Preparing for College

Dec. 3, 2014

Today I want to celebrate one of my own. My middle child, a son, will graduate with a degree in geology in about two weeks. I like to bring him up because he did not take a traditional route through college, but one that led him to successfully complete his college requirements.

I have written about him before, but his story is worth repeating. He is smart and made good grades in high school, but struggled with focus and boredom due to his being attention deficit. Due to the fact that he had taken several IB and AP classes, by the end of his junior year, he had all he needed to graduate except for a one-semester government class. When he showed me his line-up of classes for his senior year, I got a bit worried. I have no problem with interest-specific classes, but when the entire schedule was made up of classes like photography and videography, I got a sinking feeling that he might find himself with too much time for getting into trouble—which he had already proven he was capable of doing.

It was me, not him, that suggested he finish high school early and go do something useful in the world. He was suspicious, but listened as I suggested Americorps or something similar. He countered with the idea of going out of the country to volunteer. We started looking into gap year programs, but ended up constructing one on our own through one of my husband’s work colleagues.

This middle child and his older brother—who took a semester off from college, where he was doing well—took off that January to volunteer with a small NGO in Peru. They both had some Spanish, but took an intensive language course in the country before finding their way to the small community in which they worked. It was a great experience for both of them as they had to figure out transportation and housing, as well as their work project on their own.

After their return, older brother returned to college and the younger sized up his options quickly. He knew the rules: if you are a full-time student, your college fund kicks in; if not, you’re on your own. When he insisted he would attend the local community college, all kinds of alarms went off. I knew it wasn’t what he wanted, but he didn’t want to scrounge for his own rent. His dad and I tried to talk him out of it, telling him if he wasn’t serious, he would be wasting his college fund—so, of course, that is what he did—waste his college fund. He made Cs when he was completely capable of As and took classes that didn’t go toward much when he finally did get serious about college.

Shortly into the second semester of community college, he came to me to proclaim I was right: He wasn’t ready for college. Instead he was heading to New Zealand. He saved a couple of thousand from his part-time job, and his dad and I told him to have a great time. Which he did. He worked when he needed enough money, traveled all over, met lots of people, made all his own decisions, and truly matured.

Ten months or so later, he returned broke, but happy with his adventures. He was forced to live at home for awhile due to lack of funds, and he took the first job he could get: selling high end vacuum cleaner and air filter systems. He actually was a good salesman, but hated the job. About three weeks into it, he came to us and said: “I’m ready for college.” And he was.

He started university the following fall, was a serious student, did well in his classes, loved his major of geology, and is now set to graduate in a couple of weeks—at age 25. I never doubted that he would eventually go to college, but I knew it needed to be on his own terms. That is something that many parents have a difficult time accepting, but accept it they should, as it never does any good to force a young person into college.

Education never has been a one-size fits all, and college is not the right path for every high school graduate, nor is going straight to college after high school. It can be a stop-start, much delayed, or a circular route getting there. But the student shouldn’t start until he or she is ready, willing, and able. That’s what it’s all about.

Congratulation Wes!!

Oct. 21, 2014


In this venue and in the pages of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?, I have argued and tried to show that success in college involves much more than academic skill. One person I like to quote to substantiate my argument is Dr. David Conley of the University of Oregon. Dr. Conley is a leading researcher of college readiness and has authored many papers and books on the subject. I ran across an October 2013 interview with him by Project Information Literacy of the University of Washington. The interviewer asks what it means to be college ready in today’s world.


Heartening to me, Dr. Conley said that eligibility for college and readiness for college are not the same. He explained that eligibility means that the student has taken challenging high school courses and done well, and has done well on standardized and admissions testing. Readiness, however, “implies that the student’s preparation is well aligned with the full set of knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in postsecondary education. The emphasis here is on being able to succeed, not just on being admitted.”


As Toward College Success stresses, those skills necessary to succeed in postsecondary education also are skills needed to succeed in life. I simply call them life skills, and a young person needs to have the basics in life skills well honed when he or she leaves home after high school—for whatever is pursued. Without those skills, being admitted into college does not equal being successful in college.


Dr. Conley has construed a college readiness model that includes “12 components and 41 specific aspects that the college and career ready student needs to master to be fully ready.” They include cognitive strategies, content knowledge, learning skills and techniques, and transition knowledge and skills. Included within these are skills such as self-awareness, motivation, help-seeking, time management, and many others that are discussed in Toward College Success.


