High school and being prepared for college

I was poorly prepared for college. I took the right classes in high school, got good grades, and was able to get into college. It was just implementing that college acceptance that tripped me up. In fact, I was such a screw up that my father drove up to campus after the first trimester ended – got a D and failed a class, of the three I was taking – and told me to get my act together or else.

I’ve been thinking about what tripped me up that first year of college. Some of it had to do with the knowledge I did not get in high school. I was terrible in my college French class, for example, since I didn’t know what a direct or indirect object was (as well as the fact that I slept through my 8:00 am French drill class more than I made it). I loved writing but was a clod at it, clumsy and opaque, and college math was a foreign language to me; I had become procedurally facile in high school, able to solve calculus problems through tricks and sleight of hand, but I was conceptually bereft, clueless to the underlying concepts of a math problem. That didn’t bode well in Math 13 at college.

I also didn’t have what was more important than the book knowledge needed to succeed in college: I did not know how to learn. In high school, I got by with a minimal understanding of that mindset – with a minimal understanding of the skills needed to study effectively, to manage my time, to read texts closely, to prepare for quizzes and tests and long-term projects. I know, I know: I was 18 at the time, with the pre-frontal cortex to show for it. But I don’t remember intentional instruction on these kinds of skills, and that lack showed ugly when I got to college. (And so did the free beer in fraternity basements. Here’s a math equation I now understand: Lack of study skills + free beer + poorly developed pre-fontal cortex = disaster. But certainly a giddy disaster.)

I asked a few recent college students to weigh in on this high school/college issue. Did high school prepare you for college? How so? What are the biggest differences in your academic life at college, as compared to high school? Henry Wileman, a freshman at the University of Maryland and graduate of our local high school, Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC), had this to say:

Going to B-CC prepared me for college incredibly well. A lot of my high school teachers pushed us and demanded excellence, therefore making excellence a habit. That is what all professors at the University of Maryland expect from us.

I would say the biggest difference [between my academic work in college versus high school] is the responsibility we hold when it comes to academic work. The professors expect more from me than teachers at B-CC did and give students full control over their academic lives. All the professor does is post the assignment and then grade what he or she gets. No reminding of due dates and somewhat vague rubrics, with a fair amount of time to complete the assignment.

A high school classmate of Henry’s, Ella Grove, who’s a freshman at Chapman University, had this to say about high school and college:

I’d say the biggest difference [between high school and college] would be the amount of attention that teachers give to individual students. While I go to a fairly small school, it’s still a big adjustment to not have teachers knowing a lot about me and the specific way I learn. I would just say that high school teachers (especially at B-CC) have a much closer education-based connection to their students than the professors at my university. At Chapman it’s more an “either you do well or you don’t” attitude.

Brigit Cann, who also went to B-CC and is a sophomore at Oberlin, zeroed in on what tripped me up in college: writing.

I’d say the biggest difference between college and high school is the writing. Because I took many AP classes in high school, much of that coursework was based around the AP exam, which meant writing short essays in short periods of time. In college I’m required to write much longer papers. This was a shock to me at first, but I’ve learned how to write them. Overall, I feel that high school prepared me well for college with the exception of the writing.

College coursework is different; there’s more of it, but you’re given more time to complete it. Once I got the hang of time management, it became much easier. I’ve found that reaching out to professors and going to office hours really helps me get a sense of what they’re looking for when grading assignments. This has been helpful for me because college coursework is far less formulaic than high school.

Lastly, here’s what Caroline Karson, a graduate of B-CC and a freshman at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR, had to say. She too credits learning to write in high school as critically important for college:

The biggest difference [between high school and college] is that in college I have a lot more time. In high school, I’d be in school from 7:00 to 2:00 and then swim practice from 4:00 to 6:00, to be home around 7:00. That left me with two-three hours to do homework, spend time with family, eat dinner, shower, etc. I felt rushed during my days in high school because I had such a tight schedule. As a result, I learned to complete homework during school lunch and to make use of the free time I had during school.

I also feel like I’m well prepared for what I’m being asked of in college. I was in a full International Baccalaureate (IB) program in high school, and in IB, we had many long-term projects, such as the extended essay and the internal assessments, and they prepared me to write essays and papers, from six to 22 pages long. For me there was no disconnect between high school and college work; IB trained me to learn time management and other skills that not only help for college but also for life.

There’s no true surprise with what the four of them had to say; they talked about more independence at the college level, as there should be; about time management and its importance; about the level of expectation at college, which for some was matched by rigorous high school programs; and about writing well. How do we ensure that all high school students are ready for college in these four areas?

I got the first picture here. The Chapman pic came from here. I got the last picture here.

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