ThinkTank Learning: Keep Calm and Stay Focused

ThinkTank Learning Consultant Meilin Obinata advises students to keep calm and stay focused during the college application process. ( photo)

Dear High School Seniors,

There are a whole host of things I would like you to think about during the college application process. Mainly, 1) Keep mental clarity, 2) Plan carefully and 3) Really, really manage your time – including making time for restoring SANITY!

1. KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON: Do Not Listen to the HYPE!

What do I mean by this? Well, when you are applying to college, relatives, friends, neighbors, well-meaning friends of parents start chiming in with THEIR tips and viewpoints about “when I was applying to college.” Even if your cousin was applying only two years ago, conditions could be very different.

When my students tell me “My X told me that… ABC got into XYZ college, and he only had a Z GPA and X SATs,” I ask them for specifics like – “What major? Where does this person live? What were his / her extracurricular activities?” Then the information starts to fall away. This anecdotal information, which is meant to be helpful, I am sure, often makes students or parents worry about the wrong thing. And that means you will be losing valuable time and energy you could be dedicating to your college application process. Don’t do it!

So I will give you some very, very anti-intuitive advice: DO NOT LISTEN. Resist the urge to apply to this school or that school, because someone said something about a specific person getting in. Instead, focus on YOUR PLAN OF ATTACK. You cannot be making decisions about your FUTURE, because someone heard something at the hair salon or some coffee shop. Instead, you must plan, plan, plan your choices carefully. So, how will you really prepare?

2. Plan, Plan, Plan: Prepare Your Plan of Attack!

College List / Importance of Choosing a Desired Major

Use your GPA and standardized test performance as a baseline for figuring out which colleges might want to accept you. Keep in mind that for certain colleges, certain majors or subject matter areas are very “hot” so your chances of admission could be LOWER than average if you choose to apply to a “hot” major unless you are a strong candidate, relative to the rest of the applicant pool. Choosing a major that matches your overall high school performance – grades, test scores, extracurricular activities – can make the difference between getting in or not for many selective schools.

Researching Colleges

There are a ton of websites which can help you “match” yourself up with schools who want students like you, such as College Niche, Unigo and College Factual, just to name a few. The key thing is to figure out what the overall admit rate is and whether you are falling ABOVE or BELOW that average. That will help you figure out how likely you are (or are not) to get in – adjust up or down, depending on where you “are” relative to the average admit. It is KEY to ground your college list in REALITY. If you do not do this, spring will be extremely unpleasant for you. I tell my students that applying to colleges is like farming: you are planting your fall crops for harvesting results in the springtime – and not all the seedlings survive, so plan accordingly!

College Fit

Equally important is to research schools that are the right FIT. Is this school going to be a real HOME to you? Will you want to make friends with your classmates? Remember… you will be LIVING at this school. So, pay attention to those cues reviewers leave in their comments – do you need your vegan cheese pizza? Or maybe you really need your mani-pedi routine? Etc. etc.

Student Outcomes

Be sure you understand what are you actually “getting” for the tuition. What are the faculty-student ratios like? How do you get internships, coops or research opportunities? What will you get once you LEAVE – besides a piece of paper? One cool resource is College Navigator, which lets you see key information like “retention and graduation” rates so that you know how many of your peers will graduate in 4, 6 and 8 years or “cohort default rates” – this tells you whether the graduates are able to pay off their student loans timely! Important information, no?

Oftentimes, people forget… college is just the BEGINNING… it’s a means to something else and is not an end on its own. This means that you should, ideally, have at least a vague idea of what students “get” at the end of four years. Choose schools which you believe will actually prepare you for tomorrow!

Reach Out

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Perhaps you want feedback on your college list. Or an essay. Or whatever. Be proactive about talking to people, such as a ThinkTank Learning consultant, parents or school administrators for the various things that you need.

However – before you ask someone for help, make sure that you have PREPARED doing all of what you could on your own – do not act unnecessarily helpless either! Getting help does not absolve you of any responsibility. This is your life; you must drive THIS PROCESS!

3. Ye Shall Manage Thy Time

Summer Front-Loading

Once you know WHERE you want to apply, you can execute. Be sure you know what ALL the application DEADLINES are: regular, early action, early decision, deadlines for art portfolios, deadlines for sending test scores, deadlines for sending transcripts, letters of recommendations, etc. etc. Look up application requirements for EACH of your schools, and make sure you know how to get everything they need. Do you know how your school wants you to request transcripts? Do you know what your teachers and counselors need from you to write letters of recommendation? Your life will become a shopping list of college application tasks. You think I am joking… but I am really not.

Work on personal statements early! Yes, those awful prompts asking you about your life philosophy and so on! Start looking at last year’s supplemental essay questions and work on those too! Start brushing up on those Higher Order Thinking Skills! Minimize the work you will be doing during 12th grade by front-loading the misery now!

During the School Year

Whatever you could not or would not complete during summer – try to complete as soon as you can once school starts. For some schools, they will not allow you to set up accounts to apply until certain timelines (but you took care of that when you identified all your deadlines up front, right???). At times, you will have to wait until certain information / etc. becomes available, but again, revisit your PLAN and keep going!


During the school year, you may need to set aside a few hours each week tending to various aspects of your college application process – not just things that you do on your own but the sheer logistics of getting things from your school or perhaps asking a college admissions office a question – you cannot anticipate what might come up! So build in a buffer, and pencil in some extra time for the unexpected.

Buddy System / Support System

If you are slacking off / procrastinating, or if you are even worried that you WILL slack – make a deal with your friends – if you start slacking off, your friend can give you a hard time. For example, you might check in with them week-to-week to see if you are getting whatever you need to get done. If you need them to give you a swift kick in the you-know-what, or maybe you just need a hug – tell them what you need!

Rest / Relaxation

Now, what is the last thing you might expect me to tell you about this process? That you MUST set aside time for YOU. Yes, even with all the hustle and bustle, you cannot do it all unless you also give yourself room to BREATHE. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so pace yourself accordingly.

This is going to be a VERY EMOTIONAL TIME. Not just for you – but your parents, friends, classmates. It’s hard to explain why but partly because it’s a mixture of you leaving high school, making choices affecting the REST of your life, and your parents will be wanting to help you in whatever way that they can, even if they don’t know what to do.

If you find yourself stressing out and making your loved ones crazy, that is probably a clue that you need to chill out and step away from the process for a bit. If you are up for something creative, this would be a perfect time for what Julia Cameron calls an “Artist Date” – "a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore something that interests you." I definitely recommend structuring your week so that you have some “downtime” in which you are focusing on enjoying something – without GUILT, because you are managing your time well (!!!) So, go ahead, do that pickup basketball game and just enjoy it! Because throughout all this, you must stay SANE.

So – keep calm, carry on and do your best!

(This article first appeared on ThinkTank Learning and is reprinted here with permission from the author. It has been edited for clarity and timeliness.)

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