Unfinished apps? Time to get to work

If you’re a senior who’s procrastinated on your college applicants, you already know that you’re running out of time to complete them. You might also be filled with a combination of regret for what got you here with a fear that you’ll never finish on time. If you’re in that camp, here’s a tool that will help—embrace the Stockdale Paradox.

The Stockdale Paradox is a willingness to confront the brutal facts of your reality while remaining faithful that you’ll ultimately prevail. Named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest ranking United States military officer to be imprisoned in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner of war camp during the height of the Vietnam War, the term was coined by Jim Collins, a former Stanford Business School professor who studied the secrets of the greatest companies and the leaders behind them for his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t. I would normally never compare enduring life as a prisoner of war with completing college applications. But Stockdale willingly shared his story with Collins for inclusion in a book about how to be successful in business. So I’ll take some liberties to apply it here.

Stockdale spent eight years in captivity, was routinely tortured, and lived in solitary confinement with no idea if he would ever be released or see his family again. He didn’t just survive, but also forged elaborate strategies to help his fellow prisoners survive. As he described it, he found it imperative to confront the most brutal facts of their reality head-on. If a fellow prisoner conjured up a hopeful vision like, “Maybe we’ll be out by Christmas,” Stockdale would respond, “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”

But the paradox Collins points out is that in spite of the unimaginable circumstances Stockdale endured, he also had an unwavering belief that he would eventually be released and turn the experience into the defining event of his life.
That combination, the willingness to confront the reality of his situation while simultaneously remaining certain that he would prevail, gave Stockdale the discipline to direct his energies into the few areas that he could control. That gave him and his fellow prisoners some sense of daily purpose, something to buoy their resolve and their chances of eventually making it out alive.

When he was finally released eight years later, Stockdale was reunited with his family, hailed as a national hero, and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

As Stockdale is quoted in the book:

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

So, what does that mean to a senior with a formidable stack of application work ahead of you?

Confront your brutal facts. All that time you had months ago? It’s gone. Those impending deadlines? They’re getting closer with every second that passes. Will completing them be more difficult and stressful than if you’d worked on them months ago? Probably, depending on how much you have left to do. Those are your brutal facts. You can’t deny them. You can’t ignore them. You can’t change them. So it’s time to confront them. Head-on.

But you should also never lose faith that you’ll finish, you’ll come out the other side, and you’ll eventually be a happy freshman in college who’s long since moved on from the application process.

Lots (and lots) of students have been in this situation before you. It happens every year. And just about all of them not only finish their applications, but also get into plenty of schools.

You can’t join that successful group with unreasonable pessimism like, “It doesn’t matter anymore—I’m out of time anyway” or with false optimism like, “I’ll get them done eventually—I work well under pressure.” Neither of those attitudes gets you any closer to completing your applications or to attending a college you want to go to.

The best way to prevail? Face your brutal facts. Don’t ever lose faith. And most importantly, channel your energy into the one thing you can control. It’s time to get to work.

Their relief, and yours

Seniors, if your family just can’t quite put a Thanksgiving moratorium on college application talk, high school counselor Patrick O’Connor offers up some of his typically sage advice in Applying to College? Here’s How to Survive Thanksgiving. Here’s his suggested method for handling questions like, “Do you think this afternoon might be a good time to work on your essays?”

“This requires preparation. Put together a spreadsheet ahead of time with the name of every college you’re applying to, the date each application is due and the date you will work on that application. Print out a copy and keep it in your back pocket, saving it for this moment, when you open it with a modest flourish, hand it to your parents, and say, ‘I’ve got it covered. Have a great lunch.’”

Not a spreadsheet person? No problem. The particular method you use isn’t important. What’s important is to be prepared to provide more than, “I’ve got this—stop asking me!” Make a list, a schedule, or some other tangible proof that you’re holding yourself accountable. Your parents’ relief will bring you some relief, too.

Go college application-free this holiday

Last year at this time, I shared this piece from the Common App’s Scott Anderson, Make Thanksgiving a College-Free Zone. I’m reposting it again this year, as I can’t think of a better piece of advice to help families with a college applicant in the house enjoy their Thanksgiving together.

“This week, as you gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving, be mindful of the high school seniors seated at the table. Odds are they don’t want to talk about their college applications any more than you want to talk about work.”

It’s entirely possible that some students may need to work on their applications over the break. But working on them and talking about them are two different things. The former might be a necessity, but the latter certainly isn’t, especially at the Thanksgiving table.

Who’s got ownership?

