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How to avoid diminishing returns across your college application

In Application and Senior.

I believe that there are two prominent types of college applicants.

  • The first is the perfectionist over-achiever. They have too many schools on their list, only apply within the t50, and go way too hard on test prep.
  • The other is the procrastinator. They may also have high hopes but they can't get it together to start the essay, do school research, study for the SAT, etcetera.

If you are one of these, there are two concepts you need to take to heart. They are the concept of diminishing returns and the 80/20 principle.

The end of this post is a bit more of a hard roast than what I've written before. Enjoi. 😈

Diminishing (and negative) returns are ruining your life.

Most people are probably somewhat familiar with the concept of diminishing returns—the point where the benefits you receive from an investment into something (time or money) begin to slow down.

But did you know that there are actually three different phases of returns?

  • Productive returns: Each unit of time invested returns strong outcomes.
  • Diminishing returns: Units invested return smaller and smaller benefits.
  • Negative returns: You stop seeing returns, and the time you invest actually causes harm.

(You probably already see where I'm going with this.)

Every aspect of the college application process—testing, ECs, essays, applications—can be charted on a graph divided into these zones of return. Look:


  • Productive phase: Damn, who knew that you were supposed to underline key phrases! Or plug real numbers into equations! In this phase you learn test taking principles and address your areas of greatest weakness, and your score increases dramatically.
  • Diminishing returns: You keep rounding out the edges. You try to commit hundreds of new vocab words to memory or lock down a final few advanced algebra concepts. Score improvements occur, but they're marginal.
  • Negative returns: You bust your ass studying, take a practice test, and your score actually goes down. You go into overdrive mode to compensate. You start to lose sleep. Another test, another lukewarm result. Panic mode. In your effort to close a 30 point score gap, you start to sacrifice other life areas—social life, gone; essay brainstorming, gone. You're exhausted and salty.


  • Productive phase: You follow my advice and launch a really cool EC that matters to you. You launch a site, write the copy, and start organizing. You get out in the community and do a few cool projects. Or you publish the book. Or you make your first sale.
  • Diminishing returns: You spend ten hours tinkering with the aesthetic of the website. You hop on IG, follow a thousand new accounts, and get 50 followers back in return! You go door-to-door to build awareness of your EC and you recruit a couple volunteers. Yay!
  • Negative returns: Feeling pressured to do more, you dilute your EC's core focus and start increasing the scope of your project. You've taken too much on now and you can't make good on your promises to the people around you. You're spending more time than ever working on the project but it doesn't feel rewarding any more. And it's draining your life-force. And what am I even working on anymore, anyway?


  • Productive phase: You spend five hours brainstorming and laying out a plan for all your essays. You write a great first draft of your Common App and UC essays. Then, a few nights later, after a trusted reader gives you some feedback, you take a second pass and tighten up the essays. You do school-specific research and have a solid sense of how to write your supplementals.
  • Diminishing returns: You start going over your essays with a fine-tooth comb. You find a lot of little grammar and spelling issues, and you tighten up your language. But you don't make fundamental breakthroughs in the quality of your work.
  • Negative returns: You ask five other people to comment on your essays... and they all say different shit. One reader suggests starting from scratch, another thinks your essays are amazing as they are (or are they just being lazy editors??). You second-guess the story you told and decide you need to rewrite your essay or take another approach entirely.


  • Productive phase: You figure out how to set up a common app account and create a good list of 14 schools. You have safeties, targets, and reaches in there. You've planned out your apps so you don't have to write a million unique essays. This should be fairly smooth.
  • Diminishing returns: You decide you're gonna go for it. You add on two more reaches, another target, and another safety. You're now applying to 18 schools. There are some new weird supplements you'll have to write, but whatever. You hustle and get them all done.
  • Negative returns: YOLO, you go all in and apply to all the big dogs—Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, and UChicago. 22 schools baby. But it's not just 22 schools—it's now like 10 unique, whacky essays that you have to write in addition to the 15+ supplements, UC essays, and common app essay that you had already signed up for. You technically have enough time to finish everything, but there will be trade-offs. You invest a TON of time in your Stanford supplements, to the detriment of your UC prompts and school-specific supps. You are submitting apps at. the. buzzer. and your confidence (even in your safeties) is a bit shook.

Apply the 80/20 principle to escape diminishing (and negative) returns

You can avoid most of this by applying the 80/20 principle.

Ever heard of it? It says that 80 percent of value comes from 20 percent of efforts. I find this to be pretty true in a lot of life. It also maps onto the buckets I've laid out.

The 80% of value is what you might accomplish in the "productive phase."

But that 20% still matters, and that's what you'll color in during the phase of diminishing returns.

If you're invested in your applications, you will probably spend significantly more time on the fine details than you did on the broad strokes.

But after you color in that last 20%... you reach a point where you are only making things worse by continuing to tamper, study, ask for feedback, build, or apply.

It's this negative return-phase that you need to watch out for, because this is where you can sabotage the entire process for yourself.

Roast #1: Overachievers and perfectionists

If you go into negative returns in one or two of these categories, you are setting yourself up for failure.

Industriousness and hard work can be rewarding in the short-term. Many of your developing cerebral cortexes have probably already hopelessly fused work and validation together into a nasty knot that you will spend the rest of your life attempting to untie.

For many of you, sinking infinity time into perfecting the "easy" parts of your application will be a way to avoid facing the parts of the application that feel hard.

I would be a perfectionist with the sentence-level wording and essays. I would avoid studying for a math-heavy test like the plague. For others it will be the polar opposite.

If you aren't self-aware enough to identify and correct this behavior, you are setting yourself up for one of two black holes:

  1. A productivity black hole where time you NEED to spend on, say, your essays is devoured by your SAT prep. Or, worse...
  2. A mental health black hole where the stress of achieving perfection in one area depletes your ability to hit the 80% value threshold in the other areas.

Don't be the person who overcommits and loses your mind chasing a downward spiral of perfectionism.

The college admissions process is grueling, long, and hard. Your time and your mental health are your two most precious resources. You must try to preserve them at all costs.

You can conserve them by being self-aware and mindful about when you are approaching the negative-return zone... and then shifting your focus to another bucket of your application.

Learning to recognize when you are no longer making forward progress is KEY to getting out unscathed. It's also an important life skill.

Roast #2: Slackers

A lot of you face a different problem. You aren't spending too much time on your applications, but radically too little.

I'm going to put it in terms that are extremely blunt if not callous. Your problem is that you are too tired, too lazy, or too addicted to your phones to even start working—that is, to access the 80% of the benefits that come from 20% of the work.

You look at the work ahead of you and think, "Shoot, that's a lot, I'll never finish all that." So you defer starting. And defer, and defer, and defer.

There is a non-negligible population of this sub who will defer their work until they no longer have time to capture the 80% of benefits that come from 20% of work.

Instead, they'll only have time to put in 15% of the work. And maybe they'll realize 55% of the benefits. But not 80%. Remember, these things aren't linear.

These people will never...

  • Research basic test prep strategies
  • Do basic research to create a balanced school list.
  • Spend 47 honest minutes honestly brainstorming their essays

And so, when it's time to apply, they'll do so with bad essays, bad scores, and a bad college list.

Don't be this person either. In the application process or in life. If you have the resources and wherewithal to start.... then do.

About Alex McNeil

Alex is the CEO of McNeil Admissions and the moderator of r/ApplyingToCollege. But most of all, he believes in helping every student access college resources.

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