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Preparing Students for Reality of College With Advice and Inspiration

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Students and parents listen in DC-CAP's workshop on "Surviving Your 1st Year & Beyond" earlier this month at Catholic University in Washington. (Photo: Justin T. Gellerson for Education Week)

Hundreds of high school graduates from the District of Columbia gathered for a summer precollegiate workshop were asked to give it up for the Class of 2015. As expected, they yelled and clapped with enthusiasm.

Then the workshop leader told them that it was time to move on.

"2015 is so over," said Matt Avery, of the District of Columbia College Access Program, a privately funded nonprofit organization that helps students get to and through college.  "We have to change our mindset. It's all about moving forward."

His next call to give it up for the college graduating Class of 2019 drew an even louder response.

The harsh reality is that about 45 percent of students who start college will not finish within six years, the audience was told at the outset of the event. Held at Catholic University in mid-July, the workshop was intended to help prepare students for the transition to college.

Avery walked through what he called an honest portrayal of the first few months of college life.  His motivational and humorous talk covered practical advice on studying (don't procrastinate), getting along with roommates (have open and honest conversations), partying (there's always the next party), getting homesick (understand it's OK, but you will survive) and the importance of asking for help.

"No matter how prepared you think you are, there will be a situation where you are not ready," said Avery, joking about how he missed his first college class because he didn't realize there were no bells to prompt him. "If it happens, don't give up. You will succeed. You will survive."

Avery told the audience to lose that "high school cool" of being late and sitting in the back of the class. "The only thing that is cool in college is passing grades," he said. "The most popular person in college is the one who raises their hand."

But to get those grades, students need to adjust to the abundance of free time in college. The DC-CAP event reflects the growing recognition that student need so-called "soft skills," in addition to academics to make it in college. The organization assigns a college retention adviser to give students academic, financial, and personal counseling throughout their college career.

"Expect to be great," Avery told the aspiring college students. "If you can see it, you can do it."

Once they leave the support system of high school, students often need a boost of encouragement and practical help to stay on track—especially if they are the first in their family to attend college.

In the summer right after high school graduation, many students who intend to enroll in college never do, a phenomenon known as the "summer melt." The precollegiate workshop is one of many efforts to keep students motivated to get ready for campus life.

Look for more on this issue in my upcoming story on summer melt due out in early August.

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