We all procrastinate. It's human nature. It's so much easier to think, "I'll just do that tomorrow" than it is to buckle down and get it done.
When it comes to the college application process, students often procrastinate because they don't understand the value of not procrastinating. And yes, procrastination can have big consequences. Consider Eldon's* story.
A bright student, Eldon had his heart set on enrolling in a competitive program at a prestigious state university. He had a stellar GPA and a high class rank, but because he attended a nonranking high school, his top standing did not guarantee him admission.
No problem, he thought. He created a plan for writing his essays and completing his application — and then, for a long time, he put off actually doing any of it. He finally submitted his application just before the deadline.
As his classmates started getting acceptance letters, Eldon heard nothing. He still wasn't worried. He'd gotten everything in on time. But eventually he got the bad news. He was accepted into the university, but he did not get into the program he wanted. By the time he got around to applying, that program was already full.
Not every case of procrastination will end up with such devastating results, but I do hear often from frustrated parents who wonder how to motivate their senior. The child knows exactly what must be done to apply to college but just won't sit down and do it. Unfortunately, there's only so much cajoling, handholding, and nagging a parent can do. But a few gentle reminders can help.
First, make sure your child has set reasonable deadlines. If the cutoff date for applications to a competitive school is Feb. 1, you might encourage your child to aim for Dec. 15 instead.
Next, help break the deadlines into smaller, more manageable chunks. Set one deadline for getting all letters of recommendation, another for finishing a resume, and separate deadlines for each essay required.
Essays, in fact, probably require a set of deadlines and reminders all by themselves; I find that this is the area where students most often drag their feet. It often helps to set several mini-goals for each essay: one deadline for coming up with ideas, another for a first draft, a third for a second draft, and a final one for the polished version.
Often, just getting started is the hurdle, especially for essays. In that case, you might encourage your child to find a brainstorming partner to help narrow down ideas — if not you, then an older sibling or a friend who's also applying. It also can help to have an accountability partner who will read drafts and make suggestions. Some parents hire essay consultants just for this purpose, but a family friend, relative, or fellow student can also fill this role.
Finally, try to encourage your student not to look at the overall task, which can seem overwhelming, but to concentrate on working steadily. I always like to remember a story in Anne Lamott's book about writing, "Bird by Bird." Her brother was in a panic, trying to write a massive school report about birds that he'd put off until the very last minute. He was getting nowhere until their father kneeled next to him and told him, "Bird by bird, buddy. … Just take it bird by bird."
Word by word, task by task, small deadline by small deadline — that's how college applications get finished.
*Name has been changed.
Donna Spann is CEO of Capstone College and Career Advising in Tyler. A college adviser for 11 years, Donna leads a team of professionals who take a personal approach to advising that helps students navigate through career and college exploration, admissions, financial aid, and find the college that's right for them. Have a question for Donna? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. You just may see your question answered in a future column.