Six Learning Recommendations To Assist With The College Application Process

The traditional American schooling years are from 5-18.  During this time students usually progress through elementary then middle or junior high school, and finally to high school.  Most high schools encompass the grades of 9-12 (approximate ages 14-18).  High school serves as the end point in mandatory public education, and for many students they perceive the end of their required education as a sort of cliff of their known world, an end to a certain type and time of education with the next phase of college and career requiring a bridge over a sea of unknowns.  This bridge is college and career planning, and it is usually led by a high school guidance counseling department.  Guidance counselors help students explore, organize, and execute actions that will result in the students having concrete post-secondary options.  For the majority of students this means college.   The complex process of analyzing prospective colleges and completing their application materials, then selecting the best option is quite daunting for adolescents.   

 This paper will focus on the best learning practices for students in regards to the college application process in order to facilitate the highest quality experience and results.  Furthermore we will explore the cognitive underpinnings of the learning recommendations given and survey the psychological research that validates their usage. 


Imagine and visualize yourself exploring colleges, completing applications, and choosing your favorite school.

Cognitive psychology translation:

Use mental imagery in order to process perceptual-like information without the use of an external source for the perceptual information (Anderson, 2010).

Guidance counselors and students typically begin the college exploration and application process with students in their junior year of high school.  This is when the edge of the cliff or light at the end of the tunnel (depending on your perspective) takes root in the consciousness of students motivating them to begin college planning.  When a guidance counselor first begins to discuss colleges with a student it is useful to acknowledge the power of visual imagery occurring.  Students enter into the college process with stores of information acquired through various forms of input including but not limited to reading, multi-media, and student-parent conversations.  Guidance counselors will stir up this information many times by asking questions such as “Where do you want to study?”, “What do you want to study?”, or even more reflective “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”.  These questions force students to create and imagine their future using previously stored information.  Students report this information most likely takes the form of images in their mind.  Some call these visualizations “Affective images” because they are not clear or crisp images similar to a photograph, but rather emotionally laced fuzzy imagery that is created through speech (Olofsson, Nordin, Sequeira, & Polich, 2008).    Students can potentially create visual maps and plans from the descriptive experiences they have read, heard or seen about colleges, and a guidance counselor can lead the student through this experience without even leaving the school.  A counselor can present various descriptive scenarios such as two-year colleges, four-year colleges, or living in a dorm at college versus living at home.  These could be powerful, safe, and educational experiences for students.  Franklin and Tversky have used descriptive stories to replicate a physical environment (1990), and have found afterwards that research subjects are similarly fast at answering questions about the location whether they studied actual maps, or used route and survey descriptions (1992).

Some such as the philosopher Daniel Dennett have argued this is an epiphenomenon or mental experience that does not play any part in actual information processing (Anderson, 2010).  The reasoning given is that since these visualizations do not include important details (such as number of stripes on a tiger or steps in a house) they cannot serve the same purpose as normal visual perception and thus is not a perceptual experience.  Research though has proven that the areas of the brain activated during visual perception overlap with the areas that are in use during visual imagery (Behrmann, 2000).  A study by O’Craven and Kanwisher (2000) asked test subjects to view or imagine faces and scenes, and found that the same brain regions of parahippocampal place area (PPA) for places imagined or viewed, and fusiform face area (FFA) for faces imagined or viewed were activated.

Visualization scenarios can impact students for a long period of time since images activate our powerful visual system including the parietal cortex, occipital cortex, and temporal cortex (Anderson, 2010).  Since counselors essentially guide students through potential futures through a combination of descriptions and a student’s previous information about colleges, students are able to create new knowledge about colleges and explore how they personally envision themselves in the future.  These visual images are easier to remember than facts due to both the personalization of the imagery and the brain’s highly evolved visual capacities.  Especially due to the vast amount of images that students are bombarded with as to college, it is increasingly crucial to allow them the space to learn to generate their own mental images. Counselors can easily forget the effectiveness of our unique images generated from words.  Images can carry more imaginative and memorable force than can an abstract, complex, foreign, and stressful concept such as college applications, and the use of images should play a large role in the counselor’s toolkit.


Create a college application process narrative with the student as the focus of the story.

