Because I have been teaching at Cornell for more than four decades, and because I have been writing on Higher Education for the Huffington Post and in 2008 published In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century, I am often asked if I have any suggestions for preparing for college. The following suggestions are by no means inclusive but provide some basics.
A student needs to develop the necessary skills to pursue a college degree, although in truth there are many kinds of colleges and some are far more difficult than others, both in terms of admittance and performance expectations. Not every one is thinking about an elite college. For many the right choice is a local branch of a state college, a community college for the first two years, or a good but less selective small liberal arts college, none of which have the rigorous entry requirements of the Ivies, MIT, Caltech, Chicago, Stanford, Duke, Northwestern or the major State Universities (Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, UCLA, Berkeley, etc) or the elite small liberal arts colleges (Amherst, Williams, Middlebury, Emory, the Claremont schools, etc).
Before choosing a college, students need to consider why they want to go to college and what they expect to get out of it. Student should think about the relative emphasis they put on learning skills for a job, on preparing for graduate education, and on pursuing the liberal arts. (See my "What to Do With a B.A. in English?")
Part of college preparation is figuring out the costs. The elite colleges are the most heavily endowed, but other schools may offer a particular student a more generous financial aid package in order to attract him or her for either athletics or academics. Taking enormous loans may be a less desirable path than going to an in-state college.
What Can Parents Do?
Putting away funds for college beginning soon after a child's birth is an excellent plan, and many states give tax benefits to those who do so under 529 plans. Asking children to earn some money for college while in high school and college is reasonable. But students should not be asked to sacrifice their schoolwork or, if at all economically feasible, their participation in school activities. Working in summers will give students valuable experience while giving them a chance earn funds for college
The more positive the home environment, the more likely a child will succeed in school. When parents take an interest in their children's day-to-day learning in school, children respond. But interest does not mean doing, and children need learn to do their own work and turn to parents only after they have made a strong effort on their own. Not every parent will be able to help with advanced high school math and physics, but those who can help should focus on teaching the concepts rather than doing the problems.
Preparation for college should begin early. Parents need to play a motivating role, and we know that educated parents are more likely to produce educated children. But we also know that successful students -and those that in ensuing years make a significant difference in their fields--come from every socio-economic and ethnic background and that emphases on learning within homes can take place even in tightened circumstances in rough neighborhoods.
Parents should monitor how their children spend their time and can do this from an early age. They need to be alert to their children's mental and physical health, and face head on issues of depression, learning disabilities, and physical limitation. They need to be aware of the people with whom their children spend time. If parents smoke and drink and abuse drugs, their children are far more likely to do so.
Parents should stress the pleasures of reading--the exaltation of reading a great book--and insist on quiet time as well as regulate TV watching to a set number of hours per week. Parents can expose their children to cultural opportunities: theatre, music, museums, etc. If these are not readily available--to some degree they usually are- -trips to even small cities can complement rural villages and towns.
While parents should encourage participation in sports and the development of specific skills in the sports that children choose, they should also make their children aware of how few people make their living as professional athletes. It should be obvious that being the best player on a high school team usually does not result in making a livelihood in a sport.
High schools have different cultures, and those that focus on academic achievement are usually the best ones to prepare students for selective universities.
If the situation demands it, parents can in some areas enroll their children in public schools with a more favorable learning culture than the ones closest to their home or, if this is not possible and funds permit, enroll in a private school, some of which do offer scholarships to those in need.
Some schools give students major advantages in college preparation and in the admission process. But the elite colleges seek geographic and ethnic diversity and find students from all over the country. Special public schools that select students by means of a rigorous test are called Magnet Schools; they include Stuyvesant, Hunter and The Bronx High School of Science in New York, Boston Latin, Classical High School in Providence, the School for the Talented and Gifted in Dallas. Other alternatives are elite private boarding schools such as Exeter, Choate, or Andover or day schools such as Dalton, Horace Mann, or Fieldston in New York; the National Cathedral School in DC; Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia; and Harvard-Westlake school in Los Angeles.
What Students Can Do
It is never too early to think about what kind of career you want to have and to begin learning what kind of preparation is necessary for that. Speaking to people about their careers and reading about what people do are ways to develop a sense of what is right for you. If you are fortunate, your work will bring you joy and satisfaction. Knowing whether you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, engineer, business executive, CPA, teacher or college professor may help shape your HS curriculum and your choice of colleges, but developing the skills I mention below will be helpful to whatever career you choose.
To succeed in higher education, you need to develop time management and disciplined study habits as early as middle school. It is a good idea to keep track in writing or keep a computer file of how you are using your time. You need to set aside specific times for study and during those times you should turn off the TV and put the smart phone away. Realistically, you might begin with 30 to 40 minute study periods but by your later high school years you should be able to concentrate without a break for between 60 to 90 minutes.
The best preparation is to learn how to read carefully and thoroughly whether it be fiction or non-fiction; the latter category includes newspapers in print or on line. Select your reading with discrimination and rely on suggestions from teachers and other well-read adults. It is important that you keep up with national and international news and issues and that you develop an interest in the world in which you live, including the rapidly changing world of science. Reading the New York Times, the best news source in the US, for a half hour daily will help.
Reading well means reading skeptically and learning to find places in newspapers or online when arguments are not logical or require more imagination. Developing a critical intelligence is a crucial component of learning.
