How to Become a Smarter Thinker for Your College Essays

The Education Life section of the Sunday, August 6, 2017, New York Times carries a sobering story about Why Kids Can’t Write – and it seems that there are different views about how to resolve that problem – but also a more encouraging story called, Learning to Learn: You, Too, Can Rewire Your Brain. The article is about the theories of Dr. Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., who runs an online class about “Learning How to Learn.” It is an insightful article, worth reading, but what really got my attention was the sidebar.
The sidebar lists “Four Techniques to Make You Smarter,” and right up there, number one is FOCUS/DON’T, because it emphasizes something that for a long time, I have been saying to students working on their personal essays. According to Dr. Oakley, the two modes of thinking are focused, when someone concentrates on material, and diffuse, a resting state in which new information can settle into the brain.
I certainly am not a neuroscientist nor an engineer, but I have often said to students that they should just give ideas time and allow them to “percolate” in their brains. Now, I am not a coffee drinker, so I don’t know why I’ve used that particular term, but in essence, I am talking about Dr. Oakley’s diffuse thinking. Certainly, I have seen in my own life that ideas often come at times when I least expect them — when what I have learned is lurking in the recesses of my brain — and not necessarily when I am writing or revising or editing. Nowadays, with cell phones and computers so ubiquitous, it’s easy for a student to simply write down a thought whenever it comes. I do that often.
There also are times when the focused notion comes into play. One, of course, is when drafting and revising personal essays. But another comes when answering the well-known, “Why Do You Want to Go to This School” essay. As I tell my students, “mine the websites” of the schools they are writing about. Read a college’s mission statement, the President’s background, the statement by the dean or head of a department, and anything else they can find that tells them about a school’s educational philosophy. And then pay careful attention to the curricula, to majors, to special programs, to opportunities. Yes, a student has to be careful that the essay doesn’t look like he or she is simply parroting back information from the website. But it also shows that the student has spent time really getting to know the college or university, which reveals the student’s understanding of the school and whether the student is a good fit.
So thank you, Dr. Oakley. Thank you for your wisdom and for confirming what I have been telling students all these years.
If you’d like to read the entire article and get to know the other three techniques to make you smarter, please go to