Common AppThis Friday, August 1, 2014, the Common Application  for university applicants became available online. Rising high school seniors can get an early start to the general college application that is accepted by over 500 public and private colleges and universities in the U.S., including all eight Ivies, and in Europe. The application provides a relatively universal way for schools to compare and contrast applicants.

The Common App, as it is colloquially called, streamlines the college application process by providing basic information and a general set of questions for students to answer and submit to any of the colleges that participate in the Common App.

Although many universities do require supplementary questions for their applicants, the Common App service simplifies many elements of the application process.

The personal statement of the application is what typically gets the most attention because it holds the greatest potential for a student to stand out among the tens of thousands of applications colleges receive each year.

The remainder of the summer provides a good chunk of time for rising seniors to get a head start on their college applications. And it offers a natural opportunity for honing analytic writing skills and executive function strategies.

Simply determining what work can be done now on the Common App will help your organizational and time management skills. These skills are critical to your success in college when you will have open-ended tasks such as endless amounts of reading, work, preparation, juggling of schedules, and independent work without a teacher’s input or parental guidance.

As we wrote in a previous post, we know the brain is still developing in high school and beyond, including its executive function skills, which help us break down tasks in order to complete them. Since there are many moving parts to the Common App, you can view your work on it as a great way to continue to improve your executive function skills, and the brain. Moreover, you’re giving yourself time to work at a more relaxed pace so you can figure out how best to use your time and how to prioritize the demands of senior year (and life) in a way that works for you.

If you break the college application process into doable sections, and give yourself the time required to complete it, then the process is much less intimidating and stressful. Since technological tools are now so easily accessible for a student’s use, the process becomes less burdensome and, dare I say, can even be fun (or, at least, less painful).

One of the most helpful ways to hone this skill is to set an alarm on your iCal for 20 minutes in advance of when you plan to do a Common App task. Estimate how long you will need for that task, leave yourself 1.5 times that amount of time in case you need more, and then time yourself to see how long it actually takes. Then you can see whether you need to leave more time or if you can plow through your task list faster than you anticipated. Having this well-calibrated internal stopwatch will be a helpful asset as you head toward college. After all, the rule of thumb is that to ace a college course you need to put in three hours of studying and prep out of the lecture hall per course credit.

There are tools and software programs we use at Ivy Prep to help our students develop their brain power, especially their fast-growing frontal lobes, as part of the college application process. These include outlining programs and mind mapping software that enable applicants to determine steps of the application process and organize information for their essays by using shapes or color codes. The graphic organizers can be exported to a word document to further develop essays.

Ivy Prep students applying to college master using online to-do lists and project management software to organize text, audio, and photo notes in a way that is systematic and streamlined. The trick is to learn how to make the tools work for you. Then, you can bring your college application to life.

Mastering the online and software organizational tools now not only helps you manage the Common App process more easily; it also gives you a sense of how to use these tools in the future, especially as you move toward a more demanding, but less structured university life.

Whether the tools you use are paper and pencil materials or the latest online apps, the more you use the tool of choice, the better use you can make of it. After all, the Stradivarius violin and the Stratocaster electric guitar are among the greatest musical instruments ever made, but they are best put to use when the musician knows how to play the music. The same goes for the tools that can help organize your work and thoughts: No matter what instrument or tool you are using, it takes skill and customization to make the most of what you’ve got. All the various programs, apps, and tools we use to help our students organize their time, projects, files, calendars, etc., are only as good as the students make them to be.

Since there are so many kinds of software programs that help with organizing time, projects, files, calendars, and contacts, choose one that works for you. It doesn’t matter what program or app you use. It only matters that you find one that helps you calmly and carefully complete the Common App.

Whichever tool you use – the one that works best for you — there’s no doubt that an early jump to an impending pile of applications gives you the chance to determine work patterns, skills, and behaviors that best suit you while your parents are around to be used as a sounding board and available for support.

Working on the Common App over the summer can also help alleviate what is sure to be a busy fall semester when high school seniors feel the pinch of school coursework, standardized test prep, sports, extra curricular activities, college visits, and the other commitments that quickly expand an already jam-packed schedule.

Furthermore, it will make the application process less stressful for your parents. Taking some extra time to work on the Common App enables your parents to give you the space you need to figure out how to manage your time, and the tasks at hand. It also gives your parents a chance to appreciate your strengths, instincts, desires, and plans for the near (and far) future.

So, use some of August to work on the Common App. It not only will help you be successful and manage the stress of the college applications process. It will also help you hone skills that will make you successful in college and in life.

Rebecca Mannis, Ph.D.

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