In the interview, Dr. Conley explains that testing, course selection, and grades are the components that easily convert into policy. The problem is that those components do not show the full capabilities or inadequacies of the student. Determining whether or not a student is truly “college and career ready” is more complex and much less easy to assess than a test—once again, this is a primary message in Toward College Success.


Dr. Conley also is asked about his insistence that teaching research skills is important for college success. He states that his research shows that most high school students are not assigned many research papers, and those that they are assigned are usually required to be several pages long. High school students are not learning how to investigate, analyze, hypothesize, and organize a shorter, accurate, concise well-written paper—the type of paper that is more often assigned in college. Then, unfortunately, once in college many of these students do not seek help with their writing because they do not has self-advocacy skills.


And on and on. I recommend reading the interview at and looking for more of Dr. Conley’s work on the subject of college readiness. I also recommend reading Toward College Success!


Sept. 4, 2014

There is a website on which reporters post “want ads” for information on subjects they are researching. Today I saw one of those information requests for college preparation advice for high school freshmen. The ad specifically requested “advice on how to build good habits.” I translate that to advice on how to be successful in college and life beyond high school.

How convenient then that the updated, second edition of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? has recently been released. It is, of course, full of just that kind of information. It is directed toward parents, however, because they are the ones that through guidance and the handing over of responsibilities give their teenagers those skills necessary for a successful college experience.

Although these skills have been discussed often in this forum, it is never too repetitive to make or update a list.

1. Your freshman should keep her own calendar. Include not only academic deadlines and dates, but have her note sport and extracurricular meeting dates, doctor appointments, and anything else she has going. You also should keep track of those dates because in the beginning she probably will miss a few. You can remind her, but eventually let her take over—and let her suffer the consequences of missing a deadline or an appointment.

2. In high school, many teenagers get involved in numerous activities: multiple sports, music, clubs, community service, a job. This is a good time to guide your teenager through priority management. Teenagers can become overwhelmed juggling too many activities on top of school work. Make it clear that academics come first. If school work starts to slide, then your teenager may need guidance in deciding which activities to let go. This can be hard for parents because the teenager may decide to give up something that mom or dad really want him to pursue—such as piano lessons or a particular sport that is near and dear to mom or dad’s heart. Remember that this is the teenager’s life and he needs to make the decisions.

3. If you haven’t already, this is a good time to put your teenager on a budget and teach her financial responsibility. Make a list of the items you will pay for and those for which the teenager is responsible. Do this whether the teenager’s money is an allowance, from work she does for you, or from an outside part-time job—and stick to the plan. This is a good time to show your teenager your household expenses and how you budget.

4. Provide opportunities for your teenager to improve his communication skills. During family gatherings or when friends are around, ask an adult to start conversations with your teen, asking about the teen’s activities, interests, or views. Teens need to learn to communicate face-to-face instead of relying on texting or social media outlets. Also encourage your teen to ask questions as that is a good way to start networking and building contacts.

That’s a good list to start. It will grow as your teenager ages and as you give out graduated responsibility. Keep reminding yourself that the goal is to help your teenager be ready, willing, and able for success in college and life beyond high school.

March 21, 2014

While giving a presentation a few weeks ago to a local school, I was introduced to a fine program offered by Colorado State University. The Dream Project is a “student-initiated, student-run high school outreach program that focuses on peer-to-peer mentorship.” CSU students give their time and energy to helping first generation and low-income high school students figure out the right-fit college, maneuver the college application process, and successfully make it to higher education.

After I had finished my presentation, a group of energetic CSU Dream Project members explained the program and encouraged high school students to contact them if they had questions. Their enthusiasm and eagerness to help was inspiring, and the Dream Project appears to be a great resource for local high school students.

In its second year, CSU’s Dream Project is closely modeled on the University of Washington’s program, embracing the same mission, values, goals, and name as UW’s Dream Project. CSU’s Dream Project not only offers high school students college application assistance that they may not have at home, but it teaches “CSU students about educational opportunity and social mobility and examines these ideas in the context of Colorado State University.” CSU Dream Project students attend a class that meets twice a week—“once as an entire class as part of the CSU course and once with their smaller group at their assigned high school to work with the students. Since the Dream Project is a CSU course as well as an outreach program, participating students can receive up to two credits per quarter.”

