The teenage brain you're sending to college

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Beth J. Harpaz / Associated Press

By Dr. Frances E. Jensen

Well, it’s done: The college decision letters are all in — rejections, acceptances, and the dreaded wait-list letters. For many 17- to 19-year-olds and their families, there will be hard choices to make as to where they will spend the next four years.

One factor that is often overlooked in this decision: the brain you’re sending to college.

An 18-year-old brain is very much a work in progress, and the progress to be made over the four years of a college career is some of the most important in a person’s life. Remember that there is going to be a metamorphosis of your child during the period between late teens and early twenties. Like many parents, I witnessed my sons enter college as overgrown boys, yet graduate substantially more composed, focused, and aware. This did not happen overnight.

The brain’s development from late teens to early twenties is nothing short of miraculous. Recent neuroscience has shown us that college-age brains are in sort of a golden period — still with more ability to learn than the adult, as their brain cells are more active and more receptive. Our brain cells, or neurons, and the connections between them, or synapses, can be shaped by experience more readily in the teenage and post-adolescent period than in the adult years. This is termed “synaptic plasticity.”

When we learn, repeated use of a synapse during practice causes it to grow bigger (molded like plastic by experience), and the proteins needed for that are at higher levels in the young brain compared with the adult. A stronger synapse means a stronger memory or skill. Remarkably, research has shown that even IQ can change during the teen years: music to the ears of the late bloomers among us.

Hence college is timed perfectly, as this is an age window that is very well suited to learning. So it’s particularly important to pick a college that might match your child’s learning style best, and might offer the most for your young adult to put the finishing touches on his or her strongest skills and remediate perceived weaknesses. This sounds logical, doesn’t it?

But nature is not that simple, and neurobiology shows that while the blank slate of an 18-year-old brain is best equipped to receive the knowledge of college, it is much less equipped to resist an impulsive decision on where to go.

More often than not, teens choosing college may be more enamored with the amenities — like the frozen yogurt bar, or the fact that close friends are also going to the same place, or whether the name of the college or university is more prestigious. While older teens have hidden “muscle” in terms of intellectual horsepower, they are still not fully grown up and may not be capable of full logic around choices like this. In fact, recent research shows that brain connectivity, or how brain regions wire together, is not at all complete at the onset of college, and probably not really done at the end, either.

It turns out that neurons send signals through processes called axons that have to travel long distances, from back to front, side to side, and even from the brain down the spinal cord, and this requires rapid signaling. Just like an electrical wire, the signals travel faster in insulated tracts, and the process of insulation is accomplished by coating the axons with a fatty substance called myelin.

Myelination actually proceeds from birth to mid- to late twenties, and proceeds in the direction from back to front, with the frontal lobes being last to be connected. What we all need to realize is that the frontal lobes are key for impulse control, insight, judgment, and empathy, among other things. Thinking about your teen now?

This decision process presents some really great opportunities to spending time with your teenager — even if it is sans eye contact, staring straight ahead, while driving your young adult to a revisit day. You never know what they will come up with.

I remember one of my sons confessing that the only substantive thing he had learned on an overnight trip to one college was that there were as many ways to play beer pong as there were fraternities (nine in that particular case). While tempting at first, he aptly reasoned that this might not work out so well for him, and did in the end pick a different school.

Excitement and peer pressure can lead to preoccupation with superficial features as opposed to perhaps the careful consideration of how one college environment may be best suited for the incredible transition that will take place inside your young student’s head over the next four years. My son probably dodged a bullet on that one.

The goal is to use college to make this transition into adulthood the best it can be. College has its ups and downs no matter where your teen decides, and it’s important to keep connected, checking in, listening to stories, and being mindful of events on that campus. While your teen’s frontal lobes may not be fully connected, yours are. You can play an important role as a sounding board during the decision process but also throughout the years, as your child gradually separate to full “brain independence.”

Dr. Frances E. Jensen is professor and chair of the Department of Neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, and the author of “The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults” (Harper Collins, 2015). frances.jensen@uphs.upenn.edu.