The importance of planning ahead

By Adela Penagos, PhD, President

One of my favorite holidays in Boston is the 4th of July celebration.  The fireworks display in the banks of the Charles River offers Bostonians and visitors alike an opportunity to cherish the values of freedom and independence, while enjoying great food, good company, and a spectacular show: "The Boston Pops."  This year, as in the past, I had planned to attend the wonderful event.  However, due to the tropical storm Andrew, the celebration was moved to the 3rd.  Fortunately, my beloved city plans ahead and as a result, we were able to enjoy the dazzling display, which ended very shortly before a drenching rain began falling on many who were not as lucky as I was to escape just as dry as I had arrived.

The success of this celebration, even on the 3rd, points out to the accomplishments experienced by many of the students I have worked with throughout the years.  Those who plan ahead are more likely to reach their goals.  While, we cannot predict the future and I am not advocating aiming to control every aspect of our lives, planning forces us to think about our goals, organize ourselves to accomplish them, and ultimately planning reduces anxiety. 

One of my former advisees, whom I will refer to as Mary, was a very successful planner.  This did not mean that she always got what she wanted, but she was always prepared with plan A, B, and C when planning her course schedule and applying for grants, internships, study abroad, and other options available to her.  All of her plans were equally appealing to her and she accomplished her goals, even when facing some detours along the way.  Her 5 secrets for success were:

1.     Keeping a calendar: 

From our very first meeting, Mary came with her electronic calendar.  As she scheduled our future appointments and I took a peak into her laptop, I could see that she had color-coded all of her commitments.  Additionally, everyday, she allocated time for herself and friends.  Because she understood well how she was investing her time, she was able to add to her calendar the various deadlines of the opportunities she was applying for with ease.  She had a deadline to start working on applications, a deadline to request support documents, a follow up deadline to make sure everything had reached appropriate offices on time, a deadline to have me review her applications, a deadline for us to work on second drafts, and a deadline for herself to submit all applications before the actual deadline to avoid any computer glitches.

2.     Researching options: 

Mary researched well the opportunities available to her, as she did not want to miss out on any that were right for her.  As a result of her research, she was able to evaluate the match between the various opportunities and her own interests, incorporate her research when writing a cover letter, letter of intent, application essay, or personal statement.  Thereby, showing the readers that she understood their organization and could contribute to such organization or program.  This made her a stronger candidate.

3.     Listening to expert advice: 

Mary understood that her teachers, academic advisers, and some of her upper-class peers had more experience than she did in certain areas.  Thus, she made time to meet with these individuals and ask them for their expert opinion in any of the opportunities she was seeking.  From her point of view, because of the relationships and trust she had built with these people, they had gotten to know her, and were looking out for her best interest.  Hence, she never hesitated asking for help in her discernment process.  Nonetheless, at the end, even when taking many valuable opinions into consideration, she would listen to her inner voice.  According to Mary: 

“I sought silence to reflect in what I had learned from my trusted advisers and embraced or discarded the options that were a misfit from my own point of view.  I have continued with this exercise well beyond college, as it allows me to make decisions with much more clarity.  Only through self-reflection, I can be certain of taking the path I am called to.”

4.     Following-up: 

Mary did not only follow-up in all of her appointments and plans, but also followed-up in expressing gratitude to those who supported her through any process and took time to update them in her decisions and future plans.  Therefore, her relationships with these individuals have continued to flourish.

5.     Flexibility: 

If things did not work out as planned, Mary was very flexible and either embraced one of her back up plans, which ended up working very well for her, or trusted that life was on her side and began planning an alternative route.  This allowed her to always have a positive attitude and reduce her anxiety level.  Because she was aware that she had done everything possible to achieve her goal, she could acknowledge that the end result was out of her hands, and as long as she was healthy and alive, other opportunities would come along.

Most of us know that there are things in life we can plan for, such as applying to college and graduate school, saving to finance our education, seeking a job, and preparing for interviews.  At the same time, there are other aspects of life we are never ready for: loosing a loved one.  If we plan for the things that we are able to plan for, we will be able to face an outcome that works for us, even amidst a strong storm, as we did in Boston this 4th of July.