Equally important to reading intelligently is developing your writing skills. That means taking every writing assignment seriously. It means learning to write drafts, and that requires beginning assignments as soon as they are given. Term papers can teach you how to do research and use the library and internet as research tools.
Writing takes constant and continuing practice. Keeping a journal or diary, providing you stress writing well when doing so, is a good way to practice writing. I would buy--and read once a year--Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.
You also need to develop listening skills in class, and that means getting enough sleep. Taking notes in class will help you develop listening skills and also will help you organize material, which is essential not only for test taking but for understanding any subject. If you are permitted to bring a computer to class, take notes on that. Keep a separate file for each course and continue to re-organize as the semester progresses. Remember that you can always edit material if you write down too much, but you cannot recoup material that you have forgotten. If you miss class, borrowing another student's notes is essential. But always be sure to borrow from top students.
Finally, and this needs be stressed, you need to develop verbal skills and learn to play a significant role in class discussion. You should speak in class even if it takes effort. Making notes to yourself about what you want to say before you raise your hand helps many students overcome reluctance to speak in class. Try to eliminate "mmm"s and "you know"s when you speak in class and think of your class contributions as relatively important events.
Learning How to Learn
To prepare for college, high school should be a challenge and an opportunity. Working hard is the best preparation. Developing curiosity, a desire for knowledge, and the ability to solve complex thought-provoking problems are important life skills.
Studying well is a matter of learning how to concentrate and block out everything else. Most people do better when not listening to music, but some people seem to be able to listen to soothing music when studying. Using study halls and homeroom to study rather than wasting time on video games or social media is a good way to be time efficient.
When it is permitted, studying with a classmate can be helpful, but you must choose wisely and keep focused on the work at hand and not on other matters. Indeed, choice of friends is an important ingredient of school success, and if your social group is motivated to learn, the chances are better that you will be, too.
Take challenging courses, including basic sciences and math courses even if that is not your primary interest. In computing rank and grade point average, many high schools give extra quantitative emphasis for advanced and honors courses. Colleges not only consider the difficulty of high school programs when weighing students' applications, but succeeding in difficult courses will be the best preparation for the next educational challenges. Without high school biology, chemistry, and physics and college preparatory math and/or calculus as well as computer science, you will not be able to begin to understand the world in which you live. Furthermore, by not taking such classes you foreclose some of your future options in pursuing sciences and engineering. (You might read Steve Strogatz's The Joy of x). Moreover, colleges expect you to have basic knowledge in those areas, even if you ultimately study the humanities, social sciences, or a business curriculum.
Even now when English is becoming the basic language of the world, it is important to study a foreign language. For one thing, it will help you understand the world better because you will learn something about another culture, and for another you will be preparing yourself for some choices if you decide to do a junior year--or junior semester-- abroad.
Be alert about who are the best teachers, and take advice from the best students. Great teachers are demanding in terms of standards, but also create an environment where students experience learning as a privilege and a pleasure. Getting to know some of your teachers well will give you the necessary sources of recommendations for your applications. Getting to know the advisor or guidance counselor who prepares the material transmitted to college is essential. When possible, take advanced placements courses and/or courses in a local college.
Participate in extra curricula activities such as varsity sports, school newspaper, drama and choral groups, orchestra and band, debating, and student government. Developing skills and competence in these areas builds self-confidence. High school is more rewarding, fulfilling, and fun for those who are part of the school community. Moreover, selective colleges favor for admittance those who play a leadership role in such activities, in part because such activities at a more advanced level play a vital role in college life and in part because the best advertisement for a college are alumni playing a leadership role in their communities and perhaps on the state and national level.
College admissions people are favorably impressed with those who are active participants in the community beyond school by volunteering to tutor or read to adults or work with disabled children or give some time at the local hospital or hospice. That volunteerism can be connected with your church or synagogue. Meaningful summer and after school paid jobs such as working as counselor for younger children or in a hospital lab can also be a plus for admission officers.
Nothing is more important for high school success than physical and mental health. Getting a full night's sleep, eating properly, and avoiding cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs will enhance your enjoyment of life and your success in your studies. No matter how dedicated you are to a project, you need to take some time for fun activities. Each day you need to do something you like whether it be a walk in the woods, a visit to a museum, watching your favorite TV show, or pursuing a hobby.
Conclusion: Preparation for the Application Process
Standards tests such as SAT and ACT play an important role in admission. Particularly in highly competitive areas, high school students pay for special preparation classes or hire a private tutor to prepare for these tests, and these classes can be costly. Competitive high schools often stress preparation for these tests.
In the spring and summer of your junior year, you should begin to visit campuses in which you are interested. But you should begin learning about what colleges are for you even earlier. Interview processes vary but they seem to play less of a role than they once did and most public universities eschew them.
Although the college application and admission procedure is stressful, it is important to remember that where you do your undergraduate work is far less important than enjoying high school and college, while discovering the joy and privilege of learning.
Author of the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), which recently appeared in an updated 2014 new paperback edition, Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University where he has won Cornell's major teaching prizes. He also writes on higher education, including his book In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century. He blogs on higher education and the media for The Huffington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on twitter at https://twitter.com/danRSchwarz and https://www.facebook.com/SchwarzEndtimes
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