Preparing for College

The best way to prepare for college is to achieve high grades in all high-school subjects and to focus on those subjects that are useful in your intended career, but there are some other things students can do to make themselves more attractive to colleges.  While in high school, do not shy away from hard classes that not only provide essential knowledge but also prepare students for challenging classes at the college level.  Develop good work and study habits because success in college depends on a student’s ability to work independently, even for group project assignments.  Learn to budget time and avoid procrastination.  An assignment that an instructor gives two weeks before it is due takes two weeks to complete, so plan appropriately.  Diversify your interests: if you love music, learn to like physics; if you enjoy math, learn something about art.  That is how to prepare for the liberal education that colleges strive to impart.  In this sense, liberal means broad and introspective, and it has nothing to do with politics.  Finally, your high-school experience should include some, but not an overabundance of extracurricular activities and volunteer work.

Reading will be part of your regular high-school assignments, but it is wise to do additional reading, not only to gain specific knowledge but to improve your reasoning, perceptions, and vocabulary.  Word games are great, but they cannot compare to learning a word through its context.  When there is no homework, spend time–at least a few minutes each day–reading a magazine, fiction, or nonfiction because any reading improves the breadth and depth of one’s knowledge and skills.  Take notes when reading and determine the thesis or plot of the work.  Write down the supporting evidence or the development of the plot and its characters.  Note any important detail.  List unknown words and find them in a dictionary.  Any time you take notes, include page numbers for easy reference.

Writing is essential, and it goes far beyond the brief essays that help students prepare for a standardized test.  Take high school courses that require serious writing and research papers.  If they do not exist in your school, talk to the school administrators, start a writing club, or begin writing on your own.  Will Fitzhugh,  a former corporate manager and now high school teacher, who founded and edits the journal Concord Review that publishes research articles in history from high school students around the world.  He maintains that high schools do not devote enough time to academic writing:

By not preparing students for academic reading and writing, we set them up for failure in college and in the workplace.  When we only ask that they read textbooks and write journal entries, we are not educating them.  We are cheating them.  We deny them the opportunity to see that reading is the path to knowledge, and that writing is the way to make knowledge one's own.  The history research paper can help restore the importance of academic reading and writing in our schools, and in turn, refocus the purpose of education.  (The reference for Fitzhugh's article appears below.)

Write in order to express thoughts creatively, to explain things concisely, and to argue convincingly.  Use good grammar.  Write with an engaging style, with sentence structures that vary.  Do not use colloquialisms.  Format papers so that they are neat and conform to the standards of the teacher, professor, or the profession.  Do not rely on spell checkers and grammar checkers alone because they can lead to humorous results.  Proofread not only using the computer screen but by changing the font type and size, reading aloud, and reading a printed version of the piece.  Make all necessary corrections, not just a few.  Before moving text and totally restructuring a paper, create a new file, in order to preserve the original text.  After any major revisions, be sure to proofread again.  Be proud of your language, which is part of your national identity.

Take control of your word processor so that it works for you.  Learn how to format the paper, paginate, insert footnotes and endnotes, use headers and footers, and create tables and columns.  Most students have difficulties conquering word processing technology, which seems ironic in this age, when students easily adapt to new computer games and electronic gadgets and when their existence is centered around social media.  Learning the details of how to operate a word processing program not only will mean papers with better formatting and better grades, but the solid command of a word-processing program is an appealing addition to a resume.

No matter what career a student intends to pursue, he or she will benefit by learning a language.  It is never too late to start learning a language, and students should not delay taking language courses.  Furthermore, they should take every course in a language they can to become as fluent as possible.  So many say, “oh, I will not work abroad.”  While that may be possible, foreigners come to America, and those in the work place who can communicate with them using more than just English will realize many advantages.  Others claim, “I have a mental block when it comes to learning languages.”  In reality, overcoming such a mental block really is just a matter of determination.  Engineers, lawyers, scientists, doctors, law enforcement professionals, and businessmen all can benefit from languages.  The military considers a language as a criterion for advancement for officers and recruits.  Furthermore, in this world of cookie-cutter education which makes most of the students appear the same to colleges and ultimately employers, students need to search for ways that make themselves unique.  Proficiency in a language is a great resume builder.  Finally, another language opens up a new world of culture and entertainment, the potential for exciting international travel, and the ability to meet new people.  So often, students ask: “If language is so important, why don’t high schools and colleges require more?”  The answer is twofold.  Language instruction is expensive because the classes must be small to be effective.  Administrators and state funding agencies for schools recognize the value of foreign languages, but they require a bare minimum and assume that students who really want a language will get it on their own.  Second, higher education mistakenly has become consumer oriented, and it sometimes allows the demands of students dictate the delivery of information.  Universities therefore fear that having language requirements that give students functional use of a language will cause them to loose students to competing institutions where the language requirements are lax.  To learn more about studying languages, read the blog in this web site on the subject.

