By day I am an academic matchmaker, which is to say, college counselor. Tonight I helped give a presentation to my school's junior class and their parents. I tell them that one of the ways they can help themselves in the college search process is to focus on those elements of over which they have some control. This is a challenge. For many students, it's easier to think about the fact that there are more high school seniors this year than there were last year, or about that C they got in AP Biology last year. Making a commitment to boring stuff like starting early, visiting schools, and meeting deadlines is harder, somehow. If you can be one of the students who submits their material on time, works with a good proofreader, and writes thoughtfully and from experience about what they like in a particular college, you'll be WAAAY ahead of most people, I tell them. It should be easy, and for some students it is, but for many more... you can see it's just not going to work that way for them.
Then there are the parents, some of whom want instructions of a different kind. They want the recipe for admission to (insert impossibly selective nationally recognized school here). What they don't understand is that recipes for admission to these schools don't exist. The students who are achieving at that level are instinctive chefs, not cookbook readers. They'll poke around in the local market, bring home some fresh spinach without any particular plan, remember a citrus-based dressing they once had on a salad somewhere, poke around in the cupboard and the freezer, call a friend to ask about whether ginger thaws well, and come up with a amazing salad while still talking to their friend, in a conversation that by now has moved on to whether Obama will figure out a way to back out of his categorical resistance to mandates. No one can tell you the recipe to follow. What you need to follow is the thread of your life. (See William Stafford's The Way It Is.)
(Thanks to the good folks at Thing-A-Day
for their continuing inspiration.)