Aug 072014

In an article published in the Education Life section of the New York Times last year,  an external admissions reader for University of California at Berkeley wrote:

“…we had been told to read for the “authentic” voice over students whose writing bragged of volunteer trips to exotic places or anything that “smacks of privilege… fortunately, that authentic voice articulated itself abundantly.  Many essays lucidly expressed a sense of self and character…”

The personal statement for the Common App looms over the summer for rising high school seniors and carries over into first semester.  650 words to describe oneself in a meaningful way, a creative, well-written essay that can make the difference in distinguishing one worthy student from another — and perhaps the deciding factor in a student’s admission to a college of choice.

The New York Times article goes on to describe some of the essays as “canny attempts to catch some sympathy with a personal story of generalized misery… the torrent of woe could make a reader numb: not another student suffering from parents’ divorce, a learning difference, a rare disease…”

So how does the average 17 year old find an event or personal philosophy so unique that it will capture the attention of an admissions counselor reading through thousands of applications?

In my work with high school seniors preparing the Comm App essay, the question of what to write about provides the major stumbling point, although the actual writing and editing becomes equally challenging for many students.

Brainstorming for a topic is actually an important process for many students and can lead them to evaluating who they are, what they care about and importantly, what they want to accomplish during their four years of college.

Many students have been blessed by having relatively peaceful years growing up, unmarred by illness, economic problems, catastrophic events.  Does this mean that a student won’t have something relevant to write about in a personal statement?

My advice for a starting point includes these considerations:

  • What do you care about — in your personal life or the larger world around you?
  • Who has influenced you the most as you’ve grown up?
  • Has anything occurred in your life that shook your personal world?  An incident that made you question your thinking about what you believe in or value?
  • What do you feel is unique about yourself? What are you proud of? What has shaped your thinking?

The process of reflection usually generates some ideas and I work with students to shape and organize a written statement.  Only at this point does their writing begin, resulting in a thoughtful essay through several drafts, or even more than one essay so they have a choice.

It may seem like a difficult process — and it is — but it’s not without value.  As a high school student goes off in the world, considering these questions may be an unexpected benefit of this process:  What is it you want to do; what do you care about; who do you want to become? Defining one’s interests and goals at 17, on the brink of starting off in the world, should perhaps be in every student’s personal curriculum.



Aug 082013

Books, papers, electronics strewn across the desk, clothes on the floor, room like a danger zone…  Does it mean anything?

If your middle school or high school student lives in a state of disarray, frequently forgetting papers or textbooks in the school locker, or the finished assignment on the kitchen table, disorganization might be indicative of a problem that’s more than adolescent carelessness.

Executive functioning involves the management of oneself or one’s resources to achieve a goal.  It consists of behavioral skills that impact on mental control and self regulation.  To some degree the external organization of our possessions can reflect the internal management of our thinking.

When a student has difficulty keeping track of his or her belongings — books, papers, clothes, money, keys, cell phone, clothing — the cause may not be solely adolescent sloppiness.   For some students, just getting through the day may be a reflection of a larger problem of self monitoring and self regulation.

Is this always the case?  Not necessarily.  Some students, some adults for that matter, aren’t neat and organized.  But when a student has difficulty in planning tasks, allocating sufficient time for assignments, organizing his or her life to achieve required goals, the external disorganization might be a clue to what’s going on mentally.

Dealing effectively with deadlines, time requirements, and mental transitions requires a set of skills that must begin during childhood and mature with age.  The development of strong executive functioning carries over for success later in life.

Can a parent fix the problem?  Assisting with organization and planning skills can be valuable but parents often end up doing too much and the student may not develop the skills required for independent thinking.   Intervention with a professional skilled in cognitive training may be a more effective way to help your student develop a set of critical life skills.


Check back next week for more thoughts on executive function skills, speech and communications