The college application process -- the single most anxiety-ridden experience for many high school students -- is something that I went through twice. The first time, as a high school senior, I applied, and was accepted, to both state and private universities, and ultimately decided to attend one of the former, which had granted me a full-ride scholarship for all four years. After a few months, though, I decided that I wanted to immerse myself in a more vibrant and intellectually challenging environment so I again applied to a number of schools and ended up going to a liberal arts school -- Wellesley College, to be precise.
I matured greatly in those two years at a state university and I felt like a completely different person when I applied to colleges the second time around. As with the first round of applications, I felt greatly apprehensive for months on end, cranking out essay after essay, browsing campus publications and course offerings at several different universities, and frantically sizing up my competition on sites like College Confidential. But, having gone through the entire ordeal once already, I managed to retain a degree of equanimity amidst all the anxiety; having already experienced several rejections, I was now inured against it (or so I told myself). Being in the crucible of college for two years also strengthened me immeasurably; by the end of sophomore year, I'd become a more critical and realistic judge of my own abilities and learned to push myself as I'd never done before. When my acceptance letter from Wellesley came, I couldn't be happier.
Applying for transfer admission -- which a substantial number of college students decide to do sometime in their two or four-year college careers -- is an undeniably grueling process, but can also be a tremendously enlightening one. It forced me to reflect deeply on all the things I'd done "wrong" or inadequately the first time around and, in comparing my high school experience to my college one, I discerned two ways in which my 14-year-old self could have benefited from an institution that borrowed a few collegiate practices.
The first "practice" is the declaration of a major. Looking back, I think it would have been highly constructive if I had been asked to select a major by, say, junior year of high school. I anticipate that some parents and students would argue that 16 year-olds are in no position to decide what they want to major in and that forcing them to choose threatens to stifle their interests in other subjects. Let me be clear: I am not advocating that once a student has chosen a major (all majors, by the way, are inherently tentative -- at least until senior year of college) she must devote herself to study in that particular field to the exclusion of all other subjects. If colleges can find a way to lay out distribution requirements along with major requirements, then there must be some way for high schools to do the same, albeit on a slightly minor scale (i.e. with less stringent requirements).
Furthermore, whether or not students actually declare a major in high school, the truth is that many highly driven students are already groping their way towards one by pursuing extracurricular activities in a special "field" -- think debate team, mock trial, Model UN, the student newspaper and literary magazine, math or science Olympiads, etc. (The extremely ambitious will join all sorts of organizations -- a somewhat crude analogue to double or triple-majoring). The underlying purpose of asking students to declare a major as early as high school would be to make them think seriously about what they are passionate about and where their true interests lie -- not, I emphasize, to encourage careerist thinking. Students who otherwise wouldn't take the initiative to look for summer internships or join a club or volunteer for a campaign might suddenly be spurred to do these things after having taken an assortment of classes for their major.
As a corollary to the idea that high school students declare a major(s), students should be asked to choose teachers to serve as their academic advisors. In their role as advisors, teachers would not only help students select courses and talk about topics in their specialties, but also help them to harness their energies into pursuing viable and fruitful independent work as well as to explore the potential applications of individual majors. Now, I have no doubt that many students are perfectly capable of cultivating strong relationships with their teachers without such a rule, but, at least in the high school I went to, there was a culture of silence about teachers as role models. Unfortunately, there was plenty of barbed criticism and persiflage about this or that teacher, but students generally did not feel comfortable talking about teachers who really inspired them, largely because they didn't want to appear as sycophants. Meaningful dialogues between students and teachers can all too easily founder out of fear -- however irrational and unfounded -- on the students' part that pursuing relationships with teachers will be interpreted by their peers as loosely veiled attempts to wangle good grades or sterling letters of recommendation from them. An official mentoring system addresses these deep-seated worries and then some.
Mandating that students build relationships with academic advisors would undoubtedly be of great use to both student and teacher when it comes time to submit letters of recommendation, but that's beside the point. Such a rule would help erode the rebarbative view of teachers as means to an end and, by stimulating more spontaneous conversations about student interests and life goals, would help strengthen the image of teachers as sapient ends in themselves. The mentor-mentee system would also normalize student-teacher relationships and give a larger number of students the confidence to pursue out-of-class discussions for the sake of knowledge itself. Perhaps most importantly, it would go a long way in leveling the playing field of academic success; students from disadvantaged backgrounds who may not have been brought up to hold an intelligent conversation with college-educated adults as easily (or at all) as their more socially privileged counterparts would benefit especially from such a system.
