A Goundhog’s Guide to College Admission

For the groundhog, timing is everything. Emerge to a clear day and a shadow, and it could mean six more weeks of hiding from the world. Pop out on a cloudy day and voila, the fresh start of spring is close at hand. Turns out, we humans are not so different from our furry marmot friends. This is abundantly clear as I read Daniel Pink’s new book, “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.” It is a fascinating study of how the ways we schedule our daily routines, make choices and organize our lives can impact outcomes and future success.

As a school counselor guiding young people to college, I emphasize Aristotle’s aphorism of “well begun is half done,” and at last he and I have some vindication and hard evidence to back our assertions. Pink points to research on everything from school start times to college graduate cohorts to support his argument that, “the recipe is straightforward. In most endeavors, we should be awake to the power of beginnings and aim to make a strong start” He effectively outlines how the failure to do so could lead to everything from impaired heath to restricted opportunity.

To truly appreciate the depth and validity of his research, you must read the book in its entirety. In the meantime, here are a few takeaways from his writing that can inform the college search and application experience:

  • The “early bird gets the worm”: There are some aspects that college applicants cannot control, like what time of day an admission officer reviews your application—Pink cites research into judicial decision-making which suggests that the beginning of the day or after a break is ideal. Other factors, however, are within an applicant’s power. For instance, scheduling a college interview for the first available appointment of the day will increase the chances of making a positive and lasting impression. Also, applying early action at most colleges has a statistically significant advantage.   Likewise if a college or university has rolling admission, it behooves you to submit while those evaluating applications are still fresh.
  • Give me a break: Pink explains that given teenagers’ “chronobiology” we really should be administering standardized tests in the late morning or early afternoon. Unfortunately the College Board and ACT do not see it this way, but science tells us that even small “micro-breaks” can make a significant difference. Some controlled breathing before or during the SAT/ACT could make all the difference. The rest of us should not discount the benefits of a power nap or afternoon walk break. His research offers all the evidence needed to justify these time-outs.
  • Sleep for success: This will not come as a huge surprise but getting sufficient rest is paramount to protecting against anxiety and depression and ensuring an optimal immune system. Often in the achievement culture of highly selective admission, young people sacrifice sleep to pack in more activities and overload on classes and homework. While studies show that educators could facilitate a healthier schedule by starting the academic day later, students can do their part and get sufficient sleep to perform at their best.
  • A fresh start: One of the best ways to preserve family harmony is to limit conversations about college admission to one day of the week and research suggests that the best day to do so is likely at the beginning of the week. Pink cites a study from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business to advocate for using Monday’s or other “temporal landmarks” (like the first day back from vacation or holidays) to benefit from the “fresh start effect” of productivity and goal setting. Spend a half an hour at the beginning of the week looking at the big picture of the college search as a family—more will get done and everyone is more likely to stay sane.
  • Recognize your “trough”: Searching for and applying to college is a marathon not a sprint. It requires sustained engagement and an understanding of one’s self and how one best operates. Pink explains that the science of timing demonstrates a three-stage rhythm of peaks, troughs and rebounds.   By identifying the time periods when you are most effective, you can coordinate your experience visiting and applying to colleges in a balanced manner that synchronizes with your energy and productivity. Pink offers some helpful tips to determining whether you are a “lark” or “owl” with peak performance in the morning hours or later in the day.
  • The write way to college: Often students leave the process of writing their college essay until last, agonizing over what to write about and employing a litany of editors. Here is an idea…try starting with the essay and letting that inform your search. On the final page of his book, Pink describes writing as “an act of discovering what you think and what you believe.” In its most perfect form, the experience of applying to college should begin with this discovery, then allowing your values and beliefs to guide you to the right match.

This book is a must read, whether you are applying for admission, looking for a job or trying to decide when it is best to exercise (the morning to burn fat) or safest to have heart surgery (not in the afternoon or the month of July). Pink does an exceptional job of unpacking diverse research about beginnings, endings and the time between. If you are a high school junior, don’t make your parents or teachers drag you out of your den like a reluctant Punxsutawney Phil. It is high time to emerge from your burrow and come out from the shadows. Your college forecast is bright and the time is now.






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A graduate of Westtown Friends School, Brennan Barnard earned a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Spanish from Franklin & Marshall College and a Master’s degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration from The University of Vermont. He serves as the Director of College Counseling and Outreach at The Derryfield School in Manchester, New Hampshire and as the Director of College Counseling at US Performance Academy, an on-line independent high school for elite athletes. Brennan has worked as a teacher, coach, admission officer and student affairs administrator at a number of independent high schools and colleges, including Westtown School, Northfield Mount Hermon School, Hyde School, Franklin & Marshall College and the University of Vermont. Brennan writes about college admission, firefighting and mindfulness, as well as the complexities and beauty of life. This father of two lives in Hopkinton, New Hampshire where he is a volunteer firefighter.

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