Be cautious about taking too many advanced placement (AP) and dual enrollment (DE) classes.  State education administrators love to push high school students into these sorts of courses because they save the state money.  Similarly, community and state college officials promote DE classes because their institutions receive funding based on enrollment.  For the states, DE courses represent a cost savings, and there is little concern about effectiveness.  Community or state colleges, which typically offer more DE courses than universities, require much less state funding than universities, which need resources for large research libraries, well-equipped laboratories, teaching assistants, and research assistants.  Instructors at community or state colleges also teach larger numbers of students and more courses than full-time university personnel, who have more research responsibilities.  Another issue is the qualifications of the instructors.  Although a large number of faculty members at community and state colleges have doctorate degrees, the percentage at universities is higher, which means that universities are more expensive to operate in just salaries alone.  The highest degree of those who teach AP courses most likely is an MA or MS.  The person instructing the same type of course at the university level most likely has a doctorate degree or is close to completing one, and those individuals are doing research related to the courses they teach.

States only recently have begun their push to use DE and AP courses to cut education costs, and little research has been done about their effectiveness although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence from university professors who are not impressed with the results.  Two studies sponsored by the National Center for Postsecondary Research and done in 2011 by the same researcher looked at the DE and AP experience in Florida.  The researcher discovered that dual enrollment had no effect on increasing  the number of students who complete high school or who enroll and complete college.  Nevertheless, those who enroll in one challenging course increased their likelihood of attending and completing college.  When the same researcher looked at DP and AP courses, she found that those who took such courses were likely to enroll in and complete a college degree (this does not necessarily contradict the findings of her first study), but the likelihood was higher for those who actually went to college campuses to take the classes, as opposed to those taking them at their high schools.  DE students were more motivated than AP students to go to college, but they were less likely to attend a four-year institution.  There was little evidence to suggest that there was a difference between DE and AP students as far as obtaining a bachelor’s degree is concerned.

DE and AP courses can be excellent introductions to the college environment, but the qualifications of the instructors and the structure of the courses may vary widely and may not duplicate the college level.  As a result, they may not prepare the student for the college environment.  That is the topic of a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, based on the experience of Texas.  One administrator at the University of Texas at Austin stated, “I think there’s been an overemphasis on early acceleration in terms of credit accumulation and not enough on making sure students are ready to do the next thing.”  This article and many other studies do not consider another factor: the emotional and mental ability of students to handle college-level courses.  Intellectual maturity is related to chronological age and not just how many courses one completes, so cramming two years of college into the last two years of high school actually may put students at a disadvantage when they are taking upper-level courses with their slightly older peers who have had more experience at the university level.  The solution is to take some AP and DE courses, especially if they are challenging and the teacher is well qualified, but not to aim for completing an AA degree while still in high school.

Preparing for college involves taking challenging electives, working to excel in every class, expanding one’s interests, and continuing to learn outside the classroom.  Colleges teach critical thinking and are not high-level trade schools that merely prepare students for a profession.  Critical thinking makes the engineer a problem solver, enables the musician to tap his or her most creative talents, and makes the medical doctor an insightful diagnostician.  Being responsible for one’s own education is the first step in building creative thinking because it requires not only top performance in the classroom but acquiring knowledge on one’s own.

The National Center for Postsecondary Research studies are available at and  The NCPR web site is at    Will Firzhugh’s article is “Meaningful Work: How the History Research Paper Prepares Students for College and Life,” American Educator 35 (Winter 2011-2012): 32-34 and 40 (the quotation is from p. 33).  See also “A Closer Look at Meaningful Work” in the same issue (pp. 35-39) that describes Fitzhugh’s method of helping students write a history research paper and a portion of a student paper that he published in his journal.  An article about some of the differences between AP and DE classes is at  The 2016 article about the Texas experience is at

Rev. 23.VII.2016