Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Final Countdown

Getting the Most Out of Your High School Education or How to Best Prepare Yourself for College

Several of my former students are receiving their college acceptance letters in the mail.  I've seen the Facebook posts:  "Accepted to UT!"  or "Just got my acceptance letter from ETSU!".  Well, it is, after all, that time of year.
This time next year, my charming little freshmen will once again be freshmen, but the stakes and the cost this time will be much higher.  So, how do I, as a teacher, ensure that these students begin their college careers with the best possible start?
The College Board (henceforth called The Board) recently released the results of an interesting survey.  The Board, if you aren't aware (as I wasn't), is the creator of several large, well-known exams (the SAT being the most prominent) and the curriculum and tests for AP classes amongst other things.  Blood-sucker status aside, the results of this survey shed some very interesting light on what we can do to better prepare our students to be successful in their post-secondary lives.
Here's a break-down of some of the numbers:

  • The Board surveyed 1500 students who graduated with the class of 2010.
  • 74% of those 1500 students immediately enrolled in some form of post-secondary education upon graduating from high school.
  • 47% of the respondents said they wished that they had worked harder in high school, and many of those said they wished they had taken different classes.
  • Only 49% said they felt like high school adequately prepared them for both college and work.
  • 58% of students say that they rely upon their family to help them in setting goals after high school.
  • 86% said they believed that a college degree was worthwhile, and 76% of them were not enrolled in any type of degree program at the time of the survey.
  • 54% said that their college classes were more difficult than they expected them to be.
  • And, sadly, of the 74% who had enrolled in some form of post-secondary education immediately out of high school, 81% did not complete their first year.
Let's take a look at that 81% who didn't complete their first year of PSE (post-secondary education).  There are many reasons why a student may not complete his/her first year:  not enough money to complete the year, an unexpected accident or death, but I suspect that for many students it comes down to a lack of preparation.
There are many ways a student can be unprepared for college.  Certainly a lack of academic preparation is the first thing that jumps to my mind, but some students simply choose the wrong college or the wrong career path.  Did you catch the statistic above that said that 58% of students rely on their family for advice?  I know that's probably a shock to some parents whose teenagers have essentially ignored them for the past four years, but they don't necessarily seek out the opinions of guidance counselors, teachers, or friends.
Knowing this, the next question is:  What can parents do to help ensure that they guide their teenagers in the right direction?

  • Encourage your child to take harder classes.  I say this with a caveat.  There is a fine-line between encouraging/insisting that your child take harder classes and being pushy.  Only do this if you are certain that you child has both the work ethic and the skills to be able to handle the class.  Otherwise, you could do more harm than good.  One of the best things my mom ever did for me was insist that I take a fourth math my senior year of high school.  Math was never my strong point, and I had completed the state graduation requirements (Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2).  In my mind, I was done with math.  However, my mom insisted that I take the extra math class, and in the spring of my senior year I found myself sitting in a statistics class.  I didn't appreciate at that time, but when I found out that the ONLY math class I had to have to graduate college was statistics, I was grateful when I could stop doing the homework for that class in October because I knew everything we were covering all ready.  I guess my mom decided (correctly) that if I could handle Algebra 2, then I could handle statistics.
  • If you are not familiar with the college application process, take the time to learn.  I have never met a guidance counselor who couldn't find time to talk to a parent.  Attend informational meetings that your school or community is offering.  
  • Know what schools your child is considering, and what career path he/she has in mind.  There is no law that your child has to stick with the major that he/she enters college with.  My college didn't require you to declare a major until the end of your sophomore year, but if your child is considering a highly specialized career, this information should color his or her choices pretty heavily.  If your child has trouble with large classes, perhaps sending him/her to the largest university in the state is not the best idea.  
  • Go with your child to tour some of the schools on the short list.  Get a feel for the campus and the people. 
  • Encourage your child to apply to multiple schools.  We all had our first choice schools, but there is always the possibility that your child might not get in to that first choice.  Like most things in life, he/she needs to have a back-up plan.
  • Take the SAT and/or the ACT more than once.  As of a couple of years ago, ACT allowed students to take the ACT exam for free once.  Use this to your advantage as a test-run.  Once the scores have returned, you will know what areas you REALLY need to focus on the next time you take it.
What can teachers and schools do to prepare our students?

  • Teachers, if you're ever given the opportunity to be trained to teach an AP class, take it even if you don't think you'll use it right away.  I know that in the case of biology, the teachers must first be trained to teach AP Biology and these training classes are expensive.  You would be amazed at the number of schools that don't have AP classes because their faculty lacks the proper training.
  • Encourage your students to consider some form of post-secondary education.  No, not every student needs to attend a four-year university, but many students are oblivious to the fact that there are other options out there.  
  • Don't be afraid of making your class challenging.  Your students will thank you for it later.
  • Contact professors at area colleges and find out where they feel their in-coming freshman are lacking.  This type of collaboration will allow you to see where to focus your efforts.
If you want to read the College Board survey results, you can view their pdf document here:

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