Making the most of college

Had a fun conversation at lunch with colleagues about how the craziness of college admissions hasn’t really changed all that much from our day.  A huge difference is that kids apply to so many more college due to the low barriers from the common application and on-line applications.  Back in our day, we had to use the mail!  And, sometimes even type things!  Anyway, I did really enjoy this recent piece from the CEO of the College Board about making the most of college.  One of the big lessons is that college is what you make of it– and that’s about you, not where you go to college.  Anyway…

The 3 percent of students whose lives changed for the better—who, according to Gallup, had the types of experiences that “strongly relate to great jobs and great lives afterward”—had three features in common: a great teacher and mentor, intensive engagement in activities outside class, and in-depth study and application of ideas.

These three shared features are all about intensity—not just participation in college life, but active engagement. They require students to move beyond merely doing something and toward becoming devoted to something. They require a depth of commitment that will serve students well throughout their lives. And yet nearly nothing in the admissions process tells students that these are the keys to their success…

1. Find great teachers.

At the College Board, we regularly convene first-generation students on the threshold of college to help them plan their future. These students have been remarkably resourceful in navigating their path to college, yet they have much less to say about how they will succeed once there. I have asked hundreds of high-school students what choices they will make in college that will most shape their success. Students talk about which major they will choose, who their friends will be, or which clubs they’ll join. They never say that their most important decision will be who their professors are. In general, students are extremely passive about seeking out great teaching…

Finding great teachers and insisting on learning from them is a form of resistance. You must push the rules and the system. One of the most misleading things we say in education is that a good school will “give you an excellent education.” A great education is never given—it is taken. The ancient myth of Prometheus is more honest; the gods do not give Prometheus the flame—he steals it.

Ummm, I do like to think I am one of these teachers that make a lasting difference.  I certainly strive to be.

2. Pick an activity (or maybe two).

Religious tradition testifies that immersion changes lives. Research agrees; the College Board reviewed dozens of studies to find the factors that most predict success. After grades and test scores, the factor that most predicts college success is follow-through—that is, students’ sustained effort and growth in one or two extracurricular activities while in high school. Students who devote themselves to an activity are more likely to succeed later in areas such as campus leadership and independent accomplishment.

Devotion to one or two activities—not several—advances you. Competition to get into college has metastasized into a race where more is better. We have sacrificed the productive ideal of nurturing excellence in one thing for the mad rush to submit a résumé of too many things…

3. Learn to love ideas, even when it hurts.

The luckiest people in life develop enduring fascinations and spend time honing their skills and learning new ones. They experience regularly the internal satisfaction that arises from encountering new ideas. With its focus on external measures of success, such as grades and test scores, the college-admissions scramble does little to communicate the importance of growth and exploration. For young people to be happy in college—and to excel there and the rest of their lives—they need to open themselves to new subjects and ideas that can captivate and motivate them. That process necessarily includes doing things they might not immediately like.

On a related note, I’m not letting my younger kids overwork themselves in high school (still 1+ and 7+ years off) with too many AP classes:

Even without federal indictments of parents who sought an unfair advantage, it’s clear that the American college-admissions system has created unproductive anxiety among families while doing little to foster the kind of devotion to learning that makes an education meaningful. All of us who are involved in this system—including the College Board—should reconsider what we can do to stop the madness.

Advanced Placement can help students discover and pursue a passion, but not if too many courses suffocate their time. Some students cram their schedules with AP courses to burnish their applications. While data show that taking up to five AP classes over the course of high school helps students succeed in college, there is no evidence that more than that is better. We therefore recently announced that taking more than five AP courses should provide no advantage in admissions. Students can take more AP if they want, but not to get into college.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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