If Only College Were As Easy As Calculus: The Only Three Questions That Should Be On A College Entrance Exam

SAT’s, ACT’s, AP Courses, AP Subject Exams, test prep, causes and effects of the Russian Revolution, pythagorean theorems and quadratic equations, mitosis, and Newton’s three laws.  Fully fill in the bubble.  Triple-check the answer sheet.  Re-write the entrance essay – again.

This is what we generally think of when it comes to college preparation, and yet, there is so much more about college readiness that isn’t adequately identified or evaluated in these academic processes.  The majority of college readiness assessment is driven towards academic prowess and yet nobody ever failed to finish college because they just couldn’t quite mathematically represent the fact that the indefinite integral of a function is related to its antiderivative, and can be reversed by differentiation.

Content knowledge is important – having the baseline skills in reading, writing, and mathematics is a valuable ingredient for college success, but even the most prepared students are eventually faced with things they don’t know, and it is at that stage (be it day one or year four) that skills become more important than knowledge.  The only three questions that need to be on a college entrance exam are:

  1. Are you able to identify if you are struggling (accurately, early, and independently) in all of the core domains:  academically, socially, relationally, in independent living skills, executive functioning, etc.
  2. Are you able to independently access available supports and services?
  3. Are you able to independently apply the supports and services that are available?

If a student (and family) can give a resounding “YES!” to all three of the above, then things like antiderivatives, iambic pentameter, and thermodynamics quickly become irrelevant, because the skill set exists to turn barriers into learning opportunities, and challenges into successes.  

But what if the challenge isn’t an academic one?  Without a “YES!” answer in all domains, the college house of cards can come down quite quickly, regardless of academic prowess.  

What if changing majors (and therefore never having to graph a derivative) isn’t the solution to the presenting problem?  What if the challenges are about solving roommate issues, managing a budget, making friends, or navigating the red tape of campus bureaucracies? What if the challenges are social, relational, or in domains of executive functioning or independent living skills?  

Again, the same three questions apply, and yet there are many students who are prepared for college from an academic perspective, but who are not yet ready answer “YES!” to each of the three questions if applied to non-content-driven domains.  What about those students?  Are they college capable?  Should they be moving on with their peers, heading off to school, and engaging in college?  

We think the answer is “YES!” because we believe that those skills can be taught, learned, and mastered – and that the very best place to learn them is actually in college – with the right amount of support and scaffolding in place to guide the process.  

“The college we’re looking at is incredibly small and nurturing,” you say.

“The professors will know my student by name,” you remark.

“They have an incredible learning and student support office,” you exclaim!

And in each case, you are most likely correct – and that may, indeed, be enough.

And yet, the fundamental paradigm of the college campus is that regardless of the supports and services available, the student must still first be able to independently answer “YES!” to all three of the questions in order to benefit from the buffet of supports and services that are available.  If a student doesn’t recognize they are hungry, or can’t find the cafeteria, or doesn’t know how to load their tray, or can’t pay at the checkout then it doesn’t matter how much steak and lobster is on the buffet – they will still go hungry.

In high school teachers, coaches, and parents are often the early identifiers of struggle (regardless of the domain), and are adept at bringing supports and services to a student.

In college, generally speaking, there is nobody primarily tasked to accurately and early-identify struggling students, and even when a student is identified nothing is brought directly to them.  Nobody will knock on their door.  This is not because colleges aren’t small, aren’t nurturing, aren’t skilled, or don’t care – it’s simply because it is not the paradigm in which they exist, and they do not have the resources to provide that level of service for each of their students.  There is no fault or failure in the system, but there is a need for clarity about the realities of the paradigm and the inherent limitations of the model.

If the answer to the three key questions (in every one of the core domains) is not yet “YES!” then the question becomes: “What level of support is needed to teach the skills to a student?”

Do they need explicit instruction?

Do they need peer modeling?

Do they need scaffolding?

Do they need executive functioning coaching?

Do they need relevant progress monitoring?

Do they need a knock on the door?

Are they ready to learn these skills concurrent with college coursework and college engagement?

Honest evaluation of interests, strengths, and needs is a good place to start.  The next step is to identify opportunities to learn and develop skills.  These skills can be taught, and given the appropriate level of external support, can even be learned concurrent with college engagement.

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Jake Weld, M. Ed. is the Director of Admissions and Business Development for Mansfield Hall, a college support program with locations in Madison, WI, and Burlington, VT.