To have any chance of being completed successfully, every task or job, whether it’s a homework assignment or a huge goal for an entire organization, needs an owner, someone who takes responsibility for actually making it happen. It doesn’t mean that this person does it all alone. But if there’s no owner, it’s too easy for people to get distracted and lose their focus. And too many unspoken owners (as in, “We’re all responsible”) makes it too easy to point fingers when things go wrong and say, “That part wasn’t my job.”

Every student’s college admissions process needs an owner. And that ownership assignment comes at a tricky time for many families. Some students are trying to wrestle ownership away from parents who’ve previously made all the decisions. Other students actively resist the ownership and wait for other people to handle things for them. And that confusion often just contributes to the anxiety, especially when all involved parties feel like someone else should be in charge.

Like so many important projects, there are a number of people with responsibilities in the college admissions process. But the outcomes are almost always best when the right people take the reins.

Here’s my recommended ownership hierarchy, from most to least responsibility.

1. The student
Bottom line: the student is the one going to college, and the more responsibility he or she takes for their own college admissions process, the more successful they’re going to be. Don’t sit back and wait for your counselor or your parents to handle everything. You can and should seek input and advice from people you trust. But every time you let someone else choose the colleges or complete an application or wedge their words into your essays, you’re losing ownership. And your applications will inevitably show it.

2. The parent
This can be a delicate dance to be second in command while simultaneously being discouraged from actually doing anything yourself. But while it’s your student’s college application process, this is your kid. And nobody is more invested in their happiness and success than you are. Here’s a past post with five important tips to help you identify what you can and should be doing.

3. Your high school counselor, and your private counselor if you have one
It might surprise some people to see counselors listed third here. You might think, “Isn’t this their job?” Yes, it is, but only to a point. For example, if your counselor gives three reminders in three different formats that it’s time for families to complete their FAFSAs, and you ignore those reminders, it’s pretty unfair to say that your counselor didn’t do her job. She’s not the one going to college, she’s not the one raising that future college applicant, and she’s certainly not the one who will be paying the bill. So why should she care more about applying for financial aid than your family does? Expect your counselor to offer you guidance, to answer your questions, and to take responsibility for any other parts of the process that she promised to take care of (this can vary depending on the counselor, their caseload, your school, or the program you’ve selected if the counselor is one you hired). But your counselor doesn’t—and shouldn’t—have more ownership than a parent or student does.

4. Any other professionals or volunteers charged with assisting you in your college quest
As we move down the list, we get to those people who might have responsibility for one isolated part of the process. Your SAT tutor. The person who offered the financial aid workshop. Your English teacher who reviewed your essays. If it’s someone you trust and from whom you sought this help, you should listen to their advice regarding their particular area. But be careful when your SAT tutor tells you to change your essay or your English teacher swears that you’ll get admitted if you apply under a strange major (my high school English teacher told me that I could “practically walk into Berkeley” if I applied as a journalism major—even at that time I knew it was bad information). It’s important to take advice, and allow ownership, from the right sources.

5. Everybody else
College admissions is one area where plenty of people are oddly willing to dish out advice, often while knowing little or nothing about the topic. But the bigger problem with taking advice from friends, neighbors, and other people who aren’t charged with assisting you on the road to college is that they just don’t have enough skin in the game, something I’ve written about before. Your neighbor might tell you where to apply or what to write your essay about, but unless she’s assuming some ownership and willing to accept partial responsibility for the outcome (something few people in this category are ever willing to do), go higher up the ownership chain for your guidance.

Pride + humility

During the college admissions process, be clear about how much you’ve learned and done, but also about how much more you still have to learn and do once you get to college. That combination of pride and humility is hard to resist.

Five ways you can still ruin your college application process

For seniors still slogging your way through college applications, there’s still a lot you can do to improve, or ruin, the remainder of your application cycle. To make the rest of the process less stressful and more successful, here are five things to avoid.

1. Wait to complete your remaining applications until you hear from your early application school(s).
November 1 has come and gone, and many applicants elected to apply to colleges that offered early decision or early application options that will return your admissions news in early December. You might be tempted to take a break, cross your fingers, and wait to hear from those schools before completing the remainder of your applications. Please don’t do it.  I’ve offered this tip before, so I’ll let my past writing do my current convincing for this year’s class. Trust me on this one.

