Over the last couple of weeks, lots of my students and r/ApplyingToCollege friends have been sharing with me that they are feeling overwhelmed – like it feels like it’s going to be impossible to get through this college admissions experience. And I get it – I know the struggle is real. While I know they will get through it, and everything will be fine in the end (mostly because I insist that they have a healthy, strong BALANCED list), it doesn’t feel that way to them. So we’ve been talking about how to conquer worrying about the unknown, the feeling of being overwhelmed by the big picture of it all, and the paralysis that comes with the fear of failure.
Here’s some of the advice I’ve been sharing with them, so I want to share it with you, too.
Make a List
The first thing you need to do is look at the big picture. Make a list of everything you need to do! It might sound counterproductive to helping with the feeling of being overwhelmed, but making a list of everything you need to do helps you to see it all and to be able to divide up what needs to be done now (the frogs – see below) and what can be organized to do later (the elephant – see below).
Eating Frogs and Elephants
OK – don’t think about the reality of eating frogs and elephants because that feels cruel and weird – it’s a metaphor. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, the first thing I do is make a list of everything I need to do that’s crowding up my brain space, and then I decide if they are a frog or an elephant.
Eat the Frogs
Frogs are the little quick tasks that are jumping around and just need to be completed. They can normally be done fairly quickly and often just have one step. Get those out of the way. For college applications, that might be filling out the common app, making a resume, finishing your personal essay, editing your personal essay, or making a column on your spreadsheet about whether to send your test scores to a college or not and if it needs to be sent from officially or if self-report is ok. Gobble up as many of those annoying frogs as possible, so you can mark them off the list!
Eating the Elephant
I don’t know about you, but it’s clear to me that eating an elephant isn’t nearly as simple as eating a frog. Elephants are huge – kind of like some of your admissions work. It’s the entire admissions journey, right? So, you have to break it down. Imagine that the elephant’s body parts are aspects of your admissions experience. Break it down into parts. So maybe make the activities section an ear. Make your early November deadline supplements the other ear. And then you start. Don’t worry about eating the whole elephant – just the part that you need to get eaten first. Eat the right ear, then the left ear, then the trunk, then a foot, etc.
You can read more about eating frogs and elephants here:
Focus on the NOW
I know. I just told you to make a big old list or spreadsheet of everything you need to do. Now, I’m telling you to be laser-focused and to forget the big picture. Focus on those annoying frogs and the first elephant body part – let’s say the left ear. And that’s all I want you to focus on. So darken the parts of your list that have those other elephant body parts – for now. It’s September, so you should be working on your activities list, the basics of the common app, and your personal essay. Then you need to be focused on your early applications. Move all Regular Decision Apps and even UCs to the back of the bus – for now. You have plenty of time to get those done. Get your Rolling applications submitted. Then move to your EAs. Apps without supplements? Those are frogs – answer the questions and submit!
Fighting the Fear of Failure
In my experience with most of my students, procrastination is a coping mechanism. A way to avoid facing the potential for failure. There’s this feeling that it all has to be just so perfect, or there will be dire consequences. Many of you are used to being the superstars of high school. You might not yet have experienced any kind of real failure, and that makes it all a whole lot scarier.
Imagine the Worst
Here’s what I do for myself when I’m feeling this way (Yes – I do feel this way!) and what I recommend my students do. My students and I list the worst possible consequences if admissions don’t go their way.
Look, the possibility is real that the admissions journey won’t go your way – no matter how accomplished you are, no matter how hard you worked, no matter how shiny your transcript is, and heartfelt your personal essay. College admissions is often more about the Institutional Priorities of a college than your individual application – and you have no control over those Institutional Priorities!
So, we imagine the worst! Let’s say you don’t get into any of the colleges that are at the top of your list. Then what?
- You could go to some of your awesome Surefire Safeties that will probably give you a sh!t ton of merit aid and save some money – that’s one amazing option (but only if you apply to Sure Fire Safeties – that you like and can afford!). You could rock your four years there and be a superstar.
- You could attend one of your SureFire Safeties and transfer if it doesn’t work out the way you want.
- You can take a gap year. Maybe get a job, save money, and learn more about becoming an adult or about your potential career. Maybe you travel. Maybe you join Americorps. Maybe you do WOOOFING (look it up). Maybe you get a cool internship or do research. No matter what, you’ll be growing and learning and maturing and be even more ready to enter college.
- You can attend community college. Save money for the first year or two and then transfer.
- You can apply to one of the hundreds of incredible colleges and universities that will still be accepting applications in the spring. Get some merit money. Go there. Save the world,
OK – Let’s say you become so paralyzed by angst about college admissions that you don’t even apply (this is what I was worried one of my own children would do!). Then, guess what? You still have numbers 3, 4, and 5 at your service in the spring when maybe you’ve had a chance to relax and think more about what you really want.
Finally, Find Your Inner Sloth (for a little while)
So we have our efficiency days when we take care of all those jumping frog tasks, and we have our super productive days when we begin to break down the parts of the elephant and carve away at our larger goals. But it’s equally important to find your inner sloth at times too. Let your brain take a break — a real break. No social media scrolling, just you, a book, a tv show, a movie, a walk, some music — whatever helps you take a break. Schedule it so you won’t feel guilty or like you’re procrastinating. Our brains need to recharge — and being a sloth for a little while can help that happen.
Life Zigs and Zags
Look, I have no idea how college admissions is going to work out for you. I do know that creating a balanced list is the best way to have a good outcome. I do know that you need to actually do the work in order to apply, and letting your fear and paralysis stop you will only lead to disappointment and frustration. And I also know this – life most often doesn’t work out the way we plan or want it to. It’s not a straight path. Life zigs when you want to zag, and it zags when you thought you were gonna zig. And those zig zags? That’s what you look back on one day and are so very grateful for – I’m speaking from experience.
Now – back to work! Go capture those frogs and divide up your elephant.
XO XO Admissions Mom