college admissions Organization Time Management Top Tips

Avoid Application Procrastination

It’s a beautiful early fall afternoon and you told yourself you would get started on your application essays. Suddenly, it feels like the perfect time to clean your room, start a new series on Netflix, or read the entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the origin and history of the high five. It’s the allure of procrastination that sidetracks you, and you’re not alone as we hear this so often from our Essay Guidance Program and Common App 911 students!

The college application process can feel overwhelming and infinite, the perfect combination to bring on procrastination. As humans built for survival, short term goals naturally feel more important to us than long term goals, and starting college applications early is an important example of prioritizing long-term goals (e.g., getting into the college of your choice) over short-term goals (e.g., enjoying a movie with your family or dinner with your friends).

As tempting as it might be to continue to put off applications until tomorrow, next week, or the night before the Early Decision deadline, we can promise that you will be happier and more successful if you fight the procrastination urge and get to work. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.”


Create a Timeline

Start by writing down all your deadlines and making a checklist of every task you need to complete. Take a look at our 5 Instant Tips to Get Organized and create a master calendar that includes all your deadlines. We love using whiteboards like this one to keep due dates front and center and help with prioritization. We also recommend trying the bullet journal method for tracking progress and staying in touch with your end goal. Choose the best calendar system for you, become the boss of your schedule, and take it essay by essay.

Divide the Application Process into Manageable Pieces

When we work with students in Personal Boot Camps, the first thing we do is break down our to-do list into small parts and start with some quick wins. A quiet place to work? Check! List of target colleges? Got it. Next, we take on the common app and finish it all the way through. Phew, what a relief! Then we focus on the first essay and go step by step from there. Even without a counselor, writing one supplemental essay each day feels much less daunting than facing a blank page and a seemingly endless list of essay prompts. Use your timeline to give yourself mini-deadlines for the many tasks along the way towards application submission. While you’re are it, get strategic about your essay writing. For example, if essay prompts from different schools are similar but have different recommended word counts, start with the longer essay and then cut it down and adjust your language to fit the shorter prompt. Don’t reinvent the wheel when you don’t have to!

Build In Rewards

Why wait until you get accepted to celebrate? Humans are more responsive to positive reinforcement than punishment, so keep reinforcing your non-procrastination behavior every step of the way. A 20-minute nap after supplement #1? Sure, why not! A brisk walk outside to rejuvenate your mind and body after 15 minutes of writing? Absolutely! Ice cream cones in honor of finishing all essays for one school? ALWAYS.

Turn Off Technology

Start by turning off your phone. You can use it as a reward rather than a distraction with built-in phone breaks (e.g., five minutes of screen time for every hour of essay writing). Consider other distractors in your life. Do you have instant messaging on your laptop? Turn it off. Do you have easy access to social media and your favorite blogs? Try apps like SelfControl that allow you to block your own access to distracting websites for a period of time. The human brain is not good at multitasking—in fact, research has found that switching attention from one thing to another can decrease productivity by up to 40 percent! So do your brain and your essays a favor by focusing on one thing at a time.

Debunk the Inspiration Myth

You may believe that it isn’t worth starting your application essays until you stumble upon a great idea. However, few people are lucky enough to become suddenly inspired by an essay that writes itself. Instead, writing is an iterative process, and we are actually most inspired by essays that evolve, and sometimes completely transform, with every draft. Don’t let your personal procrastination monster convince you to wait for inspiration—get inspired by getting the ball rolling.

Commit to Ten Minutes

Getting started is often the hardest part, and procrastination is most common before you even put pen to paper. Tell yourself you are going to work on a task for just ten minutes, and then check in with yourself if you want to stop or keep going. Momentum tends to build once we start moving (think of your groove ten minutes into a long run or a jam session), so before you know it you might have a full draft of your common application essay.

Create Time Pressure

We know many students who “work best under pressure.” We won’t deny that a tight deadline can be motivating, but that doesn’t mean that an all-nighter on October 31st will help you produce your best work. Instead, create your own time pressure. For 16 years, we have led Application Boot Camp to help students finish all of their applications and essays in just four days. We tightly schedule every day with multiple deliverables so students stay on task and check off one thing at a time. Not a single moment is wasted! One of our favorite moments every year is the last day of Boot Camp as students realize that they are done with their college applications.To create time pressure on your own, we recommend trying the Pomodoro Technique, a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. Set a timer on your phone (on airplane mode, of course, to avoid distraction) and break your work into 25-minute intervals, with a 3-5 minute break after each interval. This way, you can race the clock without compromising the quality of your application materials.

college application procrastinating and time

Find an “accountabilibuddy”

In other words, work on your applications with someone who holds you accountable to your goals and keeps you on task. Our consultants and counselors help students break down the application process into many small and achievable steps, and they check in on every step to provide support and structure. At Application Boot Camp, our mentors make sure every student is on track and jump in to provide an inspiration jolt when writer’s block creeps in. Join us, or find another trusted accountabilibuddy to call you out when you veer off track and celebrate your successes every step of the way.

Create your Procrastination-Free Palace

If your television is begging you to turn it on and your bedroom is inviting you to take a nap, it’s probably time for a change of scenery. Many of our students enjoy working on applications at a local library, and if you have access to a university library (many of them are open to the public) you might feel even more inspired to get to work alongside college students. Some students like to visit a local park or coffee shop without WiFi to eliminate the temptation to procrastinate online. If you want to stay at home, find a quiet spot that is as far as possible from your favorite distractions. Once you pick your oasis, fill it with treats (remember what we said about positive reinforcement!) that will make your application experience as positive as possible and keep you coming back for more. Try pleasant music, a scented candle, photos of your target colleges, inspirational quotes, and your favorite snacks.

Good luck, and get to work!

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