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College Admissions and the Adolescent Brain

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Los Angeles -- Admissions officers often talk about trying to get inside the heads of high-school students, but JoAnn Deak knows the terrain quite well. After all, she's been studying the human brain for decades.

On Monday morning, Ms. Deak, a psychologist who specializes in childhood development, spoke here at the annual conference of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools. She gave an illuminating lecture on the brain development of adolescents, those creatures who constantly delight and perplex the lucky people who get to shepherd them through the college-selection process. "The starting salary for your jobs should be $300,000," Ms. Deak said, to hearty applause.

Like it or not, Ms. Deak told her audience, parents, teachers, and high-school counselors are "neurosculptors" of teenagers. What adults say and do to adolescents will shape who they grow up to be. So, Ms. Deak said, they have a responsibility to help students manage their anxiety about college. "A big part of your job is to keep stress levels in bounds," she said. "Stress isn't bad, but pervasive stress literally starts killing neurons."

In other words, helping a teenager apply to college is not only an admissions issue -- it's also a developmental issue. As such, there's much room for teaching. Guilt and punishment typically won't help a teenager remember to turn in his application materials on time, Ms. Deak said, but helping him develop a plan for remembering to meet such deadlines just might.

Above all, Ms. Deak said, teenagers (even those with superduper SAT scores and a long list of intellectual achievements) are not the same as adults. It's a matter of development, not smarts. So, while an adult with a fully developed brain can juggle various responsibilities with two hands, Ms. Deak says, "adolescents, on a good day, can juggle with one hand and one finger."

Among teenagers, for instance, the prefrontal cortex still has much growing up to do. This is the region of the brain that governs "executive function," enabling us to exercise judgment, meet goals, and suppress socially unacceptable behavior.

What teenagers do possess is a raging amygdala. That's right, the amygdala is that almond-shaped bundle of nuclei that sits deep within the temporal lobe. It processess emotional reactions, like pleasure, anger, and fear. You know, the very states that so often accompany the application process.

So the next time that high-school junior starts wailing at the mere thought of not getting into Princeton, just remember that she might just be having what Ms. Deak calls an "amygdala moment." It might be irrational, yet also quite natural.

You heard it here first, folks. College admissions is all about the amygdala.

-- Eric Hoover
Senior Writer
The Chronicle of Higher Education