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Helping Lame Duck High School Seniors Prepare for College

I don’t think high school seniors are lame, but I do believe we treat them like lame ducks and that this has to change.

By May 1 of this year, most of the city’s high school seniors responded to the college of their choice by accepting their admission’s offer and handing over a check to secure a seat in the class of 2019. For many of the city’s schools, graduation ceremonies are set for the week of June 24. If your child is enrolled in a “college preparatory” school, it would appear that the school has either done or not done its job, and that the two months of May and June leave both teachers and students struggling to maintain a sense of purpose.

That final paper in AP Government, that last project in AP Calculus, the last debate in this class or that may not be met with the same, or, let’s just say it, any degree of enthusiasm by these essentially lame duck kids. But because they need to brave it out until the end of the month, perhaps there are some more meaningful activities that kids can engage in before heading off to school, some that can actually prepare them more effectively for life at college.

What basic life skills do kids need to know before going to college?

Here are a few areas of knowledge and skills that can help make that first year away from home a trifle easier:

  1. Finances: Your preferred bank probably has a student account that you can help your child manage, but there are some basics that should be learned before handing over the plastic, including managing that account online, having a sense of budget and what can be spent on a weekly/monthly basis, and what fees might apply depending on the account you set up.

  2. Nutrition: Your high school senior may already be eating at least one meal a day away from home (probably at Chipotle or some such similar place), but once in school and thrown into the world of food court dining options, eating habits can get out of control. Practical lessons on how to make the healthiest choices given your child’s target school’s eating options can be a good exercise in preventative health practices.

  3. Sleeping: Does your child already set her own alarm on school days? If not, she’s going to have a very difficult time getting to class on time. Does she know how much time it actually takes her to get ready in the morning? How much sleep does she actually need to function well for the type of day she has planned?

  4. Housekeeping: Who vacuums your child’s room nowadays? If it’s not her, then you’d better get started. One of the questions most colleges ask on the dorm application is whether or not you want a neat roommate. “Neat” covers a broad range of cleanliness. Making a bed, changing the sheets on a regular basis, doing a laundry should all be second nature by now. If not, adjustment is going to be more difficult for both your child and her roommate.

  5. Health and Exercise: In our house, we had endless debates on whether or not a particular ailment required a trip to the doctor’s office. In order to make visits to the student health services less frequent and more meaningful, your kids should know what to look for when they are not feeling well and when to ask for help. Frustration with the decision making process is an additional stressor college kids don’t need. If your child starts college with regular exercise habits, all the better, but if not, encouraging weekly regular use of that multi-million dollar sports complex can save a lot on both physical and mental health challenges moving forward. Devices such as Fit Bits can be one way of encouraging participation in regular exercise for kids for whom tracking and sharing exercise results is appealing.

What other means of preparation can help our kids adjust to college more effectively?

Beyond skills required to live away from home for either the first time or for more extended periods of time, there are certain skills and activities that can make learning more effective in the college environment.

  1. Time management: Juggling a new type of workload and a less rigid schedule than in high school can be a major adjustment. Most high school kids start and end their school days at the same time five days a week. But now, having two classes on one day and maybe none on another, etc. can lead to confusion and ineffective management of one’s time. Using “down time” to study and relax instead of just relaxing may be a new concept for some freshman students for whom cramming and last-minute submitting of papers has worked so far. Understanding this in advance and being provided with different means of adjusting to such a schedule can help your child avoid a lot of mistakes in freshman year.

  2. People management and networking: At only one of the colleges we toured over the past two years did we get direct advice to “get to know and get close to your teachers.” Sure, students on different campuses raved about their teachers, but at only one school were we advised directly to establish relationships with them. Forming relationships on campus with teachers or advisors can provide your college student with a great resource for support with their current classes, for brainstorming on most effective learning plans, and for extending their network in general. Similarly, selecting appropriate extra-curricular clubs based on either current interests or unexplored ones can provide further support both academically and on a personal level. Learning how to face and make these connections may be something your child did not explore in high school.

  3. Work study, study abroad and off-campus opportunities: Whether to solve the need for additional spending money, to help with tuition payments, or to broaden your child’s exposure to different experiences, work study may be a great opportunity. Most kids need help weighing these opportunities against required effort. Study abroad can afford great opportunities to live and study in a new culture, but depending on the school and the range of offerings, the decision to go aboard can be challenging. Also, getting more experience in the community surrounding your child’s school may be extremely beneficial, either in the form of an internship or part-time job. While this and study abroad are not freshman concerns, planting the seeds for these opportunities should start early.

Learning by doing versus preparation

I have written before that college is the ultimate software simulation, a four-year experience that allows you to learn and fail in a relatively safe environment. While my thoughts on this have not changed entirely, I do believe that there is still plenty to learn, fail at and learn more from at college while still preparing kids more effectively for the experience itself. We are learning time management from the time we enter school, but as the challenges to our time increase in number and sophistication, there is still room for continuous improvement. We’ll keep on improving at that one skill for many years after graduation as well, for example. But introducing the challenges prior to moving on campus and practicing options for meeting the challenge can be hugely beneficial.

Who is responsible for this type of preparation?

There are a range of knowledge and skills that can help students adjust to and be more effective as they progress through their first and succeeding years at college. Should parents be teaching their kids financial literacy? Absolutely! Does that mean that schools can’t or shouldn’t contribute to these lessons? Indeed, they can and should contribute toward this knowledge building. I am aware that some schools do teach some of the skills referenced here, but certainly not all and not as a parting gift package to each year’s crop of departing seniors. And yes, most colleges include portions of this in their orientation process, but introducing and reviewing these subjects during multiple points in the process is the most effectual means for it to stick.

For those of us who burdened our kids with nearly an extra month of school by enrolling them in the NYC public schools, we should consider making those last few weeks count toward the future. Targeted subjects could be taught in scenario (story)-based format, with online and in-class role plays for more effective practice. Alumni can be invited to school to provide stories of their experiences and lead group workshops to prepare the next years’ entering freshmen. Outside experts can come in to the schools to speak on nutrition and finance. There’s so much engagement that can be designed around practical preparation for college.

Yes, teachers need to finalize grades based on second semester performance, but let’s consider adjusting the calendar so that those classes can end sooner. That way the final few weeks of the year can be spent in practical college preparation rather than forcing our kids to struggle through their last semester of high school as a raft of  lame ducks, slowly floating toward the finish line.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments. If you know of a high school that already does this type of preparation, tell us about it. If you think college prep can be done differently, tell us how!

NB: Catching up on some posts here. This one certainly relevant as many of our kids take off for college this week!


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

With the release of the Rewriting Paradigms site, we' ported them over to their new home.

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