For the first time, I’m approaching the new year with a focus on wellness and reducing stress. I know it sounds kind of new-agey, but I’m at the point in my life where I don’t really care. I have started yoga. I’m cooking more vegetarian dishes. I bought an essential oil diffuser.
It’s made me think about all the ways that wellness can be integrated in your life. And, since I study admissions trends every day, it’s made me think about how we approach applying to school. All you hear about is how stressful the process is, how painful, how much more difficult it is than it used to be.
But if you could start the process with the idea of maintaining your wellness at the forefront, how could you change the experience? How could you turn something that’s pure drudgery into something positive, even transformative?
Here is how to do it.
IGNORE THE OSTRICH
I am the type of person who feels stress when it comes to planning just about anything. Even booking airplane tickets is a source of anxiety for me. I worry that the tickets will be too expensive, that I won’t input the dates correctly, that I’ll discover I have something important to do on those dates and so will have to cancel the tickets. I’ll worry that I can’t cancel the tickets.
So, my go-to response is to procrastinate, which almost assures that I’ll have fewer travel options at a more expensive rate when I finally do book. That ostrich-like tendency to put my head in the sand and put off what I don’t want to do? Boy, that’s powerful.
Granted, it feels moderately OK in that sand at the beginning. It’s dark and quiet, after all. But eventually you have to face the fact that you can’t breathe.
So, what if you could simply decide to be different and then be different? What if every time I was behaving like an ostrich, I recognized it and said to myself, “Nope. Not allowed” and forced myself to plow through?
Life would be different. Life would be better.
About 70 percent of school application stress comes from thinking about doing something you don’t want to do. But what if you decided, from the get-go, that you were not going to let yourself succumb to this pitfall? What if, every time you had to deal with anything involving your application, that triggered something in your brain that would tell you, “Ignore the ostrich?”
Quite simply, life would be different. Life would be better.
So, learn that about yourself. Decide from the beginning that you aren’t going to torture yourself by putting things off.
FOCUS ON PLEASURE
Several years ago, as I was touring Princeton University with my stepdaughter, a parent asked our tour guide if she felt like the environment on campus was competitive. I was shocked when the guide said that the school didn’t really focus on achievement or even graduation. “We focus on the enjoyment of learning,” she said. “If you can enjoy when you’re studying, everything else falls into place.”
When I was in college, know what I was focused on? My GPA. In part because I wanted to get into a good grad school, in part because I needed a scholarship when I got there. But when I got to grad school, I remained obsessed with my grades, not because I knew I wanted to get a PhD (I learned I didn’t), but because it had become a habit.
I’ve thought about that a lot since. What would my academic life have been like if I had focused on the enjoyment of the process instead of the end product itself? Would I have been happier? Would I have learned more?
I have a strong suspicion that “yes” is the answer to both of those questions.
So, do yourself a favor: after you’ve ignored the ostrich, establish a second mindset as you apply to school. Decide that you will approach this task by focusing on what’s enjoyable about it.
When you think about what applying to school signifies — that you are at a point in your life where you can take the next step, that you have a good idea where you’re going, and that this task in front of you is proof of it — you can glean a lot of pride and joy from this process. Take pleasure out of those green checkmarks as they appear in your online application. Feel proud, even nostalgic, as you enter your GPA or look over your transcript. Feel good about who you ask for your references.
Essentially, what you’re doing is a big deal. But it’s not just a big deal because it’s fraught with stress, it’s a big deal because it symbolizes a big accomplishment.
Decide to focus on that part.
LET THE AIR OUT OF THE BALLOON
Once you’ve established your two mindsets, it means you are ready to begin. How to do it? Jump in immediately and start making plans.
Tell yourself that you are going to spend one hour. An hour isn’t too painful, right? If you know to which schools you’re applying, Google their name along with the word “application.” You’ll find the information easily enough. If you’re applying to several schools, you’ll want to look at these websites:
If you’re applying to college, start with the Common Application.
You’re looking for answers to questions like:
- How many letters of recommendation do I need?
- Do I have tests I need to take? When and where are they offered?
- Do I need to write a personal statement? How many words? What is my prompt?
- How do I order transcripts? How far in advance can I order them?
Once you have answers to these major questions, you will find you will begin to breathe more deeply (my yoga teacher would tell you to breathe deeply anyway). As you exhale, you’re able to let more air out of your stress balloon. And that feels good.
Once you are ready to actually tackle your application, let more air out by breaking down your application into parts and deciding when you’re going to complete them. But before you do, it’s time for your next tip, which is:
RE-NAME (and own) YOUR PROCESS
You know what is a fascinating word? “Deadline.” As a writer, I have lived intimately with this word for more than 20 years. I’ve dreaded deadlines. I’ve flirted with deadlines. I’ve missed deadlines. But I have never once considered the word itself and how much stress it implies. The word itself can create dread.
So why not re-name it? Why not reinterpret it?
For example, instead of giving yourself a “deadline,” why not give yourself a treat instead? Promise yourself that, once you’ve completed one portion, you will gift yourself with something you really want, whether that’s a manicure, a chocolate chip cookie dough blizzard, a binge-watch of your favorite show. Whenever you feel yourself dreading the task, focus on the treat instead, the treat you can only have once the task is complete.
It may sound silly, but how do you think I got my essential oil air diffuser?
PLAN TO ASK FOR HELP WHEN YOU FEEL STRESS
The fastest way to feel over your head is to feel like you’re in a deep, dark place and you’re the only one who can get yourself out. I’ve been stuck there and it’s not fun. Stress starts to spread like ivy. You feel like you’re the only person on a not-fun planet.
Know ahead of time that, despite the best intentions, you can end up here. Decide ahead of time that, if you get there, you will ask for help. Sometimes, it can be hugely reinforcing just to talk to someone who knows how you feel — even if they don’t have answers for you. And sometimes it can be hugely helpful just to have someone to bounce ideas off of, whether you do that in person or over instant messaging. Sometimes the smallest question can pop a huge balloon of doubt. Or it can lead you to the place where you can find a big answer. Just promise yourself you will reach out.
As always, I’m here if you need help. I bet a lot of other people are too. In the meantime, make your important decisions, establish your mindsets, about how you will approach applying to school. Namaste.