Making the College Transition

As learning environments, high schools and colleges are highly complex institutions. It’s easy for those who work in them to become entrenched in their own bubbles of belief, practice, and activity. But for many high school students—of whom nearly 70 percent go on to postsecondary education—these bubbles share a permeable boundary. Professionals in both settings have certain narratives about what new college students need, but—here’s the problem—those stories often aren’t shared between college professors and secondary school leaders. When it comes to young adults and their future successes, both groups are in the human growth business. We should push our way across that boundary and talk to each other more.

My perspective on the high school-to-college transition is a personal one. In some real ways, I stand astride that divide. Every fall, I teach first-year composition at a regional university in Pennsylvania, working with new college students as they face oftentimes their least-favorite academic task. I also work in field placements in high schools. For the past 25 years, I have met new students on the very cusp of this transition, and I see their stressors up close. There is an intersection of practice, struggle, and emotional regulation affecting the newest college students. Issues of identity, motivation, and agency all come up in the development of better writers.

One recent report, “Developmental Education: The Evolution of Research and Reform” by S.S. Jaggers and S. Bickerstaff, suggests that two-thirds of students entering community college and one-third who enter colleges that are considered less selective have skill deficits that threaten their college success. At my university, we generally use the term “underprepared” when we are discussing these students, recognizing that these students are not broken in some way, but that their earlier experiences have created a mismatch with what university professors expect. But, prepared or not, the change from high school to college can be a struggle for everyone, especially when it comes to the shift from high school to college writing.

The message at the university level is clear: Writing matters in every academic major and many critical tasks after college. The 2011 Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing outlines both skills and habits of mind that writing professors stress are essential to achieving both college and career readiness in writing. The last skill—developing flexible writing processes—is truly critical. Students will write a lot and across different genres throughout college—both in and out of the classroom. The omnipresence of writing means that college students will have four more years of in-depth experiences to practice, extend, and enhance their skills. And they will need that time and practice, because almost everyone is underprepared when it comes to writing. I say this with humility, not heat. Writing and teaching writing are two of the hardest things that I have ever done, and I’ve been doing both for decades. My new college students find it difficult beyond description.

Writing Across Disciplines

Anything high schools can do to increase the amount and the complexity of writing that students do across the disciplines will have an enormous payoff in their college experiences. I specifically mention “writing across the disciplines” because asking for more from your English teachers will not help. My college students all report that English is where the writing happens, which has the strange effect of making it feel less crucial. “That stuff’s for English class” means “We don’t have to do it or think about it outside of there.”

Longitudinal research about writing in high school confirms my students’ experiences. Arthur Applebee and Judith Langer’s four-year study, A Snapshot of Writing Instruction in Middle and High Schools, reveals that high school students write most often for English class, but even there most writing required is short in length and simple in complexity. Only 19 percent of writing assignments surveyed were deemed “extensive,” meaning a paragraph or longer. I wish I could convey my sense of dread at the notion of a paragraph or longer being extensive. But English teachers alone cannot invent the hours needed to support their students as they write more (in terms of composing different texts) and write more extensively (longer and more complex texts). Nor can we burden them further with the grading that often comes with written assignments. If students are going to come to college with enough writing experience, writing must matter in all academic disciplines. Other teachers need to step into the breach.

Student Empowerment

Meaningful practice with writing skills will leave students with more capacity, fluency, and self-knowledge—all of which will supercharge the writing experiences. At my university, students have two college-level courses devoted to enhancing their writing experience: one in the first year and one about halfway through their four years. When they write in other courses, they are expected to choose their own topics, handle their own writing process (and shortcomings), and produce texts that conform to the expectations of different disciplines.

I tell my students that their other professors will be responsible for giving them only three things: an assignment, a due date, and a grade. If it’s a class in nutrition, the 12- to 15-page paper will have to be about nutrition—it will be the student’s responsibility to sift through relevant and interesting topics and select one to pursue. In the last six or seven years, I have had to take extended time to support students in selecting topics (we usually call this “invention” in writing classes). Students tell me they are used to being given a range of possible topics (“choose one of these 10 natural disasters”) to write about. I understand why teachers choose this approach, but if we try to circumvent the struggle, we short-circuit the meaningfulness of the practice.