In Fort Collins, Dream Project members have a presence at two area high schools, but they encourage students from any high school to contact them. They begin working with students in the junior year to point them toward courses they should take, encourage them to get involved in community service, research colleges, prepare for the SAT and/or ACT, and help them start scholarship searches. In the senior year, Project members help students through the application process, including getting letters of recommendation, writing entrance essays, and filling out financial aid forms. In addition, Project members will take high school students around the CSU campus to give them a feel for college life, and they hold social events to build community.

Because the CSU Dream Project is relatively new, it is still building its program, but one goal is to offer scholarships in the future. UW’s Dream Project offers small scholarships from monies raised entirely by UW students.

The Dream Project model appears to be a win-win program for both high school and college students. So far, the model has been adopted only by CSU and Rutgers University—I do hope other universities will join in to promote this program of students helping students.

To read more about CSU’s Dream Project, go to:

For UW’s, go to:

Aug. 21. 2013

The ACT makers announced today that the average composite score on its 2013college-entrance exam is the lowest it’s been in eight years. Apparently, since 2006, the composite score has hovered at 21.1 (out of a possible 36) until this year when it dropped to 20.9. In addition, only 39 percent of 2013 ACT test takers met three or more of the college-readiness benchmarks in English, math, and science. Does that mean a lot of high school graduates are not college ready?

I don’t think the composite scores mean that, but I do think a high percentage of high school graduates are not college ready. In an Education Week article, writer Caralee Adams presented the discussion of what these lower scores mean. In one reader comment following her article, a commenter summed up something I believe. He wrote: “It’s not about so-called academic readiness; it’s about maturity and being personally responsible.”

While I believe academic readiness is definitely an important part of college readiness, I definitely agree that maturity and personal responsibility play a huge role in college success. That, of course, is the whole premise of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able. As I’ve said before, a 4.0 GPA does not ensure college success, nor does high test scores.  If a student cannot manage her time and priorities, cannot handle conflict, cannot manage her finances, cannot self-advocate, then that student is going to have a tough time succeeding in college.

While parents of high school juniors and seniors fret over upcoming college-entrance exams, they should remember their part in being sure their teenager is college ready. It is up to parents to teach the life skills that all teenagers will need to solve problems, make adjustments, and move toward accomplishment once those teenagers head out into the world—whether it is to college, work, military, or whatever. If parents see that their teenager has not honed needed life skills, then parents need to encourage their teenager to take some gap time and undertake meaningful occupation to help grow those skills. College will be there when that student is finally ready, willing, and able to succeed.

To read the article:

July 30, 2013

Before long, students will be back at school learning their new schedules and getting their routines down. And while many seniors will be filling out college applications, this is a good time for younger students to consider that college application. No need to fill out an application two or three years in advance, but it is important to consider how equipped your student will be to complete a winning application. What younger students do with their “free time” is almost as important as their grades in securing a spot at the college of choice.

College applications not only ask for grades and test scores, the school also wants to know about the student’s extracurricular activities. Colleges want well-rounded students who are used to being involved in organizations, participants in school and community events, and who volunteer for causes of all kinds. They want students who already know how to seek out service or activity-related groups that interest them. Students who get involved on their college campuses have a better chance of success than loners or those who hang back.

In a recent GoLocalWorcester College article, writer Cristiana Quinn listed 10 activities that colleges like to see on student resumes. Student government, debate teams, and academic teams such as robotics or science were among the academic type of activities that score points with colleges. Involvement in such groups or clubs indicates leadership, critical thinking skills, and the willingness to work hard outside of class time to achieve a goal.

Also on the list was participation in the arts, with the school newspaper or literary magazine, and in clubs that supports diversity, such as a gay-straight club. The arts show creativity, contributing to the school newspaper shows an interest in writing—the academic skill most needed in college—and participating in a diversity club indicates a student that is tolerant and open-minded. Again, all skills that lead to success in college.

Of course, community service made the list. Quinn stated that community service is actually a “must,” and that most colleges want to see at least 50 hours per school year. The activity doesn’t matter, so a student should find somewhere to volunteer that matches her passions or interests. She could be a side walker for a horseback riding therapy clinic; he could volunteer at the local animal shelter; she could read stories to children at the library—the opportunities truly are endless. Community service indicates a student willing to lend a hand, make a difference, and be involved—characteristics that appeal to college admissions officers.

