Five Skills Colleges Really Want Now

One of the most common challenges I receive when I suggest improvements in K-12 education is, “...but this won’t help them when they go to college!” The premise of this challenge is that colleges and universities remain today as they were in centuries past: institutions that rely on multiple choice tests, one-shot opportunities for success, and an emphasis on compliance with demands of the taskmasters who lecture from the front of the room.   

Although that stereotype may prevail in some classrooms and institutions of higher learning, it is no longer the norm. From coast to coast, universities are focusing on mastery of learning objectives demonstrated through student projects and documents, often submitted several times and, with feedback from the professor, reworked and resubmitted. Professors don’t use the average of student work, but rather expect the individual student's final work to be superior to that submitted at the beginning of the semester. In just the past week, I heard from Dr. Doug Fisher, chair of the Department of Educational Leadership at the University of California, San Diego, and a prolific author; and Dr. Stacy Scott, who teaches policy analysis and strategic planning at Boston University. Both echoed what I continually hear throughout the country: Students must address real-world problems, engage in effective collaboration and teamwork, and most importantly, take feedback on their work that leads to better performance. The “one shot and you’re done” and “better get it right the first time” approach is a relic of the 20th Century and not what employers and colleges are demanding today.  

From a synthesis of feedback and surveys from many leaders and teachers in colleges and universities, here are the key skills students must have:

1. Take and seek critical feedback  Resist the assumption that the good student always gets it right the first time. The best students know that they can improve, and know how to ask for feedback and respond to it. The real world demands that students and employees understand that they will make mistakes, hear feedback, and learn from it. If they arrive in college or on the job having never made an error -- or more likely, have never been told that they made an error -- then their first encounter with feedback is likely to be traumatic.  

2. Advocate for yourself early and often. Find out the office hours of the professors and teaching assistants during the first class period, then show up, be humble, and ask for help. The least persuasive argument any professor can hear is, with a week to go in the semester, “But my parents will kill me if I don’t get a good grade in this class!” Students who, in high school, were conditioned to grub points for extra credit will be disappointed when their professors require proficiency, not points, for success in their classes. In addition to asking for help, pay it forward by helping classmates and teammates. What you learn about collaboration will be worth more than any transcript.  

3. Learn to write persuasive, descriptive, analytical essays. My research and that of many other scholars is conclusive: Effective nonfiction writing is strongly related to student performance in every other discipline -- science, history, mathematics, and literature. Unfortunately, as many states have stopped their assessment of writing, this vital skill has been de-emphasized in recent years. Students who are good writers -- or who are willing to go to the university writing center and learn to become good writers -- have a strong advantage in college and on the job.

4. Close the &*(^%$ing computer and learn to look people in the eye and listen to them. The evidence is overwhelming that when students attempt to multi-task in class, they not only fail to understand the material but they also distract people around them. That is why some schools, including M.I.T. -- no enemy of technology -- have insisted on “human time:” device-free moments in which students learn to interact with one another. When students -- no matter how great their transcripts may be -- check their devices during an interview for a job, fellowship, or internship, they are saying “I really don’t have time for this and don’t have much respect for the interviewer, the employer, or the institution that is considering hiring me.” Good luck with that one. This is not the raving of a Luddite, but the result of 21st-Century research that concludes that students remember and understand better when they draw pictures to make sense of the information they are receiving, not just transcribe the lecture as they heard it.  

5. Passion is great, but so are exploration and curiosity. Too often students hear the advice to “follow your passion” or worse yet, “show colleges that you have a passion.” This leads teenagers to contrive a passion when it is not authentic. College applications, interviews, and the college experience itself are not places to invent a false persona.  

Finally, selective colleges reject tens of thousands of students with great grade-point averages and high test scores every year.  These five suggestions are no guarantee of getting into the school you want -- but they are essential to succeed wherever you decide to go to college.


JUNE 26-28, 2019



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