2. Forget to celebrate your acceptances.
This is a Collegewise oldie but goodie because we see every year what a difference it can make in a family’s college admissions process. Too many families casually toss aside acceptances from schools that aren’t among their top choices, reserving their celebration for what they hope will be forthcoming offers of admission from schools at the top of their list. That just minimizes the applicant’s accomplishment, overlooks an opportunity to recognize a very real college option, and worst of all, perpetuates the idea that the only acceptable outcome is an offer of admission from a particular school. I’m not saying you have to throw a parade when your safety school admits you. But some acknowledgement, recognition, and even some in-family high-fiving can go a long way to inject some positivity and perspective into your process.

3. Obsess about forthcoming decisions.
We’ve all done it: worried and waited on pins and needles for something happening in the future. But while some applicants are able to get back to some semblance of enjoying a normal, application-free life, many others just double down on their anxiety. They spend far too much time obsessing about what’s to come instead of enjoying what’s already here. But no amount of wondering and worrying will wrestle control of a decision that is now officially out of your hands. All it will do is make the time leading up to that decision all the more riddled with anxiety. You only get to be a high school senior once. And once your college applications are behind you, it’s time to start enjoying those things again that you put on hold, like friends, family, activities, hobbies, etc.

4. Let the second-guessing commence.
Many applicants (and parents) second-guess their past college planning decisions in retrospect. They’ll regret not taking the ACT a third time, or wish they’d done more volunteer work, or lament the B- in French that they’re sure could have been raised with even more tutoring. Hindsight like this is only helpful if you can either learn from or do something about it. Otherwise, it’s just a wasted channel of worry that won’t do anything to improve your current state or your college admissions chances. Look forward, not back.

5. Allow your grades to slip.
I know, I know. You’ve heard this one before—keep your grades up or it might negatively impact your admissions chances (or change your status once you’re already admitted). But you’ve heard it before because it’s true. Few counselors or admissions officers will go on the record with a definitive statement of just how much grade slippage an applicant can get away with, and that’s because there is no hard-and-fast rule (it depends on the college and how precipitous the drop is). But this is one of those areas where you have great influence over the outcome. Don’t give colleges a reason to wonder whether or not you’re doing your part to keep up the good work.

When extra materials invite themselves

There are some important lessons for applicants in the latest University of Virginia post, Things You Want to Send (But Shouldn’t): Resumes, Research, and Writing Portfolios, but the most important one appears in the post’s conclusion (bold emphasis theirs):

“Colleges ask for the things they need to make their decisions. If we don’t ask for it, we don’t want you to spend time (or money) on it.”

I understand where the urge to send additional materials comes from. You want to stand out. You hear stories about students who supposedly gained an advantage by sending papers, articles, portfolios, etc. And there are plenty of supposedly helpful “How to get into college” articles that recommend exactly that course of action (I read one in an in-flight magazine while traveling recently).

But you can weed through all of that nervousness and noise by just trusting that each college you apply to will be very clear about what they want—and don’t want. Some will invite you to submit extra materials, but most won’t. Feel free to accept the invitation if it’s offered, but don’t let extra materials invite themselves.

Where to shine your application spotlight

Four years ago, when I’d just moved to Seattle, I was looking for a house cleaning service. One local company I called made it a policy to send the owner to meet personally with every prospective customer before writing the estimate. During our meeting, he spent a few minutes telling me about his company and what made it different. Then he spent the remainder of his time refuting two negative Yelp reviews. He had a lot to say about why they were unfair, what he’d done to try to make things right, and why he hoped I wouldn’t let two “bad apples” influence me.

Until he brought them up, I’d never even seen those negative reviews. So he was actually introducing concerns instead of addressing them. When I looked at the Yelp reviews later, the vast majority of them were overwhelmingly positive. Why did he use his time to shine a spotlight on the isolated negatives? I eventually chose a different company. It was hard to shake the feeling that there must be something going on if he felt that defensive about issues that I hadn’t even asked about.

Too many applicants want to use their college applications to explain away their perceived shortcomings.

“I got a C in math because…”
“My test scores are low because…”
“I didn’t run track last year because…”

But too often, those applicants are just shining their application spotlight on a few isolated, even insignificant, imperfections that don’t represent the entirety of their high school career.

There are times when it’s smart to address an inconsistency on an application. Illnesses, family upheaval, transferring schools—there are plenty of legitimate reasons why you might suffer a setback in high school. But giving too many excuses for too many setbacks makes you sound like a defensive college applicant crying wolf.

Imperfections are a normal part of life, and most don’t need to be explained away on a college application. Anomalies, on the other hand, especially when there’s a legitimate, factual, blame-free explanation, are often worth addressing.