Cognitive psychology translation:

Using schemas and scripts creates a knowledge structure for superset, parts, other attribute-value pairs, and prototypical events (Anderson, 2010).

The next concept that I recommend using for better learning about colleges and the application process is that of narrative.  As previously mentioned a guidance counselor begins many conversations with students with a question.  In this case the main question is “What is your college story or what would you like it to be?”  This recommendation encompasses an even larger perspective than mental visualizations do.  Mental imagery in fact is a tool used to better remember, clarify, and experience potential student storylines.  Many educational theorists, philosophers, and psychologists consider narrative to be the core structure for creating and finding human meaning (Bruner, 1990).

Students take specific experiences from their lives and incorporate them into their larger life narrative.  Essentially a counselor can help prompt a student by asking them to pretend their life is a movie, they are the main character, what script would they like to read or see? A student most likely will have one or various college application process scripts stored in their memory already.  These could be from an older sibling, a movie, book or any other various sources.  What a counselor must now encourage is for a student to place themselves within one of these previously internalized scripts (filling out forms, writing essays, getting recommendations), present new and tested scripts, eventually resulting in a student creating a new evolving and personalized script that will align with the most successful previous scripts.

This concept of events in life following psychological scripts or event schemas is derived from Marvin Minsky’s frame theory (Bower, Black, & Turner 1979).  Schank and Abelson elaborated on Minsky’s theory by positing that many situations (ordering at a diner, fueling a car, mailing a letter) can be organized through stereotypic sequences of actions.  These scripts are then made into a personal narrative by adding idiosyncratic variations (Anderson, 2010).  A study done by Bower, Black, & Turner helped add validity to this model by asking participants to name the 20 most important actions involved in going to a restaurant (1979).  They discovered that while variation existed regarding exact details, major events where collectively reported by 73% of the research participants (such as- sit down, look at menu, order meal, eat food, pay bill, and leave).

It is therefore theoretically possible to have a college applications script that is then individualized per student.  This idea has been proposed as early as 1932 by Bartlett and has more recently been referred to as the schema-plus-tag model (Reiser, Black, & Abelson, 1985).  Furthermore it is important to ensure that once a student has created a desirable script they must now ensure that they will be able easily access it so that they may apply it.  Reiser, Black, & Abelson, has researched and evolved this model further and have discovered that the association of context through the portal of activities is the key to remembering general actions (1985).  This means that a student can best recall the “how to fill out a college application script”, by first remembering that they “met with their counselor”.   Essentially a student-remembering meeting with their counselor should lead to a cascade of general college application actions that can be further categorized by other activities for example “filling out application in the counselor’s office”.  Finally it is also important to understand that positive or negative emotion can help to facilitate organization and improve potential recall (Reiser, Black, & Abelson 1985).


Do not allow students to be distracted when engaged in the college application process.

Cognitive psychology translation:

Reduce serial bottlenecks and focus attention to elements of the environment relevant to learning in order to reduce cognitive interference (Anderson, 2010).

Students are constantly bombarded by a plethora of distractions (cell phone, television, and computer) that makes it hard for them to focus on and complete their college applications.  Many times serial bottlenecks will exist.  This means that a student will have difficulty in processing information on a parallel basis (Anderson, 2010).   A likely scenario is that a student will be involved in the process of completing their college applications, and their cell phone will ring diverting their attention.  According to Corbetta and Shulman this is because two different systems are at work.  Completing the college applications is a “goal-directed attention” compared with the cell phone ringing which is “stimulus-driven attention”.  These different systems reside in different regions of the brain.  According to neural imaging “goal-directed attention is located predominantly on the left side of the brain, and the “stimulus-driven system is located mostly on the right regions (Anderson, 2010).

A cell phone ringing creates a stimulus that diverts attention for a student completing their college applications can be explained by the early-selection theory named filter theory created by Broadbent (Anderson, 2010).  Broadbent claimed that sensory information reaches a bottleneck then attention is given based on physical traits of the sound such as pitch.  In 1999 Zatorre, Mondor, and Evans used a PET study to prove that there is an increased activation in the auditory cortex when one attends to a message based on pitch, and in the parietal areas that choose what to pay attention to (Anderson, 2010).