My writing students don’t know themselves as writers: What’s easy? What’s hard? Where are the roadblocks? What strategies can be used to get past them? And because they don’t know themselves and because they don’t have enough practice, they are often terrified and mystified by the significant shifts in expectation. Help your college-bound students to understand themselves as unique learners. The more they know about themselves as learners and writers, the more quickly professors can orient them to tasks in college.

Coping With Stress

More complex practice also means developing routines for coping with stressors such as frustration and fear; these emotional issues cannot be separated from the cognitive in something as complex as writing. We all know that adolescents’ brains are basically reupholstering themselves throughout high school, college, and even beyond, but we may not recognize that new college students are, quite literally, becoming someone new through participation in new settings. This means old beliefs about the self will inevitably suffer from collisions with the new reality. Moving from high school writing projects of a paragraph or longer to small college assignments of five to seven pages (in multiple classes) can be paralyzing. Longer papers, less obvious formula/structure, and greater autonomy can create fear and damage self-efficacy beliefs. Previously integrated identity narratives will be challenged, and students need to be able to tolerate some safe surprises.

Learning happens at the boundary’s edge, pushing past “who I was” toward “who I am learning to be.” And these new edges of growth are everywhere in college—in the classes, in the dorms, in the small groups and clubs, and in the social settings. A great deal of college “success” in the early stages relies on the student’s emotional self-regulation. Can they tolerate the uncertainty, the new ways of doing things, the challenges to their own identity narratives?

College Myths

One thing high school professionals can do to help this struggle is to drop the myths about college that add to already existing fears. Scary tales of professors who don’t care, “weed-out” classes, and impossible workloads are counterproductive. Kids are already daunted about college, and these stories create a flight-or-freeze reaction, not positive action. When I invite students to come to see me in my office, they think I am going to chew them out over some infraction or weakness, and they avoid visiting, to their great detriment. If they don’t come to see me, I can’t help them directly in terms of my class, and I can’t find out what is going on more broadly. College educators and staff care about student progress and achievement. We have support structures in many different parts of the campus community—counseling, peer mediation, advisement, financial aid—that we are waiting to bring to our students. Instead of sharing the old terror tales, offer them “change as growth” stories that highlight achievements that come after struggle. Find ways to open the conversations around their thoughts and fears about the coming transition.

Creating layers of protection around existing fear is also not productive. Confidence and self-efficacy beliefs are built through struggles that are successfully navigated, not achievements that are reached too easily. I know it’s hard to find this balance, but it’s really critical to both cognitive and motivational growth. Give students productive experiences with academic struggle and even failure. Yes, college is going to be harder than high school. There are likely to be fewer grades and fewer ways to “rescue” themselves from a bad exam grade, but students need to understand that getting a bad grade is not the end of learning. Academic struggle and failure can provide critical information about where they need to grow and change, if they can effectively manage the emotional side of it.

This message may be even more important for honors students to grapple with before they come to college. Because their identity narratives are strongly defined by easy academic success and hypercompetition, they can become easily bruised early in the college transition. In time, they will come to welcome these changes and rise to the occasion of new expectations and more independent work, but I see their self-doubt on the way. I have to find careful ways to say, “Yes, you are smart and accomplished, but even you have new levels to grow into.”

Ready for College

By the end of the first semester, the vast majority of my writing students have become new college versions of themselves. They look at their portfolios of written work with wonder—yes, they wrote all that. Their earliest drafts make them rueful and seem as if someone else wrote them. In a not-small way, someone else did. These late fall students walk, talk, move, and plan like college kids. They have made the leaps, both cognitive and emotional/motivational, to continue their progress and growth, pushing past those edges into new territories. High school and college can help orient students toward their own higher education, not as a required next step or a to-do item to be checked off, but as a sheltered opportunity our society has created in which they increase their capacities to build their own futures.


Kim McCollum-Clark, PhD, is an associate professor of English at Millersville University in Millersville, PA.