Progressive Practices for the College Transition

March 13, 2011 at 12:58 pm Leave a comment

posted by Keith Berman ‘03, founder/president of Options for College and Bank Street’s LinkedIn moderator

Let’s plan for the part of college that happens before 8 PM.

“What do you want to study in college?  Do not say ‘undecided.'”

“But I AM undecided!”

“Do you think you are more likely to major in literature, physics or psychology.”


“OK, so you aren’t 100% undecided!  Why did you choose literature on that list?  What are you reading/writing?  Let’s talk about the choices you have made…”

So the conversation often begins with students and their parents when it comes to beginning the college process.  For the vast majority of high school students I have worked with over the last six years, even those who go to “college preparatory high schools,” few if any have been asked about the choices they have made academically or otherwise beyond bland questionnaires that provide no opportunity for dialogue, new language or discovery.

I continue to find this fact surprising each time, even though virtually all of the students I have worked with have made more than their share of active choices regarding their summers, courses, foreign languages, extracurriculars, and/or research topics.  College education, in general, is a match for our students, something that could be inherently exciting.  Why pander?

We call this part of the process in our counseling the “Collection Phase,” one step in our preparing students not only to get into, but to enjoy, college, all day.  We look at what a student has done as the first step, where they have made choices, not only to get an idea of what “fit” is, but to make the people around our students (teachers and counselors) know that they indeed are not 100% utterly undecided and will never be 100% completely ‘decided,’ but that they indeed do want to learn in college.

I credit Bank Street a great deal with helping me think this way.  Even when people are taking self-inventory (and especially for teenagers), the process of preparing for college is one of constructing meaning, matching new and emerging ideas to powerful language and concrete next steps — a student needs to both construct meaning from his/her thoughts, to find and assign meaningful language to those thoughts, and then have activities directed towards making those thoughts more powerful..

I have never met a 16-year old who knows:

A) that you typically take 4 courses per semester in college;
B) that 12-16 of them are in one discipline and go through advanced study (a ‘major’ is the typical name);
C) that there are electives;
D) that there are advisors;
E) what a department is.

Imagine how this list could go on — the stuff we all learned as juniors the hard way could be learned in 10 minutes the easy way.  We SHOULD teach them how to speak the language of a college student, with the words that they need to know most (be the start saying ‘yes’ to literature or introducing them to ‘anthropology’).  Suddenly, students who previously viewed college as, roughly, ‘the place I go where I don’t live with my parents,’ to a place where they feel they not only belong, but where they passionately feel they belong because they DO want to learn something, to be somebody SPECIFIC.

Not surprisingly, these students get into college at much higher rates, because they are easier to picture there for the admissions officers.  Better yet, that $200,000 mom and dad sometimes spend on college goes to more than an experience that sounds like going to a diner and then a nightclub.  Some of our students who are now in college actually wake up at 9 AM on weekdays, and most are near the top of their respective graduating classes.  Surprise: they love college.

What I have seen before students come to us is that “fit” is most often defined as enjoying the grass and the other people instead of the stuff schools do intentionally.  Worse still, nebulous factors like student/faculty ratio, total student body size, relative ‘urbanness,’ whether it is a ‘liberal arts’ school or not (who actually knows the one and only technical difference?  hands?), and ‘what my friends say’ tend to be the biggest of school choice, even though virtually all of them are broad brushstrokes that don’t define experiences at a college.  In fact, those factors can all be ascertained without a visit.

Giving students language to talk about college that has to do with what happens on a college campus BEFORE 8 PM tends to be a relief for them.  Most like to know, at least, that there is a way to get ready.  If we are a “college preparatory” school/family/society, we should let them know what a college is!

The Spartan dorms, lousy food, campus spirit and lack of parents that makes most of us love, or learn to, was not my invention anymore than it was the invention of a particular college, and yet that is exactly how college is usually discussed, even at the ritziest private school.  College life is fun, amazing, eye-opening.  I just don’t pretend I invented the system and then say ‘see, your college is a fit’ when they inevitably make friends.  Colleges do the majority of the intentionally great things they do before 8, the stuff that transforms a fun experience followed by a rough transition into a satisfying one where the road is littered with open doors, the right doors.

Factors like ‘what did you like most before college, and is it on campus,’ ‘what academic department and faculty member looks most interesting,’ ‘what research is going on in your field,’ and ‘what are students who are getting a lot out of the school ACTUALLY DOING’ rarely factor in.  These are really the “college preparatory” questions (what’s a major, what might be yours, who are you and what do people like you think about doing), but are rarely in the counseling program.

Our students have fun in college, love it, and likely do as many things they shouldn’t do after 8 PM as anyone else.  But, they are also “college prepped” — they usually have read faculty bios, a course catalog, talked to a number of their future teachers (most college bound students have a favorite teacher in high school — why not in college?) and already made a resume that leads to an internship.  Some already have internship and research grant applications filled out just in case, and others know to get to career services before the mad dash in order to get the impossible freshman internship.

Progressive practices and constructivism are needed in college counseling offices more than in any other department in the college preparatory high school.  Can you be ready considered ‘college-ready’ if your big choice was framed as ‘big party university vs. only-wear-black rural college’?  Worse still, some counselors ask students where they want to go as a FIRST step, and then just write the list down and hand out applications.  This is sort of like a math teacher not teaching algebra unless someone asks for it specifically.

For those parents of college-bound students, use your Bank Street sense of the world now more than ever.  Look at your children’s lives as a series of choices, write  them down in a resume, and read the ‘academics’ tab of the college website, and this process won’t look so arbitrary or game-like, the investment won’t look so iffy.  Your children don’t have the language but do have the aspirations — the key is to create a meaningful way to get them from ‘undecided’ to exactly the language that would describe who they are, what they choose, and who they want to be.  THEN, you can find a fit, and rarely if ever will that be totally encompassed by school size, student/faculty ratio, or a particular brand.

Keith Berman is a Certified Educational Planner and the President of Options for College, Inc., which gets the best practices for applying and transitioning to college into the hands of those who need them.  He wrote a book for guidance counselors called Maximum Access, was quoted in US News and World Report America’s Best Colleges in both 2009 and 2010, and created and runs the Bank Street College of Education Alumni group on LinkedIn.

Entry filed under: coaching, dialogue, families.

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Keith Berman '03, founder/president of Options for College and Bank Street’s LinkedIn moderator
David Bowles ’08 (SFC ’93), museum educator at the Rubin Museum of Art
Elena Canaras ‘07, Special Education teacher, Hawaii
Virginia Casper, Bank Street faculty member
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Jesse Pugh '76, BSCAA President
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