College Readiness: The Real Deal

By Nancy Barile on October 25, 2010
  • Grades: 9–12

What is it that makes high school students successful in college? How can high school teachers truly make sure their students are college ready?


More and more often we hear that high school students transitioning to college are not prepared for the academic or social challenges of higher education. With so much emphasis on college readiness, it is important that high school and college personnel have conversations about how to equip incoming college freshmen with the skills and abilities they need to be successful in college. I decided to explore this issue further by asking college professors and directors of student life a few questions. Their answers provided me with the following list of trouble areas:

Academic Skills

  • Students are not aware of resources available at college and are not proactive in looking for resources themselves.
  • Students need to take responsibility for their learning and show initiative in achieving academic goals.
  • Students lack digital media literacy. While they may use many technologies socially, students are not always savvy users of technology and online content for school work. Students need to learn how to review online sources critically and to beyond just "Googling" a topic and taking the first two hits when doing online research.
  • There is a great deal of unintentional plagiarism that goes on in college, mainly because students do not understand how to properly find and use online content. And if they do use it, students don't understand the fine line between citing and copying.
  • Many freshmen have difficulty exercising intellectual curiosity in college. As high school students, they were in very structured classroom settings — as a result especially of high stakes testing. College can feel a little loose or confusing to students who are not used to thinking beyond the assigned task.
  • Students lack basic grammar, punctuation, and spelling skills. They are unable to develop a thesis statement and support a claim in a clear, logical manner.
  • Students have difficulty managing their time and their workload in college. They are not prepared for the course load they are taking, and they do not understand the amount of out-of-class time necessary to be successful.

Social Skills

  • Students are not aware of the consequences of their actions and the impact that alcohol and drug use may have on their college experience.
  • Students are not aware of diversity and social justice issues. Students are often not aware of differences and how to accept, understand, and celebrate diversity.
  • Very often first generation college students are unsure of what even basic terms, such as "RA" or "residence hall," mean, and how they can get help on campus when they need it.
  • Students need to understand that they will be on their own for the first time, and they need to be able to adjust to this independence.
  • Incoming freshmen often lack emotional maturity. Some of the newest college students have experienced such overscheduled lives during high school that a little freedom can be overwhelming for them.


What Can High School Teachers Do to Help Make the Transition More Successful?

  • Make sure all teachers focus on writing skills across the curriculum. All subject teachers should require students to write for a variety of purposes and for different audiences.
  • Since time management is of critical importance in college, provide students with the tools to help organize and manage their workload. One effective thing teachers can do is encourage students to buy a small dry erase board for their dorm rooms. Each week students should list every assignment for each class. Students can cross off work completed and add new assignments, but their workload is always visible to them; the board provides a constant reminder of what needs to be done.
  • Stress the importance of connecting with the professor in each course. Freshmen, especially those in large classes, are often reluctant to establish a relationship with their professor; however, this is of utmost importance — especially if the student is struggling in a course. Encourage students to make use of a professor's office hours immediately.
  • Help students find ways to manage their workload in order to offset procrastination. For example, if the student has one week to read 250 pages, divide 250 by 7 to figure out that s/he must read about 36 pages per night in order to meet that goal.


  • Review basic writing conventions with students and allow for multiple ways to incorporate the planning and drafting of writing assignments and projects requiring major writing. Students, especially those who do not speak English as their first language, can benefit from basic grammar and punctuation review. Students should all have the Scholastic Writer's Desk Reference in a handy location at all times.
  • Encourage students to explore research topics in their areas of interest instead of using stock assignments. Extraordinary Research Projects is a great tool for helping students decide on innovative and exciting topics for further exploration.



  • Provide students with opportunities to work on their presentation skills through a variety of assignments. A good resource to help with this is Extraordinary Oral Presentations by Margaret Ryan. This book shows students how to brainstorm and use their creativity and out-of-the-box thinking to explore innovative multimedia approaches.
  • Provide assignments/tasks that give the students a little more autonomy as far as practicing their time management skills and allow some flexibility in topic selection or development so that students can exercise their intellectual curiosity.
  • Encourage students to actively participate in class. Explain why it is important for students to contribute to the discourse in both high school and college classes.
  • Teach students what plagiarism is and isn't, as well as correct APA and/or MLA citation styles. Show them how to use online content correctly. Librarians are great partners in helping to educate students (and teachers) in this area.
  • High schools need to continue to increase the rigor of their coursework. The Mind the Gaps study by ACT showed that a strong core curriculum in high school enhances a students' chance of enrolling in college, staying in college, and earning a two or four year degree.
  • Create a strong Advanced Placement program at your school and encourage students to enroll in AP courses. AP courses help students get a head start on college level work, and they enable students to improve their writing skills and sharpen their problem-solving techniques. They also help students develop the study habits necessary for tackling rigorous coursework.
  • Engage students in team challenges that require them to work with different populations in order to open up their "friend spectrum." This could include attending lectures at local colleges, planning field trips with other schools, and using technology such as Skype to interact with students from other areas of the country and the world.
  • Create a transition program by partnering with colleges to offer "shadow days" to pair high school students with college students to discuss the myths and realities of college.
  • Bring in former students to discuss the differences between college and high school and to help familiarize future freshmen with college life, including the pitfalls associated with the overindulgence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Take field trips to local colleges so that students can become familiar with campus life and the college lexicon.
  • Make students aware of on-campus services that help make life easier: the medical center, the housing office, technology assistance, Office of Health and Wellness, and ethnic and religious organizations.
  • I've said it before, but it bears repeating: help low-income students obtain the cultural capital they are missing by equipping them with the resources necessary for success and providing them with experiences that will allow them to compete with their wealthier peers. These experiences can include trips to museums, cultural events, musical performances, and presentations at local colleges.

Good luck!

~ Nancy


Yes, Michael, you're right - cultural capital IS something I'm quite passionate about because I have SEEN firsthand what it does for kids. Wait til you read my opera blog in a couple of weeks! Stay tuned............

"Cultural capital"; a recurring term with you that I love. All students have their God-given right to it, regardless of their economic standing. Teachers need to make it happen, and to teach students how to find the resources for it. Kudos, Nan.

Oh, Mare - the grammar war is one I fight on a daily basis. Kids learn less and less - everyone says it should be taught through the writing, but students aren't learning it at all. I have to do commas with my AP class! I don't know WHAT is going to happen with this issue!

Nancy, Thank you for sharing this. It helps the teacher in previous grades to support you. I feel as though I am losing the spelling/grammar war though. I am constantly teach generalized spelling rules and grammar. At some point, I have to move on. I am concerned that the new CCSS standards are focusing on pronouns at the sixth grade level. Wow! Of all the grammar I teach, pronouns are what is identified as the most significant. Go figure.

I agree, Eileen! The earlier the better. If all teachers focus on these issues, our students will most definitely be ready.

I applaud you for highlighting these issues. Thanks for sharing!

I think this isn't just for high school teachers, though. As a fifth grade teacher, I work on many of these issues with my students. They are completely capable of learning these skills before high school so I hope elementary teachers start focusing on these concerns as well.

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