I was happy to see that Quinn included part-time jobs on her list. As she pointed out, many students need to work to help out their families or they just want the independence that earning their own money allows. Colleges recognize that holding a job also hones skills that lead to college success, such as time and financial management, commitment, and taking responsibility.

High school students who hope to attend college will improve their acceptance chances if they include meaningful extracurricular activities that improve the skills they will need to be successful in college and beyond.

To read Quinn’s article, go to

Dec. 12, 2012

The emphasis on “college readiness” continues to dominate education news. I’ve just read about a new three-year initiative to “develop and study the implementation of a system of signals and supports designed to significantly increase the readiness of students to enter and succeed in college.” The Tri-Level College Readiness Indicator Systems (CRIS) is a collaborative effort by the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

 Apparently this new initiative will build upon existing college readiness indicators to give secondary schools additional tools to determine whether or not their students have what it takes to be college ready. Existing indicators focus on academic skills, while the new CRIS indicators will include some of those “soft skills” that I so often talk about in this forum. In particular, the CRIS indicators look at three levels of college readiness:

  • Academic readiness: Grades, rigorous classes, test scores.
  • Academic tenacity: Includes the student understanding the importance of attendance, of performing well, of self-discipline.
  • College knowledge: Includes understanding the admissions process, actually completing college applications, preparing for entrance exams, meeting with school counselors, and developing good time management and study skills.

 The point of the initiative is to help schools develop their own method of identifying weaknesses in their college readiness efforts; then, of course, the idea is that the schools will implement improvements to bump up those efforts, with the utopian goal of every graduate being ready to succeed in college.

 It is a noble goal and I do believe secondary schools and districts need to better understand what it means to be college ready. However, because not every student will want to go to college, I believe there needs to be just as much effort placed on helping students determine the right path to take after high school graduation. Students need information and guidance on trade, vocational, and certificate programs, and they need to be assured that these are credible paths to pursue. College and career readiness skills definitely overlap, but if the emphasis is solely on college, then we carry on the stigma that trade, vocational, and certificate programs are somehow less noble, less desirable, and an indication that the student couldn’t “make it” at a four-year college.

 Students should be introduced to all post-graduate possibilities as soon as they enter high school, be encouraged to take rigorous courses to keep all options open, and then tailor their junior and/or senior years to enhance the post-secondary path they choose. As for those soft skills—well, as I point out in Toward College Success, schools can do some, but it is really up to parents to guide their teenagers toward the maturity, resiliency, and tenacity that those young adults will need to be successful when they leave home.

 To read more about CRIS, go to or

April 24, 2012

Eighty-four percent of middle and high school students and 77 percent of Fortune 1000 executive “strongly agree that there will be few or no career opportunities for today’s students who do not complete some education beyond high school.”

 That statement comes from the recently released Metlife Survey of the American Teacher: Preparing Students for College and Careers. The report, which surveyed middle and high school students, parents, teachers, and Fortune 1000 executives on the importance of graduating high school prepared to succeed in college, is part of a series that began in 1984 to “give voice to those closest to the classroom.” This most recent survey asks respondents to evaluate the importance of college readiness and what that means.

 Everything that I read about college readiness seems to confirm the focus of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? This survey is no different. I continue to believe that Toward College Success is an excellent resource for parents who want to be proactive in helping their teenagers be college-ready.

 Some of the highlights of this survey include:

  • Forty-eight percent of executives, 54 percent of teachers, and 73 percent of parents believe that “graduating each and every student from high school ready for college and a career” as one of the highest priorities of education. (Toward College Success will give parents ideas on how to boost their teenager’s readiness.)
  • In 1988, only 57 percent of middle and high school students expected they would go on to college. Today, 75 percent consider themselves highly likely to go to college. However, only teachers believe that only about 63 percent of their students will be college ready after high school, and they believe only 51 percent of their students will have the skills and sticking power to graduate from college.
  • And one near and dear to my heart: 99 percent of English teachers and 92 percent of math teachers rate the ability to “write clearly and persuasively as absolutely essential or very important to be ready for college and a career.” They rate that skill higher than they do for higher level math or science.
  • More students worry about how to pay for college as opposed to be accepted into a college.
  • Almost half of the parents believe their child’s school does not provide enough information on how their teenager can get into college or how to pay for it.
  • More than half of middle school students and parents believe their school does not provide enough information about requirements for getting into college. (Toward College Success stresses that parents need to begin evaluating and preparing their teenagers for college success in middle school.)