In addition to auditory stimulus students also have difficulty in maintaining attention on college applications when they are presented with visual stimulus.   If a student is completing their applications with their cell phone in the field of vision, any lighting up of the screen will divert attention towards the stimulus.  In 1980 Treisman and Gelade performed a study using letter searches that supports the idea that the more unique the object the easier it is to locate, and the more it stands out (Anderson, 2010).  In the field of vision next to their college applications a lit up cell phone would definitely classify as a unique object (less so if the applications are done on a computer compared with paper).  Posner (1988) has argued once a unique object has entered the visual field that one must attend to and identify an interesting nonfoveal region in order to lock-in on the area with the fovea and give it more attention to better process it (Anderson, 2010).  Kastner, DeWeerd, Desimone, and Ungerleider (1998) performed fMRI experiments that further validate the notion that new stimuli in a region of the visual field will result in an increase fMRI response in that region and a decreased fMRI response in the previously attended to region.

Sustained visual and auditory attention and a reduction of stimulus interference is therefore a necessity if one is to properly complete their college applications.  The power of sustained attention is supported through the research of Simons and Chabris (1999) and their experiment that asked students to focus their attention on either the white or black team tossing a basketball around, and then a gorilla would walk through the teams.  When focused on the white team participants only noticed the gorilla 8 percent of the time (Anderson, 2010).


Limit the amount of information given at one time to students about the college application process so that they can understand more of it.

Cognitive psychology translation:

Minimize cognitive load in order to use the limited resources of working memory most effectively to best transfer into long-term memory (Anderson 2010).

Students know that when an overly complex and detail laden task such as the college application process is presented to them they can respond by freezing up or stressing out.  This is partly due to the cognitive overload that the students are experiencing when trying to fully grasp all the new information they are being presented.  This is especially the case if all the information is relayed to them in one sitting.  As guidance counselors it is important to present the college application process material in a manner that is inviting, easily digestible, and accessible.  For this reason it is important to relay information in a spaced out and simplified manner so as to not discourage the student from engaging with the process.  Sweller (1994) claims that when a student is in the beginning of the learning process they are not very proficient in the application or use of the new information.  He further states that any use of the new information also requires an immense amount of cognitive output.  Counselors many times feel they need to “get it all in” when they are meeting with a student, expect students to “get it” on the first try, and are disappointed when students have difficulty following their orders.  Sweller (1994) explains that the integration of new schemas (such as the college application process) into our preexisting schemas falls under the category of “controlled” processing because it requires deliberate thought.  This is in direct contrast with the perspective of the counselor who has well learned the information, and is therefore engaging in automatic processing.  The move from controlled to automatic processing is gradual and incremental, and the demands on cognition lessen as one moves along the learning continuum (Sweller, 1994).  This is evident when students are les stressed and in control of the process after they have already completed a couple of applications.

The multimedia experiments of Mayer, Heiser, and Lonn (2001) also give clues to the cognitive constraints that are at work when students integrating new information, and can further guide counselors to be cautious in the quantity of stimulus they are presenting to students.  This study did not focus on long-term application of the presented information, but instead was interested on the short term problem solving transfer of the information leading to student understanding.  Their work reinforces previous work by Moreno and Mayer (2000, p124) that emphasized only using “complementary stimuli that are relevant to the content of the lesson.”   The study discovered that the redundancy effect and coherence effect can have a detrimental impact on student understanding.   Counselors should be conscious of the redundancy in their presentation of information to students.  This can occur when a student is forced to both read through a college checklist at a fast rate on a screen or on paper and also listen to the counselor speaking the information out loud.  Counselors should also be careful not to add too much interesting but irrelevant information in an appeal to the emotions of a student.  This can take the form of conversational digressions relating personal anecdotal stories in an effort to create connection and arousal in the student. Mayer, Heiser, and Lonn (2001) warn that in accordance with seductive details theory students actually try harder to understand information when it’s true conceptual structure is presented or else they may fall into the trap of assimilating new material into a previously held and incorrect schema.


Encourage students to reflect on their understanding of the college application process to increase learning effectiveness.

