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Rethinking Success

In her 2006 groundbreaking book Mindset, Carol Dweck, PhD, lays out her theory of “growth mindset,” a radical concept that talent and intelligence may be inborn to an extent, but can also be built. The book was updated and re-released in 2016, and her theory has recently gained popularity among family counselors, corporate trainers, and educational consultants.

Central to Dweck’s theory is her rejection of the idea that intelligence and talent are “fixed,” or static. She rejects assumptions we all make about our abilities, like whether we are good at math, playing an instrument, or performing athletically. She relies on examples like Michael Jordan, who was cut from his middle school basketball team, to show how countless hours of work combined with the conviction that skills can be built will result in extraordinary accomplishment. The cases she cites share a significant commonality: each highly accomplished individual had family members, coaches, and/or mentors who believed in and modeled a growth mindset.

What does this mean to parents and tutors?

Dweck explains that parents’ communication style is essential to changing how their children approach learning. For example, praising children’s abilities as opposed to their accomplishments or hard work creates abstract standards that are actually harmful. If parents repeatedly tell high-achieving children that they are smart, they will likely grow into teenagers and adults who reject challenges--held back and sometimes even paralyzed by fear of failure--and remain in arenas and at levels where they are confident they will not fall short. On the other hand, those children who are told that hard work builds abilities accept new challenges with enthusiasm and without the need to prove, time and time again, that they are gifted. Children who do not fear failure, but see it as a learning experience, actually end up more skilled, and with broader experiences.

In standardized test prep, tutors explain that almost every missed question in practice work is an opportunity for a right answer on the actual test. Think about it: students learn through their mistakes where to focus their time practicing, as well as how to recognize tempting incorrect answers. Sometimes this learning results in new mastery of material, and other times in additional test-taking skills, but the result is always positive. In contrast, students who criticize themselves for missing answers on a practice test and see no benefit to making mistakes establish negative self-talk that is counter-productive.

Parents can model “growth mindset” at home by avoiding comments like, “He’s just not a good test-taker,” or “My daughter isn’t good at math,” even when combined with statements like, “However, he’s great at school,” or “She’s really talented in the humanities.” Even statements like, “It’s okay, I was terrible at test-taking, too,” can negatively affect a student’s attitude. Instead, try, “We all need to learn and practice strategies to become good at tests/performance/public speaking,” or “English came more easily to me; I had to work hard to understand physics.”

Dweck explains that Mozart, who had an uncanny musical ability at an early age, worked his fingers to the point of crippling muscle cramps. Even child prodigies who do not apply their gifts can freeze up and fail at the very thing they were born with talent to do.

Dweck cites as another example Billy Beane, who despite being an extraordinarily gifted student athlete, had a short and disastrous career as a major league baseball player, paralyzed by fear of failing to live up to expectations. In the early 2000’s, Beane famously built the Oakland A’s into a world championship baseball team by hiring players who hadn’t been hyped as the best, and thus could be hired for less. His theory was that players who aren’t burdened by out-sized expectations will often outperform those who are. Beane was right, and now teams throughout the MLB use what is called “sabermetrics” to build winning teams.

The evidence Dweck cites is convincing, and when applied to our own lives, makes good sense. We have all known students who succeed in grade school with little to no effort, and are praised for being intellectually gifted, only to find middle school and high school daunting when classes become more demanding. These kids, who never had to learn how to learn, feel constant frustration or even give up from fear of failure. That is certainly not what we want for our children.

If we accept Dweck’s argument that those who have been told that abilities can be developed will continue to strive, and in the long run live more enriching lives in which they continue to learn for learning’s sake and for the fun of accepting a challenge, then certainly it is worth changing how we communicate.

Moving from a “fixed mindset to a “growth mindset” enables individuals to embrace new challenges for the growth they bring. The very definition of success changes from one of a grade or score to one of continual learning and expansion--also known in psychology as “flourishing.”

Remember that old maxim, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”? There is, indeed, much power in resilience and what today’s psychologists call “grit.” Now add the idea that it is in the very act of trying (learning, practicing, growing) that we receive fulfillment, and we have a new, enriched way of looking at both learning and success.

Tonight, praise your child for a job well done, for consistent effort, and for willingness to accept a new challenge with positivity, regardless of the immediate measured result. Model the same behavior in your own life. Talk to your child’s tutor about efforts to redefine ability and success--we are eager to participate in making a positive difference!



No time like the present to start brainstorming a potential personal essay topic! Make an appointment for help any time ... but, rising seniors, Class of 2019, definitely get the Common App essay finished before school starts in September.

Here are this year's prompts:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

"Through the Common App essay prompts, we want to give all applicants--regardless of background or access to counseling--the opportunity to share their voice with colleges. Every applicant has a unique story. The essay helps bring that story to life," says Meredith Lombardi, Associate Director, Outreach and Education, for The Common Application.



Who among us has not experienced some level of tension or anxiety before an important or high-stakes event, such as public speaking, an interview, or a performance on the athletic field?

One of the most anxiety-provoking events for teens is tests, especially college admissions tests. It’s estimated that 40% of adolescents suffer from a higher than productive case of nerves before and during tests and other stressful situations, and 20% of teens suffer from severe test anxiety. For some students, the adrenaline and other hormones released in the brain actually improve performance. For others, even a “normal” level can be detrimental.

If your teen has normal levels of nervousness before tests, encourage them to employ the same methods they have learned for athletic events or music performances to “pump themselves up.” These include physical activity (push-ups, a short jog, stretching), mental concentration techniques (visualization of a good performance or reflection on competence), and/or listening to a certain song that gives them confidence.

However, what if your teen suffers from more severe test anxiety? How can you identify it? What are the causes? And most importantly, how can you help your student reduce it?


The signs of test anxiety can be grades and/or standardized test scores that are lower than expected, considering the ability of the student and the effort the student puts in. Note that there are gender differences when both diagnosing and addressing test anxiety. Boys often (but not always) avoid acknowledging test anxiety, and therefore it sometimes manifests as what can look like laziness or lack of interest; girls often are more likely to overcompensate and are more willing to describe it. Even if your teen is denying having test anxiety, you could ask about whether friends talk about it. . By describing the symptoms, the teen might end up confronting his own experience.

Symptoms can be physical, emotional, and cognitive:

  • Emotional and cognitive symptoms

  • Fidgeting, bouncing leg, drumming fingers

  • Nausea, stomach pain, vomiting, or diarrhea

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Shortness of breath

  • Headache

  • Faintness, lightheadedness

  • Body temperature irregularities: sweaty palms, burning cheeks, or chills

  • Racing thoughts

  • Anger

  • Fear

  • Negative thoughts, catastrophizing

  • Self-doubt, indecisiveness

  • Hopelessness

  • Sadness, catastrophizing

In severe cases of test anxiety, these symptoms may be a precursor to or part of a panic attack.


There are both short-term and long-term relaxation techniques that help control emotional (somatic) and worry (cognitive) test anxiety. Once these procedures are learned, the relaxation response will take the place of an anxiety response.

Short-Term: The Tensing and Differential Relaxation Method

  • Put your feet flat on the floor.

  • With your hands, grab underneath the chair.

  • Push down with your feet and pull up on your chair at the same time for about five seconds.

  • Relax for five to ten seconds.

  • Repeat the procedure two or three times.

  • Relax all your muscles except the ones that are actually used to take the test.

Short-Term: The Palming Method

  • Close and cover your eyes using the center of the palms of your hands.

  • Prevent your hands from touching your eyes by resting the lower parts of your palms on your cheekbones and placing your fingers on your forehead.

  • Think of some real or imaginary relaxing scene. Mentally visualize this scene. Picture the scene as if you were actually there, looking through your own eyes.

  • Visualize this relaxing scene for one to two minutes

Short-Term: Deep Breathing Method

  • Sit straight up in your chair in a good posture position.

  • Slowly inhale through your nose.

  • As you inhale, first fill the lower section of your lungs and work your way up to the upper part of your lungs.

  • Hold your breath for a few seconds.

  • Exhale slowly through your mouth.

  • Wait a few seconds and repeat the cycle.

Long-Term: Cue-Controlled Relaxation Response
The cue-controlled relaxation response technique is the best long-term relaxation technique. Cue-controlled relaxation means you can induce your own relaxation based on repeating certain cue words to yourself. In essence, you are taught to relax and then silently repeat cue words, such as "I am relaxed." After enough practice, you can relax during tests.

Long-Term: Eliminating Negative Self-Talk
Negative self-talk (cognitive anxiety) is defined as the negative statements you tell yourself. , causing students to lose confidence and to give up on tests. Students need to change their negative self-talk to positive self-talk without making unrealistic statements. Using positive self-talk both before and during a test can build confidence and decrease your test anxiety.

"No matter what I do, I will not pass the course."  "I am no good at math, so why should I try?" “I’ll never finish this test on time.” “I’m never going to hit my goal on the SAT (ACT).” “I’m not smart like my friends.” “My parents are going to kill me.” “It’s happening again. I’m so stupid.”

EXAMPLES OF POSITIVE SELF-TALK:  "I failed the course last semester, but I can now use my study/math skills to pass this course."  "I know that with hard work, I will pass math." "I prepared for this test and will do the best I can."  "I feel good about myself and my abilities.” “I am not going to worry about that difficult problem.” “I'm going to use all my test time and check for human errors.”  “I’ve done problems like this before on homework/practice tests and I can do them again.” “Even if I don't get the score I want on this test, it is not the end of the world.” “Even if I never hit my SAT (ACT) goal, I have so many other things going for me. I’ll get into a great college.”

Some students have difficulty converting their negative self-talk into positive. These students need to use a thought-stopping technique to interrupt the worry response before it can cause high anxiety or negative emotions. 

To stop  negative thoughts in the classroom or during a test, silently shout "Stop" or "Stop thinking about that." During the interruption, students can repeat a positive self-talk statement or use a short-term relaxation technique. The student may need to repeat this  several times during a test to control negative self-talk. After every shout, a different relaxation technique/scene or positive self-talk statement should be used. 

Students with high anxiety should practice this technique three days to one week before taking a test. 

Long-term: Meditation
If you are cynical about meditation reducing stress, read up--it really works, and recent Harvard Medical School reports review the evidence. The longer a student practices, the better the results, but even last minute meditations before a test can be helpful. You can find several on YouTube, ranging from five to 15 minutes: just search test anxiety meditation.

Long-term: Reduced/Managed Screen Time
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) estimates that the average child spends seven hours a day looking at a screen, be it a cell phone, computer, TV, or other electronic device. Because adolescent brains are much more sensitive to electronics use than we may realize, children and teens can suffer dramatic negative effects from the six-to-seven hours a day the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates our kids spend looking at screens. Research has linked the resultant “sensory overload” to poor mood regulation, anxiety, sleeplessness, and symptoms that mimic those of serious mental health disorders. However, reducing screen time for adolescents is extremely difficult to do; one way is to set up a challenge among friends for just a couple of weeks prior to a high-stakes test or other event; read about additional strategies here.
In conclusion, if you think your teen may be dealing with test anxiety, take heart: there are many resources and methods that can help. We strongly recommend that you contact a professional, as well; at the very least, having a professional diagnosis may translate to extra time on standardized tests, reducing any time-limit stress the student may be feeling. Try to avoid labeling your student as a “bad test taker” or “not good in math.” And remember, all students--but particularly those who have trouble with test anxiety--should reduce/manage screen time and maintain good eating and sleep habits the week of the test.