Most gifted teens look to college as an escape from the boredom of high school. And finding one that provides the right mix of social fit, geographic proximity to home, and extra-curricular needs, to name a few, is critical to ensuring a student's comfort and well-being. But the strength of the school's academic climate is equally important.
Yet...debates about the uniformity of college academics persist in opinion articles and on college forums such as college confidential. Many claim that all schools are basically the same. Elite and ivy-level colleges are described as no better than state universities. Community colleges are often touted as not only a great financial choice, but as comparable to other elite schools. "You get what you put into it. Classes, especially in the sciences, are the same at every school. You can get a good education wherever you go."
But is this really true?
Students and parents know from personal experience that the quality of education in elementary and high school varies. Teachers, peers, educational materials, and expectations can be vastly different from one class to another, and certainly from one school to another. Why would this differ for college?
When gifted teens go to mainstream colleges, they may feel adrift, fail to find a niche of like-minded peers, and never receive the education they need. It can seem like a repetition of high school.
Case example one:
Josh* completed all of the higher level math courses available in high school. He participated in "dual enrollment" and took a linear algebra class at a local private college. He was surprised by how easy the class was. It was a 400-level class, and included mostly juniors, seniors and even some grad students. He found that it took little effort to finish his homework assignments, which he completed during class. He was so bored that he completed extra-credit assignments just so he could stay after class to explore concepts in depth with the professor. And he was the only student who chose to do this. He got an easy A in the class.
After graduation, Josh went to an elite college. Since he was concerned that he did not learn enough at the local private college, he decided to take linear algebra again. This time, it was extremely challenging. It never occurred to him to ask for help from his TA or professor. He never needed help in the past, and had always breezed through his classes. He ended up with a B, his first ever.How could two classes be so different, especially in a structured subject such as math? What does this say about the value and quality of education at different schools?
What if Josh had chosen the local private college for his four-year education? If a 400-level class was so easy, would he have been able to find many classes that were challenging? Would he have found like-minded peers? And would he have learned to challenge himself and develop a work ethic, rather than assume he could coast through school?
Case example two:
Sara* was accepted into an honors program at a state university. Her family was thrilled since they would save money and she would benefit from an honors education. At first, Sara enjoyed being in a separate dorm with other honors students, who appeared more serious about their work. She took some freshman seminars that were more intimate and intensive. However, there were fewer options for honors classes after her first semester, especially in her major. She had to take general education requirements with students who seemed less motivated and engaged. She started to feel isolated in such a large school, especially with its emphasis on football. Although she carved out a small niche of friends, she never felt part of the school culture. It started to feel a lot like high school again.While honors programs can sometimes compensate for a lethargic academic environment, gifted students need to appreciate that once again, they will be in the minority. Some gifted teens may long to shed the "trappings" of their high school reputations and embrace an exciting social climate at college, but others might feel frustrated if the serious student seems less welcome. Some honors programs provide a nurturing environment for these students, but many others do not.
With college decisions looming for many high school seniors, weighing the many academic, social, financial, and geographic decisions can be very stressful. Even though college may be vastly different from high school, it is critical that gifted students and their families consider the academic climate and determine whether or not it will be a good fit.
If you are a high school student trying to choose a college, here are some tips that may help with your decision:
1. Visit classes. Sitting in on at least two or three classes can give you a flavor of the pace, intensity and complexity of how information is taught. Yes, you might end up in a class where the professor is not particularly interesting. But you can still get a sense of the students. Do they seem interested in the material (or are they just looking at their phones)? Can you picture yourself interacting with students like these in the future?
2. Explore course descriptions. Even if you can't visit the college or attend classes, look at the courses, syllabi, and texts assigned for classes to see if they are rigorous enough for you. Do they seem interesting and challenging? How do they compare across the different colleges you are considering?
3. Look at requirements in the subject areas that interest you. While you may not have declared your major area of study, you probably know what interests you, and may want to explore what each college expects for graduation requirements. Will you be able to take a variety of classes that interest you, or will you be distracted by unrelated core curriculum requirements? Will you need to complete an honors thesis? Are there opportunities for research, co-ops, internships, or hands-on learning experiences?
5. Visit extra-curriculars that interest you. If participating in a sport, creative or performing arts activity, or other passionate interest is essential to you, the quality of these activities at different colleges can be a deal-breaker. Try to spend time visiting and getting a sense of whether the activity would offer the quality, intensity and commitment you need. Get a sense of the students who participate and whether you would enjoy spending time with them.
Best of luck with a great decision and with your future!
You may also like the following:
Ten essential tips to help your gifted teen plan for college
April 1st is no joke for some gifted high school seniors
Sending your gifted child to college: Providing support when fears arise
Five hurdles gifted college students must overcome
There is life after high school - even for gifted teens
Seven college planning pitfalls (and how to avoid them)
Choose wisely: Some truths about elite colleges for gifted students
*Names have been changed to protect privacy