 As always, the message is: Be involved in your teenager’s education and in and out of the classroom. Evaluate your teenager’s education and get him help if you find deficiencies. Give them opportunities to learn the life skills they will need once they leave home. Help them find the path to success.

 To read the full survey, go to:

April 3, 2012

It is no hidden agenda that the reason I write this blog every week, Tweet every day, post on Facebook, write Ezine articles, etc., is to bring attention to my book, Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? I do want to sell books—no doubt. But the primary reason I joined the late Pat Wilkins-Wells in writing this book was because I truly believed parents needed the resource it offered. So as I slog out more words every week, it is a real boost to hear from parents that the book is indeed doing what it was intended to do: help them evaluate and prepare their teenagers to be successful in college or to decide on a different path after high school.

 I recently heard from a friend who has three kids: two in high school and one about to finish elementary. One of her high schoolers is a senior whom I helped work through his college application essay. He applied to a handful of instate schools and was accepted by all three—a big high-five to him! Their son is interested in engineering and is a skilled carpenter who has impressively completed projects such as the total refinishing of their basement. But through the college application process, his mom and dad felt that nagging intuition that their senior might not be ready for the leap into independence and college. He is a responsible student, but has to work hard for higher marks. Even though he made all the right moves toward applying to college, something just didn’t feel right to him or to Mom and Dad.

 My friend wrote to tell me, that after some long discussions, their son has decided to remain in his hometown and attend the local community colleges his first year. My friend said that reading Toward College Success helped her and her husband come to the conclusion that this decision is “setting our son up for success, not holding him back or stigmatizing him. We really believe that in another year, he will have more maturity and confidence in his ability and will be much more successful in a college setting. He seems much more relaxed and excited about this choice as well.”

 I give this family a big kudos for figuring this out instead of pushing their son toward a four-year institution that would possibly overwhelm him at this point in his life. These parents realized that the most important thing is helping their son find his path to success, regardless of their preconceived ideas about where and when to go to college.

 Another parent wrote to say that after reading Toward College Success, she realized there is more to think about that just grade point averages and test scores. She wrote: “Since hearing you speak and reading your book, I changed a few of our plans for our child to better prepare him for heading off to college.”

 Such comments, of course, puff me up a bit, but mainly I’m glad that parents are finding Toward College Success to be exactly what it was intended to be: an important resource to help them honestly evaluate their teenager’s readiness for college.

Feb. 7, 2012

In school districts across the country that are large enough to have multiple schools, including charter schools, families usually are given the option of school of choice. Early in the calendar year is the usual time that families are asked to make their options known. For parents with teenagers entering high school, searching for a school that best prepares their child for college is often a top priority.

 What does a parent look for in a school that will well prepare their student for college success? The obvious first answer is to look for a school with rigorous academic opportunities. Most high schools today offer AP or Advanced Placement classes that offer students the opportunity to earn college credit while in high school, depending on that student’s scores on the AP exit exams. AP is a curriculum sponsored by the College Board that standardizes courses to be equivalent to a college course.

 Another rigorous curriculum is the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. It usually takes schools two to three years to qualify to become an IB school, therefore this program is not available in every school district. The IB program is divided into three sections: the primary years (grades KG through 5), the middle years (grades 5 through 10), and the IB diploma program (grades 11 and 12). Depending on the particular school’s rules, a student can enter the IB program at any grade except during the diploma program—that program requires the full two years. Like AP classes, students who perform well on IB exit exams can earn college credit—in some cases, up to a year’s worth of credit.

 Besides these two programs, parents can search for charter or magnet schools that specialize in certain subjects or adhere to certain curriculum philosophies. Examples are science, math, and technology schools; performing arts schools; and schools that offer a “classic” curriculum. The definition of classic curriculum can vary from school to school.

 For the student that wants to pursue college and be successful there, taking challenging high school courses is the way to go. But it also is important that the student fulfill his or her other interests. When deciding on a high school, parents and students should consider the school’s opportunities for sports, academic clubs, social clubs, and community service. Most teenagers are not focused solely on academics, and their other interests can serve them well in getting into college and being successful once there.

 And by all means, go visit the schools, talk to the administrators, view the facilities, and ask questions. Be sure to include your teenager in the decision-making process. Remember she is the one that has to thrive in whatever high school environment she is placed, so considering her views and concerns should be as important as yours. Then stay interested and involved in her school career to help further her success in high school and beyond.