The 7 Habits of Highly Effective College Applicants

Stephen R. Covey’s self-improvement book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is based on his belief that the way we see the world has to do with our perceptions. So, to change any given situation, we must change ourselves. And to change ourselves, we must be able to change our perceptions.

One of my goals for my work as an IEC is to help both students and their parents see the college search and application process for what it is; to help families gain clarity and develop an approach that values transparency and less stress for all involved. Covey’s habits, at their core, translate nicely to how families can intentionally approach the college search and application process.

Covey’s seven habits focus on being proactive, creating end goals, taking things one step at a time, having a win-win attitude, seeking to understand others (schools in this case), valuing differences, and making time for reflection and relaxation. Below, I’ve translated them into my own language:

  1. Be Proactive = Get in the driver’s seat (and stay there!)
  2. Begin with the End in Mind = Set realistic and attainable goals
  3. Put First Things First = Take it one step at a time
  4. Think Win-Win = Create a ‘winning’ application strategy
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood = Understand colleges on a deeper level
  6. Synergize = Craft a synergistic college list
  7. Sharpen the Saw = Take a water break (it’s a marathon, not a sprint)

Let’s break down each habit:

Get in the driver’s seat (and stay there!). First thing is first: students need to be in the driver’s seat. Not mom, not dad. Parents: if you are spearheading all efforts you are doing your student a disservice. If they are not ready to get in the driver’s seat and own this process they might not be ready to go to college. It is that simple. Do not do this process for them. Students: it is understandable to need support as you research and apply to colleges. However, don’t take advantage of your parent’s anxiety around this important milestone. Once you get to college, you will need to go it on your own; think of this as the first step toward making that a positive reality.

Set realistic and attainable goals. Realistic: having or showing a sensible and practical idea of what can be achieved or expected. Attainable: can be attained, achieved. Parents and students need to set realistic (practical) and attainable (achievable) goals for the college search and application process. For example, most students don’t get into Harvard even if their profile makes them qualified. There is a huge difference between being qualified and being competitive. Attainable goals are realistic goals; please be realistic. Also, keep in mind that what might be realistic, or what might even be attainable, might not be ideal for you (financially) or your student (socially, culturally, academically). Try to keep the end game in mind and look beyond the name of a school or its rank or perceived prestige. So much more matters so much more.

Take it one step at a time. The college search and application process is best approached like a marathon, not a sprint. Treat it as such, take your time. Break it down into manageable parts. I like to break the year down into three chunks: summer, fall, winter/spring. Plan for one chunk at a time and tackle what is needed within that period. Slow and steady tends to win this race.

Create a ‘winning’ application strategy. There are plenty of colleges out there for everyone. You can create a winning search and application strategy by first setting realistic and attainable goals, and then by developing a winning mindset. To me, a winning mindset sees this process as more than just a process but as a journey. It also means knowing that if you put in max effort, and your best foot forward, things will work out just as they should. You will go to college! Will it be the college you had your heart set on? Maybe not. But you will go, and I have found that even the students that do not get into their first choice end up very very happy wherever they land. Things just work out this way in most cases! When you see this process for what it is—a means to an end and then something that you quickly forget about—you can approach it with less stress, less fear, and more positivity. That is a winning strategy.

Understand colleges on a deeper level. The most attractive applicants know the schools they are applying to well, and they convey this understanding through multiple parts of the application (essays, interviews, additional correspondence with the school before and after applying). The student who applies to 20 schools? They don’t know many or maybe even any of those schools well in most cases. The students I work with 1:1 (at least the ones who take my advice in its entirety) understand schools deeply by talking with current students, connecting with faculty, meeting with alumni, sitting in on classes, taking classes virtually, touring colleges virtually, creating a meaningful history of correspondence with their regional reps, and so much more. You can do all of these things if you plan for the long game.

Craft a synergistic college list. Part of creating a winning application strategy, beyond realistic and attainable goals and a positive mindset, is a list that reflects this understanding and that takes into account more than just grades, test scores, and preferences. Families need to hash out the college list together and make it work beyond base metrics. Students: you need to include your parents because they often provide support and insights that are highly beneficial. Considerations like early decision have financial implications; you need clarity on these and other considerations before applying ED. Parents: this does not mean you get to dictate the entire list. You (most likely) already went to college, so remember to use your influence with caution and try to not live vicariously through your student.

Take a water break (it’s a marathon, not a sprint). My husband runs marathons so I know there are people out there who can run very very far without stopping (cheers to you all!). But thankfully, this is just an analogy, and you can take water breaks along the way and still finish in record time (you know what I mean). Please take breaks along the way because this is a long journey! Taking a break does not mean stopping the process completely, it just means you are taking the time necessary to recharge and reset; this applies to both students and parents.