I always try to be a good person, and by that I mean I try not to judge people and make fun of them. Despite this, I often find myself judging others, even if I don’t say it out loud, and putting people down that aren’t like me, or laughing with others who put people down. I know from experience how hurtful it can be to be on the other end of that kind of behavir. How can I get past this? —Jen

I think being judgmental is hard-wired into the human brain. How else can you explain the popularity of gossip? Having judgey thoughts is human—the good thing is that you can recognize that they can be harmful, and that you want to loosen their hold on your brain.

First of all, you can work on not joining in on the put-downs. You might not feel strong enough to stand up for a maligned person to a group of your friends, but you can at least take a small stand of your own by not laughing or adding your own comments. Maybe some of your other friends are also uncomfortable—they will notice your abstinence and feel safer admitting that they don’t think it’s funny either. And even if you do kind of agree with your friends’ judgments, you still know that they are hurtful and not worth airing. So don’t add fuel to their fire. Also, if your friends are really into putting other people down, it may be time to find new friends. Don’t fall into the Mean Girl trap.

But of course you also want to change the way you think. That’s a bit harder. I think the best way to start changing your mindset is to put yourself in other people’s shoes, as corny as that sounds/is. No one ever does anything because they are trying to make a bad decision or look stupid or whatever. Everyone acts the way they do for a reason.

So, let’s take an example. I don’t drink. I never have. I used to be really judgmental of kids in my high school who were known hard-partiers. But eventually I realized that those kids had their own reasons to drink, and that those reasons were probably just as valid as my reasons for abstaining. Maybe alcohol was a release from some stress in their lives that I had no idea about. Or maybe it was just a harmless bit of fun. Maybe they felt totally safe and normal about drinking, because their parents have let them have wine with dinner since they were 12, and it’s never had a bad effect on them. The point is, alcohol does not have the same meaning for everyone else that it does for me—or you, necessarily. And that goes with almost anything else people do.

Sometimes people do things that are just plain stupid, but instead of feeling judgmental, try to empathize. Imagine how difficult life would be if you didn’t have the capacity—for whatever reason—to recognize when things are going to go badly. Some people are like that with regard to relationships, and they always end up with someone bad for them. If you’re tired of watching that person cry after every breakup, imagine being in that many bad break-ups. That would suck!

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to make a bad decision, or that all decisions are neutral. Sure, some choices are objectively better than others, but the point is that people make all their choices for reasons that make sense to them. You’re only judging what you see, which is just a small part of any person’s life.

I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious, like I’m beyond all that judgment bullshit. I still judge people sometimes, and sometimes they deserve it. (I feel no shame in judging hateful people, or people who hurt other people.) Like I said, it’s human nature. But when you find yourself thinking badly about someone, stop and think about if they really deserve it. If they’ve done something bad to someone else, maybe a little judgment is warranted (although it’s still probably best to judge silently). But if they’re only hurting themselves, or just annoying you, let it go. It’s not worth your energy. Concentrate on the stuff you love; that’s what’s going to make life good in the long run. —Rachael

I’m a junior in high school, and I guess now is the time for me to be seriously looking at colleges. Although I look forward to college, it is still kind of scary to think about, and I have a lot of questions. What’s it really like? What does it take to get into college? What is art school like? Is college really stressful? What do they look for? Answers to these questions or stories and experiences would be lovely :) Thanks!

Colleges want your good grades, obviously—grades show that you can succeed in the school grind. But they truly look for what you’re interested in outside of school. Extracurriculars are your chance to show that you’re actually an interesting human being and worth being interested in.

Specifically, colleges want to see things that you stick with. They look for commitment and self-direction. Every kid forever will crow about their month at the soup kitchen and their time on freshman basketball and their one semester of debate or whatever, but that’s not as impressive as, say, the public-art project that you made, or how you organized a SlutWalk in your town, or your two years of doing stand-up comedy at clubs and open mics. My advisors in high school told us that well-rounded applicants are easy to come by, but people who committed to one thing and had something to show for it were rare. If there are one or two areas you’re totally interested in, delve into them and find a way to express your commitment. That will get you a lot farther than having the jack of all trades, master of none sort of résumé.

Once you’re in college, TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT. You’re likely paying for your education, so make the most of your (or your parents’) money! Take the hell out of any class that would be really hard to find anywhere else. For instance, a place where you can practice letterpress at any hour of the day? That’s a hard find in the Real World. So that’s why I’m taking letterpress at school this semester!

I like to view college as like a crazy, overstuffed room of a hoarder grandmother, full of trinkets and treasures new and old, and there’s so much to partake of that it’s overstimulating, and I just want to grab everything and bring it back to my house, and then someone comes and tells me, “Grab anything you want, but you have only five minutes, and it has to fit in this little knapsack!” This, you see, is a metaphor, where five minutes represents your four years, and the knapsack represents your mental capacity. GRAB ALL OF THE SHINY THINGS. QUICK. Because you are paying like a bajillion dollars to be in this place, so you better grab the coolest, most interesting, and most crucial things. COLLEGE IS A SERVICE THAT YOU ARE PAYING FOR. Make it work for you!

