A free application webinar from Collegewise

If you’ve yet to finish (or even if you’ve yet to start) your college applications, Collegewise counselors Davin Sweeney and Rahsaan Burroughs are putting their combined 25 years of experience as admissions officers to good use in the following free webinar.

Seniors, It’s Not Too Late: Submit Pitch Perfect Applications When Time’s Running Out
Thursday, November 8, 2018
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. (PST)
Click here for more information and to register.

I hope you’ll join us.

The predictable fear before submission

One of the most predictable points of anxiety during the journey to college is the time right before a student submits their application(s).

There’s a finality to that impending submission. No more revising. No more hand-wringing. No more avoiding the ensuing evaluation. Once that application leaves, it’s literally and figuratively out of your hands, with nothing left to do but wait for a decision.

This fear causes students to second-guess their decisions, like their choice of essay topic or the way they’ve presented their activities. Even worse is the hand-wringing over decisions you can no longer change. Maybe you should have taken the SAT again or chosen a different summer activity or spent more time with your chemistry tutor to get that grade up? Left unchecked, all of this doubt leads some students to hold their applications hostage, too afraid to hit the “Submit” button until the deadline leaves them no other choice.

This is normal behavior. Every one of us has experienced the worry that accompanies doing something new, something that might not work, something with risk and exposure and consequences. But that still doesn’t make the fear useful. It’s not pushing us to make better decisions. It’s not improving the final product. And it’s not changing the eventual outcome for the better.

So if the anxiety isn’t useful, what can you do about it? You can anticipate it.

Expect that you’ll worry right before you submit. Give that feeling a name, like “pre-submission panic.” And when it arrives, you’ll know exactly what it is. You won’t have to interpret it and wonder if those worries are your mind’s way of telling you that you should be doing something different or better. It’s just the physical response that comes with doing something important and potentially life-changing.

The best part is that the acute fear goes away days or even hours after you submit. There will be a sense of overwhelming relief knowing that the work is complete and you’ve done your best. Don’t rush that relief. Give applications the time and attention they deserve. But when you’ve checked and proofed and rechecked again, remind yourself that you’ve worked hard and earned the relief that’s about to ensue. Then hit “Submit.”

The fear is a lot less powerful when you predict and expect it.


One of my Collegewise colleagues who worked in admissions at a highly selective college once described an occasion where he called an applicant to clarify something about a letter of recommendation that was part of her file. The letter had mentioned the student’s work in her junior year, but according to the transcript, she’d taken that particular course her sophomore year. He didn’t suspect that anything was amiss—he just wanted to make sure they were connecting the correct course with the correct teacher.

But as soon as he got the applicant on the phone and identified himself, she hung up. He later discovered the student had written the letter herself and forged the teacher’s name.

We both had the same reaction—was it worth it?

This student was a strong applicant. She had a shot at being admitted. But clearly some combination of the pressure, her desperation to be admitted, or her general anxiety had driven her to do something so risky that it completely torpedoed her application once it was discovered. None of her other credentials mattered at that point.

This is a particularly egregious example, but it’s not at all uncommon for students to counter responsible warnings about bending (or breaking) the truth with, “But how would they ever know?”

And to that question, I always give the same reply.

Are you sure you want to risk it to find out?

Need help with your University of California app?

Just in time for the launch of the University of California application, join Collegewise counselor Nicole Pilar for the following free webinar:

Acing Your University of California App
Wednesday, October 24, 2018
6 p.m. – 7 p.m. (PDT)
Click here to register.

And don’t worry if you can’t make it on October 24th — we’ll be recording the webinar and making the video available to anyone who registers for up to two weeks after the event.

I hope you can join us.

Outright truths

College applicants, as you list your involvements and accolades on your college applications, consider this: if someone from the college were to pick up the phone and say, “Tell me more about this,” would you be excited to share more, or would you feel like you’d just been exposed?

I’ve rarely met students who outright lie on their applications. But I’ve seen lots of students list things that aren’t technically lies but aren’t quite true as presented, either.

A few examples:

Claiming you founded a non-profit (or an organization of any kind), but the group never materialized after the technical founding.

Listing “Assistant Coach: Girls’ Varsity Soccer,” but all you did was show up to 2 of the 22 practices.

Describing the one day you spent helping your parent organize files at their accounting or web design or law firm as an “internship.”

Sure, those examples aren’t presenting fabricated information. But they are intentionally misleading the reader into believing something was more than it actually was. And that’s a risky proposition in college admissions.

College interviewers ask questions. Teachers and counselors describe you in their letters of recommendation. Admissions officers occasionally reach out to counselors to clarify information. There are plenty of opportunities for cracks in the truth to show. None of this is done to try to catch you. In fact, it’s a good thing! A fair and thorough evaluation is exactly what you should want, as long as what you’ve presented is both fair and thorough.

The best college application strategy? Do better than avoiding outright lies. Stick with outright truths.

What’s most likely to motivate?

Parents and counselors, if a student is having trouble finding the motivation to make progress on their college applications, give motivational interviewing a try.

Motivational interviewing is a therapeutic technique to get patients to discover their own motivations for making a change–one that’s even been shown to be effective in the treatment of addiction. Here’s how to use it in practice.

Ask the student, “On a scale of 1-10, how motivated are you to work on your college applications?”

Chances are that the student will respond with a low score. Let’s say the student answers, “I’m a 3.”

Then ask the student, “Why aren’t you a 2 or a 1?”

Then the student begins to explain their reasoning. Maybe they’re excited about the colleges on their list, maybe they’ve already finished two of the applications and just need to keep going on the rest, maybe they have a good idea for an essay but just haven’t started it yet. Whatever their reasons are, accept them.

In explaining their self-reported score, the student is connecting with their autonomous motivations, those that aren’t handed down from others. Plenty of research (and common sense) has shown that motivation that comes from within is a lot more effective than that from an outside source.

And speaking of coming from within, students, you don’t need a parent or counselor to use the technique on you. You can use it on yourself. Give yourself a 1-10 score on motivation, and then really think about the reasons your score isn’t lower. Chances are, you’ll start connecting with what’s most likely to motivate you.

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.

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.