Necessary and legitimate explanations remove doubts. Unnecessary and concocted explanations raise them.

Spend the majority of your time shining the spotlight on those things that make you proud of yourself and of your high school career. And if you’re not sure whether or not to address a perceived weakness, run it by your high school counselor first.

Don’t answer to fear

It happens every year about this time. Mid-October. That’s when some previously rational parents become decidedly irrational. That’s when some previously good kids become much more difficult for counselors to advise and shepherd through the application process. It’s the time when one emotion, dormant for months or years for many families, rises up and takes hold.


Mid-October is when many families start to get scared. Deadlines are closing in. Decisions will follow. It all starts to get too real. They worry they’re missing something. They’re worried that someone’s getting an advantage they aren’t getting. They’re worried things won’t go well and that they’ll look back with regret.

It’s certainly possible to be too casual about college admissions. You’ve put in three years of hard work that must now get distilled into applications. Depending on where you’re applying, there can be a lot of work to do and details to keep track of. It’s an important time that deserves to be taken seriously.

But fear is an absolutely terrible college application assistant.

Fear makes families imagine the worst, often without any evidence to support the vision. Fear tells you that you’ve made the wrong choices, that you’re doing things wrong, and that you’re making mistakes, which just sends many kids and parents into a college admissions tailspin.

Here are a few examples of admissions behaviors that are almost always driven by fear.

  • Frantically adding colleges to the list as deadlines get close
  • Calling or emailing the admissions office repeatedly, often with the same questions
  • Shopping your essays around to anyone willing to give you feedback
  • Creating and expressing excuses for perceived weaknesses in your application
  • Holding a completed application hostage and refusing to submit it
  • Parents over-editing or flat out writing essays for their kids
  • Obsessing over things that you can’t control, like whether or not one particular college will say yes
  • Cramming information that’s not vital, current, or interesting into the “Additional Information” sections of applications
  • Taking the SAT or ACT a 4th or 5th or 6th time
  • Submitting extra letters of recommendation or other unsolicited materials
  • Attempting to leverage connections (usually with people who rarely have any real pull)
  • Channeling admissions stress into unsubstantiated anger or blame
  • Behaving in a way that treats the college admissions process like a life-and-death struggle
  • Forgetting to be thankful for your health, family, and inevitable college opportunities

Irrational fear gets a hold of all of us from time to time. But the first step towards eliminating it is to acknowledge that it’s there. Once you do that, fear loses all of its power.

Making good college admissions decisions is dependent on answering to the right people and forces. Answer to yourself and your gut instincts. Answer to your teachers and counselor. Answer to your family who loves you. And of course, answer to the colleges—they’re telling you what they want you to do as an applicant.

But don’t answer to fear. Fear doesn’t deserve your attention.

The just right approach

One extreme approach to college applications is to procrastinate until the impending deadlines leave you no choice but to get things done. But that’s stressful, risky, and almost never leads to applications and essays that are as good as they would have been had you started earlier and spent more time getting them right.

The other extreme is the student (or parent) who meticulously plans an application schedule. Every application, every essay prompt, every necessary to-do is itemized and scheduled on a calendar, spreadsheet, or other organizational tool of choice. It’s better than the wait-until-the-last-minute approach, but these schedules tend to fall apart quickly. Seniors are busy, and many of their schedules are in a constant state of flux. You just never know when you’ll end up rehearsing late, completing an AP government assignment, or getting stuck on one of those application essays that takes more than the allotted time to complete.

Patrick O’Connor has a reasonable approach that seems just right to me. As shared in his post for counselors, What to Say When Your Students are Freaked About College Apps:

“Carve a two-hour block out of Saturday or Sunday (or both), work on your applications then — and only then — and forget about them during the week. That way, you get to study and learn, work on the homecoming float, have a great senior year, and write great college essays to boot. Plus, your applications will be done by Thanksgiving, so you can spend Christmas break with your family, not with your computer.”

I’ve helped a lot of students apply to college. My counselors have helped even more. And I can tell you that depending on where you’re applying and how many applications you’re submitting, if you follow this schedule–two hours, Saturday and Sunday—for even just 2-3 weekends in a row, you will either be finished with applications, or you will have made such significant progress that your stress levels will lower considerably (and you’ll have momentum on your side).

Here’s the key, though. You’ve got to make those two-hour blocks count. Turn off all your notifications. Avoid all interruptions. Go to a library or someplace else quiet with nothing to distract you. And then focus like your college applications depend on it.