day. Once you get a taste of the progress, you’ll chase it repeatedly. And you’ll get even better as you go.

If you’ve slowed, stalled, or not yet started your college applications, don’t focus on the totality of the project in front of you. Instead, find a way to just make progress. When you finish for the day, celebrate that win. Repeat that exercise, feed off your momentum, and you’ll eventually be celebrating your big win of submitting that final app.

When not to find a better way

Finding a better way to do something worth doing is almost always valuable provided that everyone affected agrees that it’s better. Your better way to organize inventory at your part-time job isn’t actually better if your boss and coworkers don’t agree. The better day and time to host your club meetings isn’t better if it makes participation more difficult for the rest of the club members. And the point guard on the basketball team can’t decide that she has a better offensive plan if the coach and the team aren’t on board with the new approach.

That’s why the very best strategy to present compelling college applications is to follow directions. Don’t look for a better way.

You might decide it’s better for you to send extra letters of recommendation, or to write an essay that’s twice the maximum allowable word length, or to write “see attached resume” rather than list the activities in the space provided. But none of those decisions are better for the admissions officer evaluating the application.

Offices of admission spend months crafting their applications to give them the information they need in the manner they’re prepared to best evaluate. Unfortunately, that process is not collaborative. Applicants aren’t invited to weigh in with their own suggestions as to how they can best present themselves. So the only way to ensure you don’t do something that frustrates your reader is to work within the system they’ve given you.

If you’ve found better ways throughout high school, especially those that benefited everyone involved, share them on your applications. But do so using the space and the opportunity as they’ve been provided to you. Follow the instructions and resist the urge to find a better way.

Fit in or stand out?

Too many kids go through high school following the college-prep crowds. Other people sign up for clubs, so they sign up for the same clubs. Other people do more test prep, so they do more test prep. Other people seek leadership positions, or run for class office, or tally up their totals of community service hours because everyone else is doing it. Is it any wonder that so many kids reach the time to complete college applications and then struggle to stand out?

You can fit in or you can stand out. But it’s almost impossible to do both simultaneously.

The best way to stand out is to make different choices than those who are fitting in do.

Learn from what’s worked

One of the benefits of working with talented people you respect is engaging in reasonable debates over complex questions. That happened this week with a group of our managers discussing a potential opportunity for us at Collegewise. There were plenty of smart, plausible arguments on both sides, one of which was that when we tried something not unlike this before, it didn’t go as well as we’d hoped.

But one of our directors, Tara, reminded us: “Stop getting hung up on what didn’t work with your ex. You’ll never be able to move on.”

What great advice.

Sure, you can and probably should try to learn from your failures or mistakes. But those lessons are usually limited to what not to do. The takeaway is inaction, not action. The lessons just prevent you from making the exact same mistake in the exact same situation again. But success, on the other hand, teaches you what to do. You can repeat those actions and the ensuing success. Learning what to do is a lot more useful than learning what not to do.

You can’t become a great quarterback just by learning 100 plays that didn’t work. You won’t make a great dinner just by learning cooking mistakes that ruin meals. And you can’t increase your investment returns simply by avoiding risky investments. Preventing failures is good, but achieving success is even better.

And for that, you’ve got to learn from what’s worked.

High school all over again

I’ve noticed that what sometimes may appear to be parents putting pressure on their kids—to achieve, to excel, to get admitted to famous colleges, etc.—is actually secondhand pressure. It’s pressure parents are feeling themselves that drifts downward to their kids.

All the messaging kids hear directly and indirectly about how important it is to get good grades, score well on standardized tests, thrive in extracurricular activities, etc. exists in parent form, too.

“Getting into college is so stressful and complex. Parents better seek out—and often pay for—all the latest information and advice!”

“A student’s future is too important to leave to chance. Parents better assume the role of ‘manager’ and make all the decisions for their kids.”

“Other parents are making college prep a top priority. You’re letting your kids down if you don’t join the race, too.”

Peer pressure, status competitions, the desire to belong—adults who thought they’d left their teen troubles behind back in high school re-experience them all over again, this time as parents of high school kids.

The good news is that the rule you heard back in high school that was hard to follow still applies—just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

Deciding what’s right for your family—and letting your kids decide what’s right for them—is a healthier and more productive approach than succumbing to high school pressure all over again.

There’s a FAFSA app for that

Students applying for financial aid this fall will have the option of using the newly released “FAFSA App,” available on both Apple (iOs) and Android devices. The full version will be available on October 1, 2018 to coincide with the release of the 2019-2020 FAFSA form. That’s mostly good news, but I’d also suggest using the app with appropriate caution.

The ability to fill out the FAFSA on a phone will likely increase the number of families who successfully complete the application, a statistic I hope will be especially notable for under-resourced students. You won’t get the financial aid you need to attend college if you don’t file the FAFSA, so anything that gets more students to apply is worth doing.

But much of how phones are used today is for distracted time-killing–scrolling, “liking” and “disliking,” consuming information while we wait for the bus or the restaurant table or the signal that our doctor is ready to see us—so, we need to make a mental switch when we use our phones for something important. If you complete your FAFSA on your phone, please make the switch. The app doesn’t change the fact that the FAFSA contains over 100 questions, which is even more than appear on your federal tax return. If you submit the form with incorrect information, you can correct it later. But that slows down the process, adds to your stress, and for some students, could make the difference between ultimately submitting an app and just throwing in the FAFSA towel.

Whether you complete the FAFSA on a desktop, a laptop, or the snazzy new app, please give the form the time and even more importantly the attention it deserves. There’s a reason you wouldn’t want to take the SAT in a loud room with the TV on and friends or family asking you questions while you crunched the numbers. Your FAFSA completion deserves the same quiet focus.

For some good insight and tips on how to best use the app, here’s a piece from The National College Access Network and another from the imitable Mark Kantrowitz.

Praise both strengths and effort

I always read the regular emails I signed up to receive from The Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley’s initiative driving scientific research into social and emotional well-being. While I’m always willing to hear the college admissions-related advice from someone who’s demonstrated real expertise around a topic, it’s nice to come across recommendations also backed by scientific research, like their latest share, “How to Support Your Kid at School Without Being a Helicopter Parent.” This passage particularly resonated with me:

“In everyday life, encourage your children to believe in their own strengths—whether around their behavior, a sport, creativity, or whatever else you see—by praising and valuing them yourself, particularly when they find school challenging. Perhaps even more importantly, notice and comment on their hard work when you see it. When children hear that solid effort leads to success, rather than getting the message that they should be smart and get good grades, they persist more. This helps them become more resilient when they suffer any setbacks in doing their schoolwork.”