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Mindfulness in the College Application Process


At the very onset of my work with parents and students, I like to introduce the concept of holding mindfulness throughout the college application process. Often, this idea is met with - at best - a bit of smirking, and at worst - downright doubtful antipathy.

"Mindfulness - how's that going to get me into my dream school?" students might say, while parents' responses vary from "our son's not applying to a monastery" to "how are we going to get anything done if we're just 'thinking' about it instead of doing it?" While many parents and students are hesitant at first to bring this process of mindfulness into the recipe of the college application process, after spending time with it, each and every one of them feels calmer, happier and overall more deeply satisfied. Mindfulness is not about 'just thinking', it is about being aware of how you are thinking.

So, what does 'being mindful' in the context of college applications mean? It is quite simple really, and does not involve an hour a day spent in meditation or saying "namaste" after every college interview.

Mindfulness in its most general terms means seeing how one's emotions affect one's thoughts and one's actions. If we can be mindful of how we are feeling, how these feelings affect our thinking, and how this thinking affects our actions, then freedom can be found. Freedom? Yes, freedom from habitual reaction and knee jerk response. 

A helpful aspect to complement this practice of mindfulness is to join it with what I term "Big Picture Thinking". I encourage my students (and their parents) to think of the long term goals, ideals and life values while applying for college. While Dad might want Bobby to head to his alma mater and join his former fraternity, and Bobby might want to attend college where he can take off and go surfing every afternoon, both of these short term, 'small picture' desires may or may not lead to Bobby's long term happiness and fulfillment. While daily surfing may bring daily joy, will it help Bobby in the long run with his goals? The answer could be 'yes' - perhaps Bobby needs his time on his surfboard to relax and recharge and connect, or it could be 'no'.

The important factor here is in recognizing what the underlying desires and emotions are, and then taking responsibility for them - "owning them" one might say - so that years down the road, Bobby does not wake up thinking "how did I get here?". Be that 'wake up' taking place in a penthouse off Central Park or a yurt in Costa Rica, if we consciously choose our path, we will always know "how we got here" and will feel empowered and confident when we look back at our choices.

An additional opportunity to bring "Big Picture Thinking" and mindfulness into practice is in connection with the false allure of the Big Name School: "(Insert Ivy League top school here) is the best there is and will lead to life success and financial security." While this statement may be truth, its opposite is not: "(Insert state or public university name here) is not a top school, so attendance there will lead to lifetime of failure and financial distress." In many cases, it may indeed be the better choice to attend the less well known school for a wide variety of reasons - from financial ease to course offerings to social setting and academic environment. Getting out of the thought process that "Harvard equals success and happiness while Generic State U leads to mediocracy" is a step towards Big Picture thinking and mindfulness in the application process. One's life happiness and success is much less about the college which you attend and much more about the person who you are before, during and after your college years. 

So, what are some initial steps that you as parent or you as high school junior or senior can take towards mindfully applying to colleges and taking responsibility for your path in life ahead?

Think about your life as a whole: what are your hopes, your dreams and your passions? You don't have to know 'what you want to be when you grow up', but what do you like to spend your time doing? What makes you feel good? I have never known a teenager who did not have strong likes or dislikes, so this should not be a hard list to fill! It may be best to create this list alone and sit with it for awhile before sharing it with anyone else.

What makes you happy? Is it being inspired and challenged by your peers to strive and grow yourself? Or do you prefer a softer, more independently self directed path in life? Do you need nature around you? Or do you come alive in the midst of a metropolis? These attractions and aversions are strong factors to consider when choosing a school.

Take time to center and re-center, checking in with yourself multiple times each day noting how you feel, and then, most importantly not judging this emotion. (Did that score on a test really bring you down? Note that, and note how you might be able to do better next time. Did your teacher praise you in front of the whole class? Note how that made out feel, and if a positive experience, 'store' that in your memory for later when you need a self-confidence pick me up!).

Envision yourself ten years from now; where are you? How do you feel? Where have you come from and what are you doing? Who is there with you? Ask these same questions while envisioning yourself at 40, 65, 80 years old and beyond. This big picture envisioning brings your whole life into consciousness and can be a powerful tool in present moment decision making. 

After all, this is your life, your story that you get to author. No one else gets to live it, some may want to, but that most likely stems out of an unhappiness and dissatisfaction with that person's own life in some way. While there are hoops to jump through and games that must be played in order to reach one's goals, these hoops and games can be jumped through and played in with mindful joy.

Choose wisely, seek mindfully. While this is easier said than done, happiness and deep contentment are sure to follow.