Colleges across America are concluding their admissions processes for the entering class of 2010, and many high school students are in the final stages of deciding where to attend college in the fall. To be sure, over the coming months, there will some continued shuffling as students who applied late in the process make their decisions, students on waitlists are accepted, and transfer students from community colleges and other institutions find new academic homes.
Lately, I’ve been pondering ways to improve the Admissions process, including lowering the stress levels of prospective students and their families. (Click here to read Dr. Gross’ article on Admissions in Inside Higher Ed.) The need for some reform became even clearer to me when I spoke recently to ninth and tenth grade parents and students at a large suburban high school. Almost everyone seemed worried already about college admissions. Parents were taking notes; some seemed to be looking for some magic information or advice that would secure success. Others looked totally bewildered by the newness of all that was before them.
Students should not start thinking about college admissions in the second semester of their senior year, but, I want to offer up a distinction: thinking about college admissions is not the same thing as thinking about college success. Ninth and tenth grade is the perfect time to reflect on collegiate success; college admissions can wait until grade 11.
Here are three things that higher schoolers and their parents can and should think about that will put students in the best position to succeed in college. After all, what good is getting into college if one cannot graduate or one is singularly unhappy?
The literature on college success suggests the importance of a rigorous course schedule in high school. So, in a nutshell, course selection matters. Encouraging high schoolers to take difficult courses can lead to greater college retention. Indeed, as I reflect on applicants to college, I am way more impressed by the student with A’s and B’s and even an occasional C in a ninth or tenth grade Honors course than the student with straight A’s in easy courses. A grade of B- in Latin or Greek or Japanese shows a willingness to try new things. In fact, I like seeing an upward trajectory. The student whose GPA moves from a 2.5 to a 3.5 from freshman to senior year presents a more compelling case for collegiate admissions than the student with a steady 3.0 GPA.
Finding a Passion
Rather than thinking about PSAT’s , SAT’s, ACT’s and grades in particular courses, students in the beginning of high school should search for and then pursue a passion. It really does not matter what that passion is; that’s because once someone is passionate about something, the feeling and developmental skill set is transportable. Parents can encourage exploration of a wide range of topics – art, music, dance, science, politics, community service, religion, sports, stamps, the environment. You name it. And, the passion does not have to have intellectual heft: collecting baseball cards or Pez dispensers are wonderful passions.
Of course, there are some students whose passion is hard to find; there are adults too who can’t seem to find a passion. I appreciate that. But, encouraging interests, and trying new things is, in my view, a predictor for collegiate success. This is because students are who engaged in college tend to stay in college. And, it is vastly easier to connect early in one’s arrival on a campus if one has some interest – even if that interest changes over time. And, academic success requires discipline and hard work. A passion creates the architecture for working hard and concentrating for extended periods, and those attributes can be transferred over to academics.
Instead of those formal visits most people take (if they can afford them), I suggest families visit campuses informally – when vacationing, when in a new community, when visiting friends or relatives. It’s sort of like visiting museums or a new city. Stroll around, get a sense of a place, visit the dining hall or the student center. Watch the students interact with each other. Visit the campus store and buy a t-shirt.
Colleges have a feel to them. And, there are vast differences between small and large colleges, between urban and rural colleges, between residential colleges and community colleges. Research universities feel different from small liberal arts colleges.
It’s useful to visit when one is not actually applying, when the stakes are low and the openness to seeing what is there is high. Kids get a sense of what they like and what feels right. And, perceptions change: what feels right to a ninth grader might not feel right to that same student in the spring of junior year.
Yes, the stakes seem high. I get the media hype about college admissions. I understand the competition that students and their parents feel to keep up with the Jones and the Smiths. I recognize the burden of applying and the financial obligations being undertaken. I know that telling folks to de-stress doesn’t mean they will do so.
But, I also know that life is hopefully long and rewarding, and college is but one stop in a process of developing personal and professional success and satisfaction. Viewed from this larger lens, what really matters is that kids go to and graduate from one of the many wonderful private and public colleges that dot the landscape.