The College Applicant's Best Asset: Self-Motivation

I nearly walked out of the theater when Matt Damon's character in Good Will Hunting--a fiery, restless youth--got to the line about the apples. No matter how much that Harvard guy deserved to be knocked off his block, I'm just not one for trite non-sequiturs. That doesn't mean, though, that you can't learn a few good lessons from Will's experience.

Monterrey, Mexico, looks nothing like Damon and Affleck's Boston. It's a dry, dusty city known, for better or worse, as the "most American of Mexican cities." It's crisscrossed with freeways and sprawls out into nowhere. Monterrey has an excellent university, ITSEM. Even so, Monterrey's students often turn northward for their education.

In Monterrey I visited a meeting of the Competitive College Club at Education USA, a global nonprofit with State Department affiliations that promotes education in the U.S. CCC serves as a support group and de facto college counseling session for local students who don't have U.S.-oriented counselors at their high schools. CCC is free and voluntary, and no one gets a grade. Yet, every week, the students show up.

I've made countless presentations to groups of students about SAT's and college applications, and --despite my efforts to dispense reasonable, engaging advice about a crucial turning point in their lives--I've sometimes been met with what seems like unalloyed apathy. Sometimes, a single student will ask all the questions while the others remain mute, even when much of the room is planning on traveling thousands of miles and investing hundreds of thousands of dollars for college. Even accounting for my own lack of dynamism or the tedium of the subject matter, these silences trouble me.

The students in Monterrey were different. They were outgoing. They were friendly. They were funny. They answered my questions eagerly and they asked questions of me. They knew why they were applying to college and why the United States was right place for them. One student was determined to study architecture. Another, marine biology. (An distinctive choice for someone who's grown up in a desert!)

To these students' credit, no one forced them to seek help from Education USA. And certainly no one forced them to sign up for the nerdiest series of meetings ever. Most impressively, they showed up for this meeting in mid-January--a full two weeks after the application deadlines of most colleges had passed.

I've met plenty of great kids this year, but group was my favorite. I had a feeling that admissions readers would feel the same way.

Most applicants assume that colleges focus on grades, activities, essays, and standardized test scores. That's true, as far as it goes. But selective colleges look for something more. They look for students who are self-motivated. Professors don't want to waste energy exhorting students to do their work. Colleges don't want to be seen only as career preparation or, worse, as four years of daycare for adolescents.

There is no shortage of college advice out there. Students can receive advice about essays and school choice and application strategies and extracurriculars and everything else until they're choking on it. Much of that advice is worthwhile. But none of it - none - matters as much as self-motivation does. (In my experience, the applications, and especially the combination of application essays, recommendation letters, and activity lists, do a pretty good job of revealing who's excited and who's applying under duress. Being anxious or resentful of the process doesn't help ether.)

Developing self-motivation is a long-term prospect. But it's not impossible, and it's plenty worthwhile. Learning to write or to do algebra is a long-term prospect too.

We teachers should tell students to be on the lookout for academic fields that they love. We should encourage them to discuss their interests and share their feelings. Kids should be encouraged to develop their own ideas and act on them. If all goes well, they turn into the type of students who bound enthusiastically from class to class, and not those who skip out in favor of another bong rip or round of World of Warcraft.

On that particular day in January, those students came to their meeting to watch Good Will Hunting, of all things. The adviser showed it not as an example of snappy dialog but rather as an illustration of American college life. It is, after all, a very different life from the ones that to which those students were accustomed.

As you may recall, Matt Damon plays brilliant student who struggles with--what else?--motivation. Not everyone has a gift for higher math and a kindly therapist to help them figure out their lives. But apathy has many cures, the easiest of which is the decision to get out of bed in the morning and decide to love the book, paper, or problem set that's sitting in front of you and get excited about how much more there is to learn.

By now, those students in Monterrey have received their acceptances and are probably well into their fall semesters. No matter what kind of environment they come from or what kind of culture shock they encounter, I have no doubt that all of them are going to do fantastically well. They're going to do well not because they're "smart" or because they joined a million clubs but because they're genuinely excited about the next four years and dedicated to achieving all the goals that they told me about. And so can every other student who puts his or her mind to it.

How do you like those manzanas?

A version of this piece originally appeared on ArborBridge's blog.