Cognitive psychology translation:

Manage and monitor the metacognitive learning processes to increase learning efficacy (Anderson 2010).

A student’s metacognitive judgment of whether they understand or have learned something will affect their studying behaviors and we should therefore help them to increase the accuracy of their judgment to increase learning.  Dunlosky and Lipko (2007) state that while a student’s judgment of learning may show biases at times, under the right conditions it could be extremely accurate.  Dunslosky and Nelson (1992) have discovered that using “cue-only” delayed judgments of learning produce the most accurate measure of a student’s future learning performance. Kornell and Metcalfe (2006) created an honor/dishonor paradigm that allowed the test subjects to make judgments of learning, and then make their study choices on their own.  They found when they honored the study choices of the test subjects it resulted in superior learning.  So therefore encouraging students to use the “cue-only” method and furthermore honoring their judgments on what they still need to study afterwards produces the highest efficacy.  It is important to help students translate their metaknowledge into effective study choices and strategies because as Schneider and Lockl (2002) suggest children are not as effective as adults.  This could imply that there is a continuum of rising effectiveness in translating metaknowledge into effective study methods with adolescents in the higher range but nonetheless benefiting from scaffolding and guidance.

Using the evidence above a guidance counselor can aid students by encouraging them to reflect on aspects of the college application process that they feel they do not know well, for the most part honor their judgments, and then help them create the best strategies for learning the remaining information.  Validating the reflection process other wise known as helping students develop their metacognitive abilities will result in them having a more precise awareness of what they do and do not know.  Thiede, Anderson, and Therriault  (2003) have shown through their experiment with text comprehension that increasing metacomprehension accuracy affects people’s study choices in that they will restudy areas they do know as opposed to randomly choosing what to study.  Finally using evaluation methods based on the “cue only” technique, which is a natural part of the open question and answer counseling process, can help to rate the accuracy of a student’s metacognitive judgment.


Use testing to better learn the college application process.

Cognitive psychology translation:

Practice retrieving new information in working memory so that it is integrated into existing schemas in long-term memory (Anderson 2010).

A problem that a guidance counselor has is assessing the understanding and knowledge that a student has of the college application process.  Students may not have accurate metacognitve judgments of their knowledge, but unless they are made aware of their deficits they will not be able to fill them in, and then remember what they have learned over the long-term. Testing can be a powerful means to gauge student learning.  Moreover research shows that tests can be used as a powerful tool in and of the learning process itself, not just as an evaluation device.  According to Roediger and Butler (2011) taking a test can actually impact what you know, and works better for retention than reviewing information over again.  Students have been encouraged by teachers (Rawson, and Kintsch, 2005) to use repeat studying strategies because it provides short-term results, but for long-term gains introducing “desirable difficulties” such as testing works better (Bjork, 1994).  In an experiment done by Roediger, and Karpicke (2006) they note that students who used repeated study as a means of preparation for an exam believed that they were best prepared in comparison to their peers who used testing as their primary means of studying, but actually performed the worst.

Further evidence of the effectiveness of testing as a learning tool can be found in a study by Lyle and Crawford (2011).  The test was set up so one section of college class included an exam of four short answer questions that were to be completed at the end of class, at the same time another section of the same class was being taught by the same professor who did not use end of class exams.  The students who were in the group using end of class tests scored much higher on the final tests compared with students in the other group.

Another study done by McDaniel and Agarwal (2011) focusing on the effectiveness of quizzes, found that frequent short testing such as quizzes raised student achievement on larger delayed comprehensive exams from 79% correct to above 90% correct. This test effect lasted through to the conclusion of the class and final exams.

From the above evidence it seems clear that a guidance counselor would better serve students in learning about the college application process through the use of test and quizzes.  In general counselors currently do not use testing as a go to tool in the explanation of the application process, but since long term retention of the information we discuss with students is the goal, they should rely more on information retrieval practice.  The perception of exams as a tool used only by teachers and not by counselors can potentially be challenged because of the effectiveness provided by retrieval practice.  Moving forward counselors can try to find ways to fluidly integrate testing, potentially in more oral or interactive methods that align with their current professional practices, but more research would need to be done to understand the effectiveness of less traditional testing or retrieval practice.


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