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3 Misconceptions about Being Ready for College

This article was also published on Grown & Flown ( June 23, 2020

I’ve taught first-semester college students for almost two decades, so I think about whether students are ready to be in our classes. Now that I’m sending my oldest child to college in the fall, I’m also looking at it from a new angle. Is she actually ready? How can I help make sure she is ready? What does "ready for college" mean, anyway?

Ask people what this means, and you’ll get myriad answers. Not all answers resemble what I’ve seen as a professor and academic coach. Here are three common ideas floating around the internet about college readiness that are less useful:

Misconception #1: Being ready means having all your materials prepared. This includes tactical preparedness, such as course registration, financial aid plans, and travel intentions. And then, of course, most stores and media outlets talk about “college readiness” as bed-in-a-bag, shower caddies, and the most effective alarm clock for waking deep sleepers. These days I’m inundated with email marketing about dorm purchases as a way to be “ready” for college. Having the right sheets packed is a part of getting ready for college, but I’ve known plenty of students with ideal bedding who couldn’t get out of bed for class on time! Being college ready is much more than these steps.

Being ready for college is not about well-decorated dorm rooms

Misconception #2: Being ready for college means you proved in high school that you can handle academic demands. This one seems true, but isn’t quite enough. High school learning offers academic prep for college but doesn’t translate exactly. For one thing, my college students often tell me their high-school classes were more demanding in workload than in college, which is more intellectually demanding (e.g., number of tests vs. depth of thinking).

Being ready for college learning means being ready for thinking about content in new ways. It also means worrying less about grades and objective measures than high school required. This is often a very difficult learning curve for new college students in my classes, who have been long trained that if they write the correct number of pages for the essay or get the multiple choice items right, they will get the "A." College learning asks for some of this, sure. But it doesn’t stop there and the more complex, critical thinking that is required catches many previous high-achieving students off-guard.

Being ready for college requires less attachment to grades

Misconception #3: Being ready for college means knowing exactly what you want to study. Most students begin college with either a declared major or some sense of what they might want to study. That’s great! No one should start a journey without an idea of where it might lead. The problem comes when students grip those plans so tightly that they are unwilling to be open to other routes. Research shows 30% of college students change their major at least once. Being ready should mean being open to shifting one’s goals in light of new information, such as how much less you enjoy a field than you thought you would.

On the other hand, having zero idea of a path seems to indicate a student's lack of readiness. I have worked with many students as a coach toward defining their majors. I argue that not knowing isn’t inherently a problem of readiness; the only problem is in a lack of a plan to investigate options. By the third semester I hope Undecided students have a short list of possible majors, and I advise that they use that semester as a “litmus test” to help them commit: Take the courses, meet the faculty, attend the events of the potential major departments. So, knowing your major with water-tight certainty is neither a requirement for being college ready nor is it recommended.


If not these aspects of readiness, what have I seen among the most ready college students? One skill is the most apparent:

College-ready students come to my classes ready to GROW, often aggressively and quite messily. This means openness to being wrong, to trying again, to meeting people you maybe didn't know existed, to being way out of your comfort zone for larger portions of each day than you ever have before. Being truly “college ready” means embracing this kind of growth, owning your learning--and your mistakes--and being able to bounce back when you fall.

What I’ve learned in teaching new college students is that they aren’t yet “college students”...they are high school students going to college. Their success depends on how they apply what they already know about being an effective student and then on how they adapt their approaches.

You may wonder: How do we prepare for this kind of readiness? How do we put that kind of readiness into actual behaviors? What action steps show this mental state?

To this end, I’ve created a “College Ready Checklist” that walks you through the specific skills needed for a new college student to not just do well but thrive in their new environment. (It doesn’t include a shower caddy, but I know you’ll get that anyway). Check it out here:

Ready for College Learning_
Download PDF • 117KB

Still wondering if a student you know is “ready”? Take my quiz here. I’ll tell you how ready they are and what kind of support might help them along.

I have loved being a partner to students during this growth period as a trusted professor and/or as an academic coach. I hope I’ll find joy in it as a parent, while I watch my daughter’s readiness from a slightly farther distance.

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