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3 Building Blocks for Successful College Prep

By Christine, IvyWise Premier College Admissions Counselor

Preparation for college, and even post-graduate life, starts well before students begin filling out college applications. Decades of research has identified key qualities associated with student success, and understanding these studies can enable parents to help their children develop these qualities early on and reinforce them throughout high school and the college admissions process.

Success in the college admissions process starts with the student. They need to be motivated and have a somewhat clear vision of what their personal and academic goals are well before they begin to think about applying to college. Students should take the lead in the admissions process, but often students are unprepared for the demands of the college application journey because they have not developed these qualities throughout their time in high school.

Practice Delayed Gratification
In the famous 1960s Marshmallow Test, Dr. Walter Mischel presented a group of preschoolers with a treat and told them that they can eat it immediately or wait alone for the researchers to return, with the treat in plain sight, for two treats. Expectedly, some waited, while others did not.

Following the preschoolers into adolescence, Dr. Mischel found that those who had waited longer for the treat exhibited greater concentration, self-control, and ability to cope with stress and frustration, among other socio-cognitive outcomes. Moreover, they scored higher on the quantitative and verbal SAT, controlling for intelligence. As adults, the preschoolers who waited longer had higher average earnings and reported better health and greater happiness; they were also less likely to become obese, use drugs, and go to jail. Other studies, too, have found that self-control correlates with higher academic, socio-emotional, and behavioral outcomes, and that self-discipline may partially explain why girls get better grades than boys.

Strategies: Dr. Mischel’s research also suggests that children, even adults, can improve self-control. The key is to alter one’s perception of the desired object—that is, to mentally “cool” (i.e., distance, shift, or reframe) one’s attention from the “hot” temptation (for example, imagine that tasty marshmallow as a cloud). Moreover, self-control is like a muscle. It gets stronger with practice. Parents can also help students develop self-control by creating a “reliable environment” in which students consistently experience how waiting pays off.

Develop a Growth Mindset
The brain is another “muscle” that grows through exercise. According Dr. Carol Dweck’s growth mindset research, intelligence is malleable. Changing students’ perception, or mindset, about their abilities—for example, working through challenges helps their brain grow—leads to increased achievement. Students with a growth mindset see “challenging work as an opportunity to learn and grow” and value effort; “they realize that even geniuses have to work hard to develop their abilities and make their contributions.”

Strategies: Encouragingly, Dr. Dweck’s research shows that parents can nurture a growth mindset in their children from young age, “by praising them for their persistence or strategies (rather than for their intelligence), by telling success stories that emphasize hard work and love of learning, and by teaching them about the brain as a learning machine.”

For example, according to Dr. Dweck, parents can say, “When you learn how to do a new kind of problem, it grows your math brain!” Or, “if you catch yourself saying, ‘I’m not a math person,’ just add the word ‘yet’ to the end of the sentence. That feeling of math being hard is the feeling of your brain growing. The point isn’t to get it all right away. The point is to grow your understanding step by step. What can you try next?”

Dr. Dweck does caution again a “false growth mindset”—simply trying hard is not enough. She notes, “Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches—not just sheer effort—to learn and improve. We also need to remember that effort is a means to an end to the goal of learning and improving.” Parents, too, should follow through, for example, not reacting to children’s mistakes as problematic, but rather as helpful.

Get Gritty
Dr. Angela Duckworth defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

It “entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.”

Studies have found that grittier Chicago public high school juniors are more likely to graduate on time. Grittier West Point cadets had higher retention after the first summer. Grittier novice teachers in resource-challenged schools measured greater student academic gains. Grittier UPenn undergraduates averaged higher GPA. Grit even appeared to explain how students preparing for the National Spelling Bee better endured more effective, but less-rewarding practice methods, resulting in higher rankings.

Strategies: Gritty individuals exhibit four common traits: interest, practice, purpose, and hope. Extremely well-developed interest must come first. “You have to foster a passion,” Dr. Duckworth notes. “Part of grit is actually doing enough exploration early on, quitting enough things early on, that you can find something that you’re willing to stick with.” It’s not “an easy prescription.” The second stage is practice, i.e., the 10-year or 10,000-hour rule (the latter coined by Malcolm Gladwell), and the practice needs to be deliberate, concentrated on approaches that lead to real gains. The next step is to connect whatever you are doing to someone else, to find a purpose that goes beyond self-improvement. Finally, optimism underlies the entire endeavor.

It’s important for parents to note that starting college prep early doesn’t have to mean preparing for standardized tests and exacerbating an already stressful process by loading students up with too much too soon. Fostering a love for learning and developing qualities like self-control, growth mindset, and grit can help set students up for success in the classroom, and, ultimately, the college admissions process once it comes time to set out on that journey.

To learn more about how IvyWise works with students to mentor and develop these positive qualities throughout the college preparation process, contact us today.

To learn more about Christine, read her biography and watch her video here.