The Mind and College Applications

“All things are ready, if our minds be so.”

- Henry V (IV.iii)

I sat with one of my students on Saturday as he remarked that college applications feel like a great behemoth to be defeated. It’s Spring Term, and the year looms out before him, an abyss at the end that he must somehow traverse. This very kind, very thoughtful high school junior has spent a lifetime in a pressure cooker of an academic environment. He and many of his peers have been conditioned to see college applications as nearly insurmountable, but something they will be forced to confront if they want to have a future.

The distress in his voice was palpable and rang familiar from meetings like this with students from years passed. As he spoke, I thought of the above line from Shakespeare’s Henry V, which another student is reading for her English Lit class. The line follows King Henry’s famed St. Crispin’s Day speech in which he seeks to remind his meagre army of their capacity, hoping to instill strength and courage as they prepare to face the much greater French legions at the Battle of Agincourt.

Not a terribly uplifting analog for the admissions process.

And yet, many of us feel this way: that applications are a battle to be won, that our very lives depend on the outcome. Here, however, in his final remarks before confronting the French, Henry touches on the ultimate origin of preparation: the mind.

For many, our default orientation to major life transitions is stress, confusion, and anxiety, sometimes echoed by a tepid, “I guess this is a good idea.” We find ourselves inundated by pessimism and pressure from school, relatives, and media, all urging us toward one goal: acceptance. I’ll forego the meta implications of a society obsessed with acceptance, and instead offer a simple but productive way to approach the application process.

Consider applications not as a battle to be won, but as a labor that nourishes you. Writing about your life and the experiences that have shaped you can bring joy, clarification, and inspiration. Rather than shackle yourself with armor and brace for an onslaught, what would it be like if the next year enlivened and enriched your life?

Remember, your decision to pursue a formal higher education is in service to the future you intend to create for yourself. Many supplementary questions will ask you to reflect on your goals and ambition, but resist the urge to think of your future exclusively through a narrow band of factors like career or professional interests. More important than what you will do is who you will be. While that may sound esoteric, considering what kind of person you intend to be, and revisiting this intention regularly, is one of the foundations of a joyful and fulfilling life — now and throughout your adult life.

Henry delivers his speech on St. Crispin’s Day in response to his men’s near-crippling fear of death. Death is perhaps humanity’s greatest existential concern, one which Shakespeare addresses throughout his work. The English face terrible odds — five to one — and few believe they will live to see another day. Despite how it feels sometimes, college admissions is not so dire a thing as The Hundred Years War. With a healthy mindset it can be the opposite, leading you not into oblivion but a deeper appreciation for yourself, your values, and who you hope to be in the world, regardless of application results.

In war, there is no clean end. The Hundred Years War continues for another forty years after the Battle at Agincourt (though, spoiler alert: the English win), only to give way to another bloody conflict known as the War with Roses.

When your mind is poised for battle, one will inevitably lead to another.

The mindset of peace and confidence is a practice; it may not come naturally at first, but have faith in your determination. Decide that you would rather spend the next year becoming a more compassionate, more self-aware human than developing an ulcer. You might find that your time was well-spent, and that you’re better prepared to enter college — and life — with focus and clarity.