A Crash Course in College Preparedness

Start sharpening your analytical skills early and don't shy from a challenging read.

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Gaining that ability requires reading lots of tough material, right through senior slump time and over the summer. "Colleges' lists of must-read books are remarkably similar," says Mark Conley, an associate professor of teacher education at Michigan State University and president of the Michigan Alliance of Reading Professors. "Check it out for your school." Or choose from the nonfiction bestseller list in the New York Times, King suggests, and read books on public policy or history. 

"They don't need to buy 60 Ways to Improve Vocabulary," says Carol Jago, president of the National Council of Teachers of English. "The best way is to read 40 books in a year and not just Twilight." She suggests three in particular: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky, and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. "These are books that develop stamina, and that's one of the reasons kids have trouble in college," Jago says. 

Also pay attention to how these books are written, says Princeton University English professor Susan Wolfson. "To analyze connections between ideas means reading newspapers and magazines with attention to how arguments are structured," Wolfson says. 

Budding scientists must hone their literacy and analytical thinking skills, too. "They need to read at the level of Scientific American and the science section of the New York Times," says Bonnie Bassler, the Squibb professor of molecular biology at Princeton and director of its Council on Science and Technology. Even many well-prepared Ivy Leaguers aren't as curious as they should be to pursue scientific disciplines.

Bassler says she sees this in her fall Molecular Biology 101 class and her spring Microbiology 214 class. "The material isn't quantitatively different. The attitudes are," she says. Students who take the survey course in the fall don't see themselves as scientists, whereas those who take the 200-level course plan to go on. "In the fall, they think they can't be scientists. In the spring, they think they can," Bassler says. "Why do people think they can learn history and they can't learn science? They're not taught those skills anymore." 

Many academics suspect that misuse and overuse of technology is partly responsible for the decline in college readiness. Though the Internet is a valuable tool, for example, it's just as easy for students to use it the wrong way in academic research and writing as it is to use it effectively.

One example of the right way is to give the information in a carefully reviewed scholarly journal greater weight than that found in the public contributions to Wikipedia online, says Jacob Vigdor, a Duke University professor of public policy and economics. "I see plenty of citations of Wikipedia, where there's no quality control," says Vigdor. Michigan State's Conley has seen numerous accusations of plagiarism lodged against students who cut and paste freely from the Internet.

And a study by Vigdor and a Duke University colleague, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in June, showed that declining reading scores among half a million North Carolina fifth- through eighth-graders correlated to the spread of home computers in their neighborhoods. 

College readiness also includes having self-restraint and the ability to make hard decisions about priorities. Chelsea Crane of Montgomery, Texas, was faced with many tough choices as a freshman in 2009 at Sam Houston State University. She immediately threw herself into sorority, student government, and other activities, and scheduled as many classes as she could at 8 a.m. to get them out of the way each day. "But I wanted to go dancing and skiing and other things, so it was hard to make that 8 o'clock class," Crane says. 

Fortunately for her and others like her, Sam Houston State is among the colleges that have invested heavily in advising. All students pay a $50 fee each semester to support an energetic full-time staff in the Student Advising and Mentoring Center. When she faced a D in one course, Crane's adviser made more regular consultations a priority to help her reach her goal of a political science degree. "They're your high school counselor on steroids," Crane says.