As a professor of Education and Psychology, I’ve taught first-semester college students for almost two decades, so I think about whether students are ready to be in our classes. Now that I’m sending my oldest child to college in the fall, I’m also looking at it from a new angle. Is she actually ready? How can I help make sure she is ready? What does “ready for college” mean, anyway?
Three misconceptions about being ready for college
Ask people what this means, and you’ll get myriad answers. Some answers more closely resemble what I’ve seen as a professor and academic coach than others. Here are three common ideas floating around about “college readiness” that are less than useful:
Checking Off Things From a Checklist
Being ready means having all your materials prepared. This includes tactical preparedness, such as course registration, financial aid plans, and travel intentions. And then, of course, most stores and media outlets talk about “college readiness” as bed-in-a-bag, shower caddies, and the most effective alarm clock for waking deep sleepers. These days I’m inundated with email marketing about dorm purchases as a way to be “ready” for college. Having the right sheets packed is a part of getting ready for college, but I’ve known plenty of students with ideal bedding who couldn’t get out of bed for class on time.
Doing Well in High School
Being ready for college means you proven in high school that you can handle academic demands. This one seems true, but isn’t quite enough. High school learning offers academic prep for college but doesn’t translate exactly. For one thing, my college students often tell me their high school classes were more demanding in workload than in college, which is more intellectually demanding (think: number of tests vs. depth of thinking).
Being ready for college learning means being ready to think about content in new ways. It also means worrying less about grades and objective measures than high school required. This is often a very difficult learning curve for new college students in my classes, who have been long taught that if they write the correct number of pages for the essay or get the multiple choice items right, they will get the A. College learning asks for some of this, sure. But it doesn’t stop there and the more complex, critical thinking required catches many previous high-achieving students off guard.
Knowing What You Want to Study
Being ready for college means knowing exactly what you want to study. Most students begin college with either a declared major or some sense of what they might want to study. That’s great! No one should start a journey without an idea of where it might lead. The problem comes when students grip those plans so tightly that they are unwilling to be open to other routes. Research shows 30% of college students change their major at least once.
Being ready should mean being open to shifting one’s goals in light of new information, such as how much less you enjoy a field than you thought you would. On the other hand, having zero idea of a path seems to indicate a student’s lack of readiness.
I have worked with many students as a coach toward defining their majors. I argue that not knowing isn’t inherently a problem of readiness; the only problem is in a lack of a plan to investigate options. By the third semester I hope that undecided students have a short list of majors and I advise that they use that semester as a “litmus test” to help them commit: Take the courses, meet the faculty, attend the events of the potential major departments. So, knowing your major with water-tight certainty is neither a requirement for being college-ready nor is it recommended.
What are college-readiness skills?
If not these aspects of readiness, what have I seen among the most ready college students? One skill is the most apparent. College-ready students come to my classes ready to GROW, often aggressively and quite messily. This means openness to being wrong, to trying again, to meeting people you maybe didn’t know existed, to being way out of your comfort zone for larger portions of each day than you ever have before. Being truly “college-ready” means embracing this kind of growth, owning your learning–and mistakes–and being able to bounce back when you fall.
What I’ve learned in teaching new college students is that they aren’t yet “college students”…they are high school students going to college. Their success depends on how they apply what they already know about being an effective student and then on how they adapt their approaches.
As parents, professors, and mentors, our job should be guiding them to identify those strategies, modeling how to handle challenges, and gracing them with patience and space to grow into strong college learners. Personally, I have loved being a partner to students during this growth period as a trusted professor and/or as an academic coach. I hope I’ll find joy in it as a parent too, while I watch my daughter’s readiness blossom…from a slightly farther distance.
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