When you’re an undergrad, you’re still forming like a little baby in the world, and art school is the best place EVER with the widest and most readily available set of resources to form your little baby brain. This is the time for you to become the cool and interesting and intelligent person you always hoped you’d be, because there are a million and a half opportunities around you. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by how many amazing books are in the library, how many amazing famous and smart people are lecturing, how many film screenings and club meetings and art openings are happening all of the time. I panic when I think about all of the things I’m missing out on that my school has to offer because, well, I have only four short years here…and a life to attend to. But try to take advantage of everything you can. I’m in my second year, and I have an idea of who I want to be by the time I graduate, so I’m putting myself on a path to build the skills and knowledge that I imagine that woman to have in abundance by 2014. I am using college to make my dream version of me to happen. I think that’s what undergrad is best for. Assemble your dream self, the one who is confident in her abilities and ready to do super great things. That’s the goal! —Dylan

I have wanted to be a writer since I was eight years old. I write short stories and poems, but I’ve never written anything longer than eight or nine pages. This year, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to write a short novel. The problem is that lately I’ve had total writer’s block. I’m completely uninspired and I just don’t know what to write. I feel like I should write way more than I do, so when I don’t write, I feel really bad. How can I get out of this slump? Could this be the universe telling me I shouldn’t be a writer? Please help! Sincerely, A Storyless Writer

Dear Storyless Writer,

This is definitely NOT the universe telling you that you shouldn’t be a writer. This is you putting way too much pressure on yourself to create, and when that happens, the urge to create shrivels. Trust me, I know. Like you, I wanted to be a writer from a very early age, and I started with short stories and poems. Even now, with three novels under my belt, I’ve fallen into my fair share of slumps—and a lot of them come when I’m putting too much pressure on myself to write more, write faster, or write in a way that doesn’t come naturally to me. THIS HAPPENS TO EVERY WRITER. Hopefully knowing that will reduce your burden a little bit. Reduce it a little more by telling yourself that there is no right or wrong way to write a novel, and no particular schedule or timeframe that you have to adhere to.

Now that you’ve put those doubts to the side to the best of your ability, let’s get that inspiration going. Use any free time you have to become inspired. I’d suggest looking over your favorite pieces that you’ve already written. Think about characters or themes that you’ve explored that you would be excited to do more with. If that doesn’t do it for you—or even if it does—start looking around you and listening for stories. Reread your favorite books or pick up a new one that sounds interesting. Music is a big muse for me, so I like to make playlists that fit the theme of the story I’m trying to write. If I’m totally lost, I just put iTunes on shuffle and see what ideas the songs that pop up give me. If you can bring your computer or a radio into the bathroom (and hook it up somewhere safe so you don’t electrocute yourself!) and listen to music while you take a shower or a bath, that’s a great way to clear your mind, relax, and get inspired.

When I’m really blocked, my favorite trick is to put my iPod on and go for a walk. I bring a notebook, because sometimes a certain lyric or something I see will spark an idea. One time, I was walking past a hospital and an old beat-up car pulled out of the parking lot. The car stalled when the driver was trying to turn, and the girl in the passenger’s seat just got out, slammed her door, and walked away. My mind reeled with questions. Why were they at the hospital? Was the guy driving her boyfriend? Was she mad because his car was always breaking down at inopportune moments, or was it something else? The world is crawling with stories. You just need to let your imagination transform them. You can also scour the internet for news stories that you could give a sci-fi or fantasy twist. Or look at the pictures on Tumblr OR ROOKIE that range from the very real to the very surreal and ethereal—you’ll see stories there. None of this is a waste of time as long as you’re letting yourself be open to story possibilities.

If you still feel stuck, try free writing. You can do this in a notebook or on a computer, whatever makes you more comfortable. Or if you always do it one way and it’s not working, switch. When you free-write, don’t worry about your writing being perfect. Don’t worry about even telling a story yet. Just describe a setting or a character, or talk with yourself or your character about what you want to write. It’s called free writing because you are writing freely, jotting down whatever comes to mind—but if you need a prompt, try the Yeah Write! Tumblr.

Eventually something will take hold: a line or a scene. Don’t worry if it’s the first part of your story or the last or something in the middle—just write it. Remember, you can always rearrange or rewrite later to improve it. Let yourself enjoy what you’re doing, and eventually you’ll be hooked and writing a novel you’re excited about. You may get stuck again (and I always do!), but now you’ll have some tricks to work with to get you back on track.

Happy writing!

Love, Stephanie ♦