Listening to the Real Experts About What it Takes to be Ready for College

There is much talk about preparing students for college and careers by the time they graduate from high school. How much of that talk involves those who are closest to the issue—the students, themselves?

I decided to call upon some real experts for this blog: my children.

Zach is 19 and Adrian is 18. He is a sophomore in a private liberal arts college and she is a freshman attending a public liberal arts college. Both chose to attend schools in a different state than that in which we live. So far they like their choices and are making the adjustments necessary to get the most from their college education.

GraduatesBut those adjustments have not been taken lightly or easily made. Both children have had their rough moments, as we all do. Thankfully, they are persevering and are settled into their lives on campus. I recently asked them about their transition and to reflect on their high school years in comparison to what they are experiencing in college. All responses were sent to me via email. Readers who are current on CCR research and recommendations as well as the CCSS will recognize some common themes.

What did teachers do that helped prepare you for college?

Zach: They introduced us to literature analysis which mostly focused on making connections to life in the real world. It sometimes sparked an interest.

Adrian: The AP classes helped prepare me for college level work because they gave a lot of it. The grading probably wasn’t as harsh as it needed to be, though.

What did teachers NOT do to prepare you for college?

Zach: They did not give us feedback on assignments/essays/tests. No instruction about HOW to do them well. When we did get feedback, it was always a critique, and I realize that’s important, but it made students feel like they couldn’t do it or didn’t know the material. And when you go into a test environment in college and they hand out a sheet of essay questions and a blue book, you start thinking about how you are going to write it and lose confidence, maybe forgetting to emphasize the content you know.

Adrian: Teachers did not give enough critical thinking assignments. In college you are expected to be creative and come up with new ways of thinking and writing. In high school, teachers gave a specific prompt to follow, a specific outline, or something with specific directions, maybe even an example or two. You won’t get that as often in college.

I also do not think they gave enough feedback. I never really knew my strengths and weaknesses as a student other than what was reflected in my grades, and in high school, it’s much easier to get good grades.

They could work on sparking interest. It’s not very motivating in high school because you are just reading the textbook, but if they pulled up an article that related the topic to real life or something current, it would help. By connecting the topics to the world we live in, it would be much easier to spark curiosity. If teachers did this enough, it could definitely influence major choice in college and career paths.

What was your biggest adjustment to college?

Zach: 1) The amount of reading that was given and the amount of material that was supposed to be retained for the next class. 2) Discipline to give plenty of time for assignments. 3) Being responsible for material that wasn’t covered, or not explained thoroughly in class on tests. 4) Essay style exams.

Adrian: Just having the motivation to get things done on my own and planning out my time wisely. You can’t procrastinate in college.

Looking back, what were the critical factors in your entire search/getting ready for the college experience?

Zach: Getting a good idea of what was out there to experience, and narrowing it down by the things that you feel are most important to you, whether that be academic, social, or just a place to have new experiences. Finding a place that would not only accept what you have experienced and accomplished in high school, but building on those things and trying new things. But mainly, knowing what all the options are.

Adrian: Since I was undecided on a major, I believed that a liberal arts school was best for me. Being an athlete also really influenced my decision, as well as knowing that I wanted to go out of state.

Parental disclaimer here: We hired a private counselor to work with both of our children through the search process in their 11th and 12th grade years. I will explain that choice when I write the parents’ perspective blog next time.

What would you do differently? The Same?

Adrian: I would probably just have looked at more schools and tried to have more options. I’m glad I got a counselor to help begin my search and to help me learn a little about myself to know what kind of school I should look for.

I asked Zach a follow-up about assignments, and his response was as follows:

Boy-ReadingHigh School assignments were mostly all practice/reinforcement of what was supposed to be learned in class, which usually was part of the grade as homework. In college, assignments are much less regularly given and only sometimes collected for grades, if collected at all. The assignments in college are used as a supplement, or to further your understanding on your own. I think assignments in college are better because, 1) it isn’t busy work just done for a grade or to teach what the teacher didn’t do in class, and 2) they usually take what is taught in class or in the reading and apply it to the real world or another aspect of learning/life. High school is mainly doing for a grade, college is more doing to connect material to “real” situations and ideas, to understand and think critically. Usually in college there isn’t a right or wrong fill-in-the-blank. The answer is something that will be different for every student based on their background or some idea that came to them while reading or reflecting on content. (This isn’t necessarily talking about bio or chemistry or math classes, since I haven’t had many of those “factual” classes)

Adrian struggled mightily in calculus her senior year. I asked her about that. Here is her reply:

“Even though that class was awful, I think the discipline it gave me prepared me for college.”

So there we have the unedited thoughts of two who are living the high school-to-college transition. It’s interesting to hear my children use terms like “critical thinking” so intentionally. It’s interesting to hear them discuss reading expectations and adjustments. It’s interesting to hear them reflect on the lack of meaningful feedback they received on their work in high school in an almost lamenting tone, knowing how that would have helped them.

Although I am an educator, I assure you we did not sit at the dinner table each night discussing educational pedagogy or concepts. But it’s interesting that I am not surprised by anything that they said in this blog today.

Next time: The parents’ story.

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