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4 Academics Skill To Master Before College

Parents ask me all the time for advice on how to get their high school students prepared for the rigors of college. My daughter barely cracks a book, how is she going to deal with college textbooks? My son totally panics on tests, how is he going to deal with huge exams? She doesn’t know how to study. He isn’t self-motivated. Are we going to spend thousands of dollars only to see them drop out after one semester?

The short answer: there’s nothing to worry about. Take a deep breath. Believe it or not, if students are smart about the approach they take to preparing themselves for college, they might even find that college can be significantly easier than high school. In order to make a student’s’ college experience a success, here are 4 key areas they need to develop before leaving the hallways of high school for the quads of college.

  1. Learn how to communicate with adults. So many students shutdown and fail to communicate whenever they hit a roadblock. Almost all colleges provide ample opportunities for students to get help via professor’s office hours, scheduled meetings with T.As, and/or tutoring centers. Students who learn how and when to ask for help are the ones most able to manage any challenges they face in college.

  2. Action Plan. In order to develop their communication skills, it is critical that high school students take on more responsibility for their schedule. They should be the ones emailing or texting their coaches, bosses, and teachers. They should keep track of their dentist appointments or ACT prep sessions. And, yes, they should be the ones communicating with their teachers if they are concerned about their understanding of a topic or needs to retake a test. Furthermore, they need to learn how valuable it can be to meet with a teacher (or professor) 1-on-1 whenever an issue arises.

  3. Implementation. It is critical that high school students learn how to use email to communicate in a professional and adult manner. Parents should help their students learn basic email etiquette. From an early age, students should also be encouraged to speak to adults as much as possible in order to develop a high aptitude for interacting with adults.

  1. Learn where, why, and how to read textbooks. Have you ever seen one of those 15 lb. behemoths with thousands of pages and font that can only be read with the assistance of a magnifying glass? Yep, I’m talking about college textbooks, which can be as scary as they look. However, efficient readers understand how to skim the material for pertinent information that supports the concepts discussed in class.

  2. Action plan. In order to become an efficient reader, there is no substitute to reading. It can’t be said enough: students need to read. It is the single most important skill for parents to reinforce before their students enter high school -- let alone college. Choose fun books. The level doesn’t matter so much as the simple fact that students re reading.

  3. Implementation.

  4. Where I tell my student to complete all textbook reading in the library with noise canceling headphones on. If they like to listen to music, that’s fine; however, it should be electronica or classical, anything without lyrics. The busy, focused energy of the library helps motivate students to work hard. Meanwhile, the headphones keep them locked-in on the page. They should never try to read textbooks in their bedroom or dorm room. It is just an exercise in futility.

  5. Why. In most courses, textbooks are intended to support or to introduce the material learned in class. The professor’s lectures are more important than the material in the book. Thus, students should learn to skim the textbook for pertinent information that props up what they have already discussed in class.

  6. How. Textbooks are not meant to be read like novels. The material is dense and informative. If students try to read the material in one sitting, they are bound to forget most of what they read. Efficient students read textbooks in chunks of 15-20 minutes. Read one section, take notes, give yourself a short break. And repeat. And repeat.

  7. Learn how to incorporate secondary sources in essays. Most students I work with have almost no clue how to use sources in their essays. Student either A) think it is ok to copy the sources verbatim without citing them, which is a great way to get expelled, B) spend hours trying to find sources that say exactly what they want to argue in their paper, and/or C) have no clue how to paraphrase let alone quote a source efficiently in their body paragraphs. Teaching students how to find, cite, and use secondary sources, cuts the amount of time it takes them to write a paper in half and ensures they will be able to write a quality essay on almost any topic.

  8. Action plan. Secondary sources should be used to support the argument a student is making throughout the paper. The first key is to determine a basic outline for the paper. Then find good sources through online portals such as EBSCO. Next, skim the sources for pertinent information, highlight the information, and mark down where it will be used in the essay. Finally, use a mixture of paraphrased statements and direct quote within the body paragraph to provide evidence and support for the central argument of the essay.

  9. Implementation. Most high schools and public libraries provide access to portals such as EBSCO. Students need to be taught how to find and read sources efficiently. They should learn how to target good sources using the advanced search feature, how to skim for key words or ideas, and how to highlight useful information. One great exercise involves giving students a topic and having them write one sample body paragraph for every source they find.

  10. Learn to study efficiently for exams. The most common mistake my college students make is studying too late and for too long. Studying for a big exam doesn’t need to be an impossible chore. In fact, it can take significantly less time than expected.

  11. Action plan. Imagine your short term memory is a glass of water. After you read a textbook and attend a lecture, the glass of water is nearly full. If you’re paying attention, you should understand the concepts and be able to answer test questions. However, after just one day, the glass begins to empty until it is only at about 30% full. Efficient students realize that by simply reviewing notes for a few minutes each day, they can fill the glass back up and file the material they have learned out of short term memory and into long term memory.

  12. Implementation. Students should be taught to make a plan of attack for all of their exams. At the beginning of each semester, they should map out when their exams will be. Then they should be encouraged to take good notes, which can be used to reinforce key concepts. Finally, they review their notes early and often -- in short bursts of 5 to 10 minutes -- making sure to ask questions or seek out help on any concepts they don’t grasp. By the time the exam comes, they already know most of the material and won’t need to stress about learning and memorizing tricky concepts.

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