The College Conversation: Struggling is big part of learning

My 5-year-old heads off to kindergarten this week, and even though she's been in preschool and pre-K for three years, I'm a mess.

This transition is the real deal, and I'm beside myself wondering if I'll have enough tissues the first day.

She, on the other hand, is ecstatic. The thought of new friends. New clothes. What her new teacher will be like.

And, more than that, she can't wait to get back to school and learn. The Montessori school that she attended for three years called the time when students were focusing on academics "work," so she's really excited for new "work."

I've seen how she gets lost in something she's working on — molding Play-Doh, flipping pages of books and pretending her stuffed animals are having deep conversations.

There are times when she certainly struggles. A book gets tossed across the room, a foot or both get stomped, a toy is thrown off her bed. As I help her work through her confusion and frustration, I try to be patient, knowing this is a normal aspect of her human development.

Giving up is not the answer. She's a sponge right now, asking tons of questions, and as I watch her excitement anticipating the days ahead, I can't help but contrast this to the feelings of the high school students who I spend my time with at "work."

As I speak to clients about their upcoming academic year, many already feel overwhelmed. I rarely hear students excited and curious about the new courses they're about to tackle. Instead, many fear that next year is going to be just plain "hard."

Is school really that tough or have students forgotten what learning is about in the first place?

Here's what I tell students:

What you are learning in school should not come to you easily. For the elite few, it just does, and lucky them. You know who I am referring to: your friends who never need to study and still get A's in the toughest courses, the ones who cram really hard for large projects and still pull off perfection.

Let's be real. How many of those teens do you really know? Not many. Across the board, most students need to study, use time management and work hard to earn good grades. Learning, for most of us, is a process and will prove over and over again to be challenging.

And, here is my take on that: It should be. Our brains need to be challenged to grow, so rise to the challenge. Don't allow a negative feeling about a teacher to sway your work ethic. Don't allow a seemingly impossible math assignment to bring you to tears. If, while reading a novel for English, it seems like you are reading Latin, keep turning the pages. Don't even consider that not doing homework is an option.

Get excited about at least one academic class you're in, and not because it's an easy "A," or the teacher is "cool." Try to get in to the curriculum, ask questions and explore your intellectual curiosity. Do you feel as if the teacher rushed through the lesson to cram it in for a test? Ask questions outside of class or go to the amazingly resourceful Internet to explore the topic further.

Arm yourself with the skills you will use forever. Learn when and how to get help. Identify your friends, classmates, teachers and tutors who will come to your aid when you're struggling.

Get help early and often. Teachers like to work one-to-one with students — start there first. Then seek free assistance from your school after-hours. Don't fall behind or dig yourself into a hole. We all know how exhausting, stressful, and time consuming it is to dig out of it. It's easier to get ahead, than, it is to catch up when you are behind.

Start strong this year and continue with that tenacious attitude every day. The benefits will be tremendous, not just visibly in your grades, but also in how your teachers respond to your responsible and diligent efforts.

Many of you, who are now upper-classmen, have AP homework due on the first day of school. Do yourself a favor and present a positive first impression by completing the assignments to the best of your ability. You don't want to fail your first homework assignment — you'll then start behind and work all semester to bring up that grade.

Take pride in your work and stretch your mind. That's what learning is all about! Keep in mind that you aren't supposed to know everything before you walk in to your new classes so expect that some of your classes will baffle you. Being confused is part of learning and it's OK to walk away from a project that's driving you insane. But, just like my kindergartener, the real test is whether you choose to go back and open that book again. Giving up easily should not be part of your repertoire — the more you choose to struggle, the more you'll inevitably learn and excel.

Finally students, you can handle this year. Take a break when you are feeling anxious or stressed. Learn to re-group, and identify what really inspires you. This will be your ultimate preparation for college so take advantage of this time to stretch your mind.

LISA McLAUGHLIN is the founder and executive director of EDvantage Consulting Inc., an independent college admission counseling firm in South Orange County. Her column runs on Saturdays. Please send college admissions questions to

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