I met Max at a workshop I held at the library on writing college essays. Max stayed behind with his mom and introduced himself while she smiled in the background. Max was a junior at a huge public high school and was not turning in his homework, zoning out during class and basically finding most of what occurred in the classroom irrelevant. While he had perfect scores on the ACT, his grades were bad, based on missing so many assignments. Max’s mom struck me as gentle, patient and fed-up. She took me aside to explain that Max was on the spectrum, but also had a number of other health problems that affected him. He was suffering socially because of his Aspergers. She expressed concern about his being able to graduate but also about his attending college. I suggested we focus on the issues with his grades and then see what else needed remediation. Max’s mother was qualified in the therapy needed when he was younger but as a teenager he was starting to rebel.
A very contentious subject between Max and his mother was his backpack. Like most high school students Max refused to put anything in his locker but carried around an enormous backpack filled with books and folders. Although his mom had set up an organizing system with a different folder for each class, Max seldom looked into any of his folders, wrote due dates in his planner or turned in completed homework. His backpack contained massive amounts of out-of-date handouts and several unfinished lunches.
We set up a system, Future Work and Archive, in two folders. Dragging the trashcan over, the third category was called Recycle. It took several weeks for Max to trust me enough to throw out stuff without asking him. It’s crucial to respect and observe children’s boundaries, especially those of teenagers. Soon he allowed me to toss without checking although I made sure to show him anything that seemed worth preserving. Ideally he would do this himself, daily. I coached Max twice a week when we worked on his writing assignments, his college admission essays and executive skills like keeping an up-to-date planner.
Max wanted to attend college away from Illinois. His mother said she believed it would be a good thing for Max but she wasn’t sure he could handle life without the comforts of home. I found a book called Colleges That Change Lives and looked for a close college that was far enough away to give him a sense of freedom. Beloit College was small, 1,200 students, highly rated academically, and proactive with special needs students. When Max’s parents asked him what he wanted to take with him to college (assuming he’d ask for a new laptop) he said, “Molly.” During his sophomore year Max was ill and took a semester off. During that time we worked together using 7 Habits of Highly Successful Teens, watching Ted talks, and essentially preparing him to return to independence. Over the next few years we Skyped occasionally and talked on the phone, but I encouraged Max to use the University’s resources. He graduated on time with good grades. The counseling and coaching model worked well with Max who had anxiety and some specific academic skills that needed to be strengthened.
Abigail was a junior attending a selective high school in Chicago. A competitive swimmer, Abigail met me at the door saying, “All I do is swim and I don’t want to write about swimming.”
She had a rough draft of her college essay, which was interesting in terms of telling a story about social pressure but revealed very little about Abigail’s interests, hopes or ideas. Also, she seemed annoyed by the idea she needed a coach explaining that she was a very private person who worked best alone. I listened and agreed that working alone was ideal but sometimes collaboration was helpful.
“Is swimming very solitary?”
“You’re alone and then you’re part of a team. I like being independent but I also like to be with other people.”
“What else do you like to do?”
“Stars and planets? Tell me more.”
“I always loved the planetarium. My dad took me there often when I was little. I love the idea of the Universe having infinite possibilities.”
Enhancing the Narrative
We looked back at Abigail’s rough draft and I suggested she incorporate her swim practice into the narrative but not to have the focus be on the activity but rather how it made her feel. We met several more times and each draft of Abigail’s Common Application was more concise yet more revealing, focused on the future with details about the past that gave the reader a strong sense of who she was. She told me it was cathartic to write about losing her friend group but that she saw she needed to see that as a step towards independence and making new friends in college. By reframing the main idea the essay went from a tale of woe centered on ‘mean girls’ to the perspective of ‘infinite possibilities’.