“Time, Deadlines … and the Need to Manage Priorities”

By Peter Van Buskirk

“There are never enough hours in a day…”

The start of the academic year is an apt reminder of this time-worn lament, especially for high school students as they seek to balance the challenges of the classroom with other aspects of their personal and social lives. Add into the mix a heavy dose of college planning activity or, for seniors, college application preparations, and the prospect of getting it all done can become overwhelming.

I recently found myself in conversation with a high school senior about the realities of becoming a college applicant. In particular, we identified tasks that needed to be accomplished and talked about the importance of carving out time for college visits, test prep and essay writing. Along the way, I observed that, done well, managing the college application process would have the effect of adding two honors courses to his schedule this fall.

“I’m worried about getting it all done,” he observed with understandable concern. “On top of a full academic schedule with honors courses, I’ve got soccer practice and games and my part-time job on the weekends.”

“In addition,’ he continued, ‘I need time to work out. I want to hang out with the guys and, of course, I want to spend time with my girlfriend. So, when am I going to be able to do all of this other stuff?”

Good question. Moreover, I can well imagine that, paralyzed by the seemingly impossible, his initial inclination will be to carry on with his current schedule until faced with the urgency of imminent deadlines. Then, somehow, things will rather magically fall into place as they always do.

The problem is that he needs to realize what is at stake here. As a college applicant with goals and objectives connected to his future educational experience, now is not the time to leave matters related to “getting there” to chance. Rather, he needs to step up into the competition for admission at the places that interest him—a competition that will include lots of students of similar ability who are determined to gain admission. Many have already fought through the proverbial “paralysis by analysis” to embrace the opportunities present in the application process. In doing so, they have made critical choices with regard to managing their priorities.

My young friend is also faced with having to make difficult choices this fall if he wants to come out on the winning end of the admission competition. Unfortunately, there is no magic involved—no fortuitous wave of a wand that will produce the desired outcomes. He needs to assert ownership in the process and, in order to find time to address the college “stuff” we had been discussing, he needs to manage his priorities effectively starting today.

I share this story because I suspect the angst he feels is common, to varying degrees, among most students as they enter the college application process. Knowing what needs to be done and getting it done in a timely fashion are two very different things. To the extent that you might find yourself in a similar position, I suggest you utilize the hierarchy of importance in managing your priorities.

The hierarchy of importance assumes that at almost every decision-making juncture, the options you might consider can be given different weight contextually according to their levels of importance. For example, an option might be considered essential if proceeding toward a specific goal without it is not feasible or possible. In my friend’s case, tending to his academic assignments is essential if he wants to present himself as a competitive college candidate. He knew that. He also felt that, within the context of remaining a competitive athlete—another factor critical to defining his chances as a college applicant—he at least needed to train and compete with his team. As essentials, these commitments would remain high priorities for him.

He was also coming to realize that visiting college campuses, prepping for standardized tests and beginning to work on college essays were essential to his chances of achieving his goals. Essential to his success as a college applicant, they needed to become priorities along with his academic work and soccer. The question was where to fit them into his schedule.

In the hierarchy of importance, somewhat lesser weight can be attributed to options that, while important, are not essential to goal achievement. In his case, working out would be important, but not essential. The same would be true of his part-time job. He liked the independence that came with being paid, but the amount wasn’t so much that it was essential to his general well-being. The hard truth is that, if push came to shove, these options could be put to the side to make room for the essentials.

And, while his determination to carve out times for his friends is understandable, it is likely that those friendships will endure the interruptions that are likely to occur in the coming months. In the hierarchy, staying active with them would be nice, but not essential. His buddies aren’t going to get him into college!

As you make your way into and through the college application process, then, I’d urge you to first examine your goals. Know what you want to accomplish. And then establish your priorities in a manner that is consistent with those goals. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by the “would be nice” options that confront you. Instead, focus on doing the essentials well.

Finally, step forward to take ownership in defining your future today. Commit yourself to doing the necessary in order to achieve your goals. And know this: every day that goes by without action on your part, is a day that can never be recovered. Make them all count!

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