What do middle school students think they need to be ready for college?

Two middle school students in biology class filling test tubes

Part of our mission is to identify and measure the skills students need to be ready for college and careers. There is a great foundation of research on what those skills are, and that research has been the basis of the new standards and assessments that have been developed by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia. But most likely students aren’t aware of this research. They know that they should do well in school, study hard, and get good grades, but do students themselves really know what skills they need to be ready for college?

Research has documented the importance of instilling a college-going culture starting in the middle grades, if not earlier. According to ACT’s 2008 report, The Forgotten Middle the level of achievement that students attain by eighth grade has a larger impact on their college and career readiness than anything that happens academically in high school. This is an eye-opening statement! The report goes on to say that college readiness is not something that “suddenly happens” (p. 3) but is something that should be nurtured all throughout a child’s education, starting as early as kindergarten.

My son started eighth grade this fall, and while I’ve always made sure he knew that college was in his future, I’ve become very aware of the need for him to start instilling the habits and dispositions that will make him successful as he finishes middle school and embarks on high school next year. As a mom, who is also a researcher, I was very curious to find out what knowledge and skills my son (and his fellow middle schoolers) think they need to become ready for college. I decided to put my son on the case, and I asked him to interview some of his friends and write about his findings. So here is what he wrote:

College is like a springboard for life. If you go to a good college and earn a degree, you are more likely to get a nice paying job and have a successful life. I interviewed two of my friends and got their ideas on what skills they thought they will need for college, and to see if they thought their teachers were preparing them for college.

One of my friends said that he thinks perseverance, social skills and concentration will be very important in college. My other friend said that time and money management, communication, and confidence are important skills for college. 

In my opinion, one huge skill is time management because you need to know when to study and when you are able to take a break or a night off to go to a party. You also need to know how much work you can do in a certain amount of time so you can plan ahead and make a schedule. Also, you need to give 100% effort all of the time. This has to show in all the work that you do. It shows all of your teachers that you are trying and will help your grades. You also need to be neat and organized with your work so that you will never lose any assignments or misplace items.

When I asked my friends if they thought the teachers were preparing them for college, they both said that their teachers were focusing more on the specific subjects they taught and not enough on these other skills that are also important.

I was struck by the fact that my son and his friends really focused in on the importance of non-cognitive (or 21st century) skills. They touched upon the things David Conley calls key learning skills and techniques (e.g., goal setting, persistence, time management), and also mentioned money management, which is what Conley considers one of the key transition knowledge and skills.

I was encouraged that my son and his friends know that these skills are important for college readiness. But they also recognized that their teachers are not explicitly focusing on helping them to develop these skills. These are skills that students are expected to develop on their own, and some students are much more successful than others. There is considerable discussion and research underway to develop measures of these non-cognitive skills, as well as efforts to identify behavioral factors in middle school that can be used as an early warning system to identify at-risk students. Our Center’s research to develop a middle school index of college readiness has shown that there are important factors in the areas of behavior and motivation, such as the number of incomplete assignments, that can be used to identify when a student needs support to develop all of the skills – both academic and non-academic – that will increase the likelihood of their success in college and beyond.


About the Author
Jennifer Kobrin, Ed.D.

Jennifer Kobrin, Ed.D.

Jennifer L. Kobrin is a former research scientist at Pearson whose primary role was developing and undertaking a research agenda to explore the promise of learning progressions for improving assessment, instruction, and teacher development. Dr. Kobrin was previously a research scientist at the College Board where she led research efforts to collect evidence of the validity of the SAT, and conducted research on factors related to college readiness and college success. She has co-authored several book chapters on educational assessment and validity, and her work has been published in Educational and Psychological Measurement, Educational Assessment, and Assessing Writing. Dr. Kobrin is an active member of the National Council on Measurement in Education, the American Educational Research Association, and the Northeastern Educational Research Association. She holds a doctorate in Educational Statistics and Measurement from Rutgers University, and a master’s degree in Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation from Boston College. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferKobrin