College Admissions Article: Why Developing Good Relationships with Classroom Teachers is Important: Recommendation Letters: The X Factor of College Admissions:
By Justin M. Buffer, Founder, Owner, and Ed. Director of the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey
It is not uncommon to hear teachers mentioning in the staff room about how their students find it difficult to connect with them. This is understandable because adolescents are going through a life-changing and challenging period of their lives when they begin high school. At 14, a teenage child has to do battle with the transformation of hormones, absorbing new learning content education, and taking tough exams. And that’s just for starters and does not mention the SAT/ACT!
All the while, they often make a natural enemy with anyone in authority. Even students from cultural and religious backgrounds who are taught or urged to be deferential to authority still often set up an adversarial relationship with educators. Also, the rebellious years are here at this time, and the teacher is one of the leading candidates to be filed under the authoritarian figurehead deep within that adolescent mind. It makes the entire process of forming good relations with teachers a challenging one at best.
However, the need for good relationships is often vital for the competitive college application and admissions process. When students reach the point of this process, they will usually require a recommendation letter from at least two teachers. College admissions officers have stated to me in conversation that they place a high value on these letters or recommendation forms primarily because they are confidential. They know the students don’t have access to them (they are usually uploaded to Naviance or sent confidentially), and they like the fact they are nuanced and not “all or nothing” assessments of students. What I mean by this is the forms may ask, for example, a teacher to rank a student from 1-6 on “Work Ethic,” and also to give further details. So, a teacher can give a student a “5,” but also say that at times the student faltered with consistency in this area. Thus, the “gray” nature of these forms, which I have filled out as a public school educator in the past, gives them a sense of comfort.
The guts of this letter can ultimately help or hinder to pave the way for a student to move forward into an undergraduate, graduate, or accelerated education program. Even for students who will go straight into an apprenticeship and not a university, a letter of recommendation needs to be positive and shine a good light about those three crucial years of the students’ high school development.
Scholarship programs in the United States almost also always demand a good recommendation letter to support an application. A student needs to ask a burning question to themselves, in any year they are in high school: will a recommendation letter – if submitted today – be a favorable one? If not, the student needs to urgently act and form a good relationship with more teachers by showing emotive strength, good character, a strong work ethic, and an advanced learning-acquisition ability.
This does not mean, by the way, that students should buy their teachers gifts or provide false flattery! We teachers can see through this! But they should try and build a good rapport with their teachers and demonstrate humility and a palpable, strong work ethic.
Recommendation letters will highlight how well the teacher knows the full scope of a student. It will also note the duration. Three years is a reasonable period of time to get to know a pupil, particularly as it encompasses the profoundly transformative period that high school is. But even if a teacher only knows a student one year but knows them well, that is OK also! And a guiding principle should be that the more recent the teacher had a close relationship with a student, the better, but should not be a blanket rule that violates a common-sense decision.
A student needs to develop a good relationship with teachers because they will ultimately hold the key to their future. The recommendation letter will also include an evaluation of the student and any skills and accomplishments they will have compiled over the three years. Examples of these accomplishments and strengths will almost certainly be included in the letter of recommendation.
“Relationships, relationships, relationships,” one Fortune 500 CEO said, was the key to lasting success. If she is correct, then high school is the perfect place to start practicing and integrating the truth of this aphorism.
Mr. Justin M. Buffer is a professional educator, consultant, and college admissions planner. He is the owner, founder, and director of the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey, that does in-person and online tutoring for SAT/ACT, K-12 Subjects (All), MCAT, GRE, and more!
BY JUSTIN. M. BUFFER,
FOUNDER, OWNER, AND HEAD TEACHER/EDUCATIONAL DIRECTOR OF THE CAMBRIDGE LEARNING CENTER OF NEW JERSEY
One of the greatest challenges students face, both in school and on standardized tests, is transcending their anxiety. At our fantastic and award-winning learning center, the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey, we do our best to help students mitigate this anxiety. Also, in my parent meetings, while often reassuring parents that the anxiety their children experience is quite common, I tell them that it is important to have a strategic plan that all family members are involved in and that the genesis and nature of the student’s anxiety is properly understood.
Academic test anxiety is more than simply getting a little jittery before an exam. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) describes it as a full-fledged psychological condition, a type of performance anxiety characterized by “extreme nervousness about taking a test.” It is important in any discussion about such an important issue to first distinguish between normal anxiety that any student would have and when that anxiety reaches a clinical level.
When parents meet with me, I help them make this distinction.
Test anxiety can strike before, during or after any exam. There are cases where it shows up from the commencement of the school year, especially if a student knows one of the grand standardized exams is on the horizon. It can present itself in diverse symptoms, from as simple as sweaty palms, upset stomach, shallow breathing, nausea, and headaches, to more complicated symptoms such as emotional and cognitive symptoms which include feelings of helplessness and difficulty concentrating. In extreme cases, students exhibit these symptoms even after thorough preparation for the test and having a firm grasp on the material. Despite this, they will freeze or blank once the test is in front of them.
Before discussing how you can help your child cope with such anxiety, let me just offer one thing concerning special needs students: research suggests that students with disabilities experience greater test anxiety than their peers without these limitations. So, it is essential to consider other potential challenges, such as processing speed deficits, learning differences and skill deficits when diagnosing students with test anxiety.
Tips for Managing Test Anxiety
It is worth first noting that different strategies will work for different children. So, I feel that parents should be maximally flexible and have a robust bag of tricks to help their child or children. We operate on the same principle here at Cambridge.
Here are some tips to try:
· Ask your child questions for clarity. Identifying why your child is experiencing test anxiety can be helpful in figuring out the best way to manage it because this will provide valuable clues as to what will help calm him or her down. Have a calm discussion with them, helping to locate the root of their anxiety. Often times, students have a “worst-case scenario” that is not very realistic, such as “If I fail this test, I will never get into college.” You can challenge and reality test students’ misperceptions like this with: “Many students have gotten into college and didn’t do perfectly on every test in high school.”
· Use my effective test-taking strategies taught during our tutoring sessions. If your child is not a student at our center, familiarize yourself with well-known anxiety-mitigation strategies available on the public market. Strategies like familiarizing one’s child suffering from test anxiety with the actual content they’re being tested on can help calm them. Some of these techniques include reading questions thoroughly before answering them (especially for tricky technology-enhanced item types), skipping over questions that students don’t know for better time management, and reviewing answers as time allows, etc. All of these above are part of our repertoire and my curriculum at Cambridge.
· Focus on the positives. Children struggling with test anxiety dwell in patterns of negative thinking when it comes to tests. They often focus on all of the mistakes they could make, things that could go wrong, and how catastrophic a lousy score could be.
Parents should help shift their focus by assisting them to reflect on some successful past experiences. Request of them to tell you (or journal) about a test that they performed well on. How did they prepare for that test? How did they feel about it before and after? Getting them to stop and remember their abilities can go a long way toward breaking the negativity cycle—and calm nerves in the process. This can help bolster their confidence.
· Teach relaxation strategies. Visualization exercises are great for kids because they tend to have active imaginations. It is best practiced when your child is calm. Request for her to close her eyes and identify a place she feels happy, confident, and relaxed. Encourage her to share details about the sights, sounds, and scents in his calming place. As they share, cue them to take deep breaths. Then on test day, remind your child to close their eyes and visualize their calming place whenever they feel anxious.
In helping your child overcome the challenge of test anxiety, one may need to experiment a few before you find the techniques that work best for your ward. Be creative and patient, and you can have a meeting with me about it also. Actively helping your child to develop skills in self-regulation will provide benefits for decades to come.
About the author:
Justin M. Buffer is the founder, owner, and head teacher/educational director of the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey.
Lang, Jonas W.B., and Jessica Lang. “Priming Competence Diminishes the Link Between Cognitive Test Anxiety and Test Performance: Implications for the Interpretation of Test Scores.” Psychological Science 21, no. 6 (2010): 811-19.
Best Nutritional and Vitamin Practices for optimal student functioning
By Mr. Justin M. Buffer, Educational Director and Owner of the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey
During meetings and talks with our students’ parents, we are often asked for dietary and nutritional advice for their children to optimize brain functioning and academic performance. The first thing we usually mention is that there are some things we don’t have to tell any parent because they already know it; for example, everyone knows- and common sense tells us- that sugar and junk food will not help with enhancing a student’s or anyone else’s intellectual functioning.
But there are indeed some foods and practices that parents can use to help their children have optimal mental clarity, and that can enhance brain functioning, which can, in the long run, carry over to better academic performance.
None of what is offered below though should be read as operating or affecting us in isolation and without context, as there are numerous other factors- ranging from a student’s self-image, a learning disability, to the quality of the teacher-student relationship- that can affect any student’s academic performance in any area. Regardless, it is good to have adequate and proper nutrition on your child’s side as you navigate the parenting process.
The first fact to keep in mind when thinking about nutrition and brain functioning is that the brain is the control center of the human body. It is in charge of keeping the heart beating, the lungs breathing, and ensuring the ability to move, feel and think. Thus, it is necessary that we keep the brain healthy by nourishing it with a good diet. Research demonstrates that, combined with a holistic plan that includes exercise, meditation, safeguarding the quality of your environment, and other factors, you can increase your chances of maintaining a healthy brain as well as increasing cognitive performance if you eat right. In his esteemed book, The Brain Diet, Harvard-based research and nutritional expert Alan Logan details the enormous benefits of a diet with the brain’s health in mind.
And while there isn’t a particular ideal full daily diet for optimal brain functioning- breakfast, lunch, and dinner- there are many ways and pathways to feed your or your child’s brain right. Below is a list of categories and food tips you can integrate as you see fit into your family’s life and get good health and nutrition on your side. I will issue a caveat though and quote nutritionist Dr. Fred Bisci, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting personally, and tell you that “It’s what you leave out that counts.” Dr. Bisci, a Staten Island, New York-based nutritionist (www.anydoubtleaveitout.com) is known for his admonishments that the best diet can be negatively offset by its mixture with foods that are unhealthy. So, it goes without saying that all of what is below should not be used as an excuse for children to indulge in foods that are known to be toxic to peak functioning. Here are some foods that you can include in your child’s diet.
Eggs contain B vitamins, antioxidants, and Omega-3 fatty acids. They help nerve cells to burn glucose, protect neurons against damage and keep nerve cells functioning at prime speed. It is advisable for children to have an egg per day to gain these valuable nutrients.
Mixed with a tablespoon of Flaxseed (which is an excellent source of Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA), a healthy fat that boosts cerebral cortex function), as well as a teaspoon of peanut butter, sliced banana, and walnut, oatmeal for breakfast can help your child get off to a good start for the day.
Research has demonstrated that almonds are good for increased attention and awareness, both essential for learning. Also, almonds help in restoring memory and cognitive function.
#4: Beet and Berry Smoothie
This unique mixture, which is worth trying, helps in increasing blood flow to the brain which improves mental performance.
This potent brain food improves cognitive function and can even reduce memory loss.
#6: Fresh Fruits
Generally, the essence of fresh fruits in the human body cannot be overemphasized. More especially those rich in Vitamin C, specifically, help boosts mental agility and reduces the decline in the brains cognitive abilities. Examples of such fruits are bananas, tangerines, pears, oranges, watermelons, and pineapples.
Blueberries provide a wide range of health benefits including some that are specifically for the brain. It contains antioxidants and anti-inflammatory effects. Some of the antioxidants in blueberries accumulates in the brain and helps ensure communication between brain cells. You can sprinkle them on your breakfast cereal or add them to a smoothie.
#7: Omega 3 rich fish
Salmon, Mackerel, Kippers, and Trout contain high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids that add to healthy brain function and reducing memory loss. Overall, fatty fish is an excellent choice for brain health.
#8: Broccoli & Carrots
Broccolis are rich in Vitamin K and are responsible for boosting brain power and cognitive function. It is essential for forming sphingolipids, which is a type of fat that is densely packed into brain cells. It also helps protect the brain against damage. Carrots are rich in carotene and play a vital role in the improvement of memory and verbal skills.
#9: Freshly brewed tea
If you or your child already have a cup of tea daily, then you’re definitely on the right track. Consumption of two to three cups of freshly brewed tea daily contains an amount of caffeine that helps boost brain power by enhancing memory, focus, and mood.
This is known to be a key ingredient in curry powder and has some benefits for the brain. It is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent that has been linked to the growth of new brain cells and the improvement of the memory, most especially with people diagnosed with Alzheimer.
There are obviously more foods and tips to offer around this topic, but I hope this has given you some fundamental insight into some daily practices you can include to help your child be the best they can be.
References & Recommended Reading
Logan, Alan C. The Brain Diet: The Connection Between Nutrition, Mental Health, and Intelligence. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2007.
Speck, Maria. “A Gift of Grains.” Gastronomica 7, no. 4 (2007): 84-87
PUTTING COLLEGE VISITS & COLLEGE TOURS
IN THEIR PROPER CONTEXT:
ARE THEY USEFUL? ARE THEY VERY IMPORTANT?
June 9, 2017
By Justin M. Buffer, MSE, College Essay Coach, and Planner, Founder and Owner of Cambridge Learning Center of NJ
“Do I have to visit every college before I apply?” “How many colleges do we have to visit?” “When do we visit?” These are questions we are regularly asked here at Cambridge Learning Center and as part of our College Essay Coaching/College Planning program. I want to try in this article to give some general answers to these common questions.
First, families do not have to visit every college before applying. You should visit some universities, of course, especially ones that are close by or not geographically inconvenient (such as on vacation), as well as ones that are the student’s top choices, when possible. Families should not feel pressure, though, to visit before sending in an application. I feel it is important that we discuss why visiting colleges can be most helpful and what I feel its overriding purpose should be. The primary purpose of visiting colleges in the summer or any time is to really start to get a feel for a student’s preferences concerning the particularities of the kinds of colleges they would like to attend.
Some students, for example, will come back from a college visit and tell me, in effect, “I never want to go to a school in Manhattan.” Or, “A rural area in the middle of nowhere is not for me!” Some come back and state that they never want to attend a school with a large sports atmosphere or that they do indeed want a big school that plays in the NCAA tournament, despite first thinking they did not want to. These are all a matter of personal preference, and it is advantageous if a student has a good sense of their inclinations. One student I worked with a few years ago was so sure he wanted to go a particular university in California, only to come home from his visit to tell me that a large campus isn’t for him.
Such expressions help me as a College Planner best ascertain what schools to recommend to students and parents. After doing so, families can visit what they can before the application process and then visit the schools they get into during the spring before they commit. A lot of students of mine from previous years didn’t visit a school until they got into it. In reality, very few people can visit every school before they apply anyway. Additionally, campus tours should also be seen for what they are: marketing presentations for the school. Erica Reischer, a clinical psychologist, and the author of What Great Parents Do: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive, says that students and parents are not the best evaluators of what will make them happy and can often be deceived by such polished productions by universities. She suggests being careful and keeping everything a family sees on these outings in this context.
The top priorities prior to the application process should always be getting one’s personal essays, resume, and grades ready to be the best they can be. This includes a student’s first marking period grades of their senior year because they can help boost a student’s GPA, and good grades at this time can demonstrate continuity and consistency.
This is where parents and students should keep their primary focus as the college application process unfolds.
Reischer, E. (2016). What great parents do: 75 simple strategies for raising kids who thrive. NY, NY: TarcherPerigee.