Planning for Your Academic Transition to College

June 3, 2011

by Howard and Matthew Greene

"I’m about to graduate from high school and will start college in the fall. Is there anything that I should do this summer to prepare academically?"

Too few seniors will ask this essential question prior to making one of the biggest transitions of your life. Amidst the rituals of high school graduation and plans for a fun summer, many of you will be considering a well-deserved rest, a job to put some money away (perhaps as part of your financial aid award), a family vacation, and time with high school friends before you part ways for an extended period of time. To your planning we encourage you to add consideration of your academic transition to college. Here are five steps you can take to improve your odds of early success in college.

1) Pay close attention to the materials your chosen college sends you by mail and email, and posts on its Web site. You will find housing and roommate information, health and insurance forms, and many other required data requests. Of great importance to your future are the academic program options and requirements. When will you need to select your courses? What are your choices? Do you need to meet particular placement requirements? Is there a summer reading book or list? How will your final high school transcript, SAT, ACT, AP, and/or Subject Test scores affect your college credits and class options? If you have any questions or believe you are missing materials, call the college and make sure you understand the information. Colleges also tend to post FAQs and inquiry forms on their Web sites.

2) Use your support network. Even though you should be becoming more independent at this stage of your life, no one expects you to do all this on your own. College is complicated, and you’ve never had so much flexibility and so many decisions to make in such a short time. Ask for help and advice from your parents, trusted teachers, high school counselor or advisor, or a college admissions officer or other representative you might have gotten to know. They can talk with you about your strengths and interests, your goals for your college education, and the requirements you will need to fulfill in college. They can also help you decipher the college materials you have received before you get to campus.

3) Take advantage of the college’s opportunities to get to know the campus, learn about course registration, and place into appropriate classes. Many colleges have extensive orientation sessions, which can include sessions with advisors to counsel you on initial course selection. You can also take placement tests in such subjects as foreign languages, math, and English in order to assess your level of ability and the right course match. As you craft your preferred course selections for freshman fall and spring, register as early as possible to improve your odds of getting the classes you want.

4) Balance your first-year curriculum without overreaching. You will find many opportunities, and face many challenges, during your first year of college. We find freshman year is usually the most challenging because of all the changes you will undergo. Think back to your first year of high school – perhaps you felt at various times thrilled, overwhelmed, excited, confused, and clueless. The same pattern will emerge in college. As you manage social, residential, and personal transformations, you will want to ensure that you can succeed academically in order to build a strong foundation for the following years. We see too many students who accept college course recommendations without considering the ramifications, or who take on too much in their first semester, hoping to get lots of requirements out of the way. Much will depend on your choice of major and the particular college you are attending, but you will usually have enough flexibility to balance your curriculum. Must you take the highest level of foreign language you can stretch into, in addition to advanced calculus and a sophomore level English seminar? Be careful to play to your strengths and stay within your comfort level, even while you are looking ahead to specific major or general college graduation requirements and challenging yourself intellectually.

5) Reflect honestly on your current academic weaknesses or blind spots. No matter how selective or prestigious your future college, or how challenging your high school program, you likely have some academic areas you are less confident about and which could use some work. Perhaps you are concerned about math fundamentals, reading comprehension, or writing skills. More broadly, you might need work on organization and time management, what are called “executive functioning” skills. It might make sense for you to spend some time this summer brushing up on one or more of these areas to improve your odds of success in college. This could involve something as substantial as a pre-college program on a college campus, a community college class in your home area, or an online course. You could also access the syllabus from an upcoming college class once it becomes available and get a head start on some of the readings. You might work with a local tutor or high school teacher, or read up on some of the many self-help books for teens and college students on making the most out of your college years. Building your confidence now through some early preparation can help you have an excellent start to college, and we find that’s the surest path toward a successful college graduation.

© 2011 Howard and Matthew Greene