Some colleges, on their supplemental questionnaires, ask applicants to identify their tentative major. I'd wager that currently, a good number of high school students don't give this question enough serious thought; some choose majors that they think will "look good," whatever that means, while others capitulate to their parents' opinions, and still others choose something at random (I fell into this last category). Students aren't to blame, though; without a structure that first legitimates academic predilections (the very concept of which is not exactly glorified by the student body in many public schools) and then forces students to think critically about them, it's no surprise if soon-to-be high school graduates are able to offer no more than a facile answer to such weighted questions. There simply is no good reason for students to defer thinking about their future academic lives.
Having to declare a major in college -- as banal and trivial as it may seem -- gave me the courage and motivation to pursue my passions; I no longer had to "justify" to my parents and friends why I had decided to join this organization and start an online magazine. It's no hyperbole to say that my major consecrated many of my extracurricular activities. (As a side note, I started off as a biochemistry major before changing to English and philosophy and finally settling on Comparative Literature. I'm fairly content with the circuitous route my academic journey has taken, though I can't help but wish that my blundering first choice could have been made, and thus gotten over, earlier, in high school so as not to "waste" any of my college time.)
The second epiphany I had about college and high school concerned the discrepancy between the lengths of classes in each. In college, classes usually meet for a fewer number of times each week, but each class section lasts longer. Some college seminars or lectures run as long as three hours whereas in the high school I attended, classes lasted well under an hour. In my view, high schools would do well to emulate the college model; perhaps there's no need to make classes last as long as three hours, but having longer class sections that meet less frequently carries numerous advantages.
"Freedom" has become a byword for many college students; it connotes not just the fact that many are living on their own away from home for the first time, but also the fact that they suddenly have more time to do as they please. Even with a full course load, I have more room in my daily schedule to relax and pursue nonacademic hobbies than I ever had in high school. When I first got to college, I was surprised and, I'll admit, a bit disappointed that many of my classes would only be meeting two times per week; I felt that I wasn't getting my "money's worth," even though my tuition was covered by the school. But after a few years, I began to see the undergraduate scheme of course scheduling as ideal and came to bemoan the fact that I had to go to class every day of the week for spurts of time in high school.
There's always something distasteful about routine and going to the same classes and seeing the same faces five days a week can easily instigate torpor, create a deadening classroom environment, and have a corrosive effect on learning (it certainly did for yours truly). I'm convinced that the college model simply works better: longer class periods allow for more thoughtful and sustained class discussions, and fewer meetings per week enable students to devote more time to their studies and extracurricular interests. Assigning a heap of work and giving students more time to digest readings over one or two days seems to be an infinitely better alternative than having them read a few pages each night and discussing texts in incremental bits. Personally, I had a deep aversion for my high school English classes because we seemed to always move at a glacial pace and never have enough time to discuss the really important stuff.
I don't dispute that going to classes five times a week is of paramount importance for younger students, but I believe that high school students have a greater sense of responsibility than adults are wont to give them credit for and if they were given more time "off" from school, they would not all sit around and do nothing (though of course, there will always be incorrigible loafers), but would find instructive ways to ward off boredom. William James famously said that "faith in a fact can help create the fact," and I contend that the belief encoded in the collegiate model of course scheduling that students will make wise use of their time when given greater latitude to do as they see fit will bring about its own verification.
For me and, I suspect, many other students, the implementation of these requirements -- selection of a major and advisor and fewer, but longer class meetings in high school -- would have reduced a fair amount of anxiety during the college application process; it would have better prepared me for college by giving me a sense of direction in my studies at a formative period as well as a helpful support system, trained me to be a better manager of my time, and shaped me into a more independent learner. In short, it would have made the transition from high school to college more seamless. The changes I call for are relatively modest on the surface -- if administrators so choose, they may be enforced in no time at all and with little expense -- but I believe that they would drastically benefit adolescents all over the nation by initiating a change in their work habits for the better and equipping a larger percentage of them with the tools needed to succeed in, and after, college.