After a student asked me one day what he should be doing to "get into a good college," I gave him a few suggestions.Getting Into a Good College — My Students Are Worried
Let’s first say that getting into a good college, paying for it, and ending up as a successful individual is equal parts chance and merit, with a dash of injustice and absurdity to throw the entire process off-kilter. I use the word "injustice" on purpose. Not everyone who gets into a good school deserves it — a few high-powered celebrities have tried to secure a spot for their children by paying third parties to do the work for them. And I use the word absurdity on purpose as well. It's absurd to think one's future can be set by a standardized test score or to become frazzled by one's prospect of getting into school because one made a B+ in AP Calculus.
|I took this photograph in Madame Dietrich's French class on the last day of high school.|
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, you’re a kid in a high school in the United States, and you want to get into a good school. For the sake of argument, let's say you’re in a relatively good school — namely, you’re learning something, and your parents and teachers are more or less good role models. You were read to as a child, and you’ve frequented a library, a museum, an after-school program, or something. You’re already two or more steps in the door. Parents who introduce their children to reading at an early age typically have kids likelier to do well in school.
How Much Does Environment Play Into Future Success
Environment plays a defining role in determining your chances of becoming a successful, let’s say, happy, adult. Sans being an athlete — that’s one way into college - or acquiring some kind of skill as leverage - getting into the school of your choice is a crapshoot. Just the other day (I’m a high school English teacher), one of my students asked me if he took an online course on Coursera or Edx - would that improve his chances of getting into a good school. I said, “yes, of course.” But then I thought about it. Yes — taking a course on computer programming from Harvard is not a bad idea - but you must be a person who is committed to learning programming. Adding extras solely for the sake of extras can have the opposite effect. Schools want candidates excited about learning and have shown proof that they have put themselves out there and taken on challenges. Make your passions come through in your college application, and anything you do outside of school can complement the person you are (and the person you want to be).
Has Applying to College Changed A lot Since the 1990s?
A lot has changed since I applied to college. I went to a public high school in South Louisiana where most of my classmates graduated and went to the State University - or the military - or they stayed in my hometown. I applied to Saint Joseph Seminary College and Centenary College - both small schools in Louisiana - one Methodist and the other a Catholic seminary. My mother wanted me to go to the Methodist school — and we drove up there to speak to the head of the philosophy department. That's what I wanted to study. I ended up going to the seminary college.
I took the ACT (and I made a mediocre score). I also took the ASVAB. It’s the military job placement exam. Both my brothers joined the army after high school (I’m the only one who didn’t). Taking the ASVAB is how I learned the difference between a Phillips and a standard screwdriver. Our high school had college counselors - but no one ever visited their office — it was on the edge of campus next to the shop building. Their main job was to organize random statewide testing administered during the year. In Louisiana, one had to pass the LEAP test to graduate from high school. Rumors spread about the few who didn't pass and had to repeat the twelfth grade.
Something was alien to me about taking a standardized test — as if my answers were being sent into a ceaseless void every time I bubbled in a response. I still don't trust tests even more than twenty years after graduating high school. I like tests as a procedure — an activity for the general assessment but not for understanding a kid through and through.
Shifting Focus From Where I Want to Go to What Skills I Want to Master
|Will you need to know this? Probably.|
I still have a papier-mâché vase I made in art class. I’ve never made a vase like that since — but my mom has the vase in her living room. Did making this vase help me get into college? No. But it was something I did that pulled me out of what I was used to. We don’t know what skills we’ll need to know in the future. Technology is rapidly changing, but we need people who can adapt and apply themselves in novel ways.
One More Question:
What are some things high school students can do to improve their chances of getting into a good college? Let us know in the comments (see below this post).