College Prep - It’s Time to Broaden the Conversation

By Scott Eckstein, Director of Admission

I was recently talking to a friend of mine who lives outside of New York City. He was in a panic that his 10th grade daughter wouldn’t be ready for college and that she was going to live in his basement for the next 30 years.

All of us who are parents at this moment in the universe are susceptible to similar moments of panic. The world is telling us that our kids are in trouble - addicted to their phones, unmotivated, and incapable of managing the day to day tasks that make up life.  

I am a firm believer that we as parents should do what we can to fight this panic - a panic that to some degree is overblown. However, I do think there is a kernel of truth in the irrationality, and that is that it is time to rethink what we mean by “college prep.”

For decades, this term has meant mostly a firm grounding in a liberal arts education - a knowledge of math and science, the ability to be conversant and knowledgeable about the literary canon, and an ability to write effectively. These all remain important obviously. We must give students a foundation of the knowledge that we as a species have accumulated, and the ability to effectively communicate may never have been more important than it is right now.

However, I think schools are failing students if they don’t see that more than this is needed to prepare students for college. More than that, the risk of “failure to launch” that my friend fears increases if we don’t broaden what we expect from college prep schools. One of the things that fills me with pride about Solebury School is that here, college prep means more than just seeing how much math or other subject matter we can impart. Content is important, but for us, it is equally important that we:

1) Help our students develop their academic skills – how to study, how to use technology effectively, and how to craft an effective paper. It is not enough to simply teach “what”. We also must teach “HOW”. This is a major force in our curriculum. Our alumni consistently come back and tell us how ready they were for what they’re being asked to do and how shocked they are by how poorly prepared many of their college classmates are.

2)Teach students how to effectively manage their time. I am 48 years old, I know the distractions that were available to me when I attended college. They are all still there, and now there’s also Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ and Xbox, not to mention a million gaming apps and sites. Students must be able to see the big picture, to see ahead of time when they will be busy or a big assignment will be due. They need to understand how to prioritize and know when they need to work and when they can socialize, play, watch Netflix, etc. If we can’t send them off to college confident that they have this ability, we will have failed them no matter how many AP tests they dominated. To accomplish this, Solebury consciously and purposefully gives students some free time during their day. One cannot become an effective manager of time unless they actually have time to manage. For some it comes fairly naturally - they know they have a soccer game on Thursday and thus will have less time to work on the paper due Friday, so they get the paper done on Tuesday. For others this takes some time, and it is the interactions with their teachers, particularly their advisor here, that enables our students to develop this skill.

3) Empower students to advocate for themselves and ask for help if they need it. We will not attend college with them. We’ve all heard the stories of parents calling professors or job interviewers on behalf of their child. College is supposed to be a time where young people take charge of their lives. Our students have a leg up as we push them to advocate for themselves. They are comfortable going to their teacher or another adult to ask for help.  

4) Appreciate students’ intellectual abilities so that they see themselves as people of value with ideas worth contributing to the world. Too often, high school students are dismissed. They are seen as problems to be solved by schools and the adults within them. At Solebury, the adults spend lots of time with students - working, learning, and just talking. Our students understand they won’t always get what they want, but they feel they have the right to be heard. They rightly consider themselves to be good thinkers, whose opinions and thoughts have merit.  

Calculus and US History are great. But if you want a recipe for truly preparing your child for college - and for life afterwards frankly - for me, we need to really focus on the above items. It’s the way all of us - me, you, and my friend from New York, can best equip our students to be successful as they head off to college and out into the world.