How do you know when you’re ready for university?

University of Atlantico
The University of Atlantico Photo Credit: Gabriel Montes

I’m a teacher at a local private school here in Barranquilla. Last Monday, I was preparing for a class in the computer lab when four senior students came in and asked me to let them work on an assignment they had to finish and submit. “OK, no problem,” I said. Later on,  I noticed they weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing, so I asked them “Guys, sorry, what class are you now?”, “Umm…eh.. umm… Mr. Carlos..”  they sneakily explained. At that point, I knew thew were skipping class, but instead of reporting them, I asked why they weren’t in their classrooms and one of the students answered, “It’s alright, Miss, it’s all set for us anyway. We already took the Pruebas Saber and made our grades. We’re just waiting for the prom.”

After that incident, I started thinking about my own senior year, almost 20 years ago. I don’t remember much of the classes but I do recall that the last months before graduation were ridiculously monotonous. I mean, we still had classes, but subjects were just pointless. Math, Spanish, Recess, English, Physics, Lunch, Home, Study, Sleep. Then wake up, and do it all over again. When it came time for university, I couldn’t wait to get out of there and I had already signed up to study psychology. Just like that.

I was lucky. My mom could afford to pay for my post-secondary education, and after registering my ICFES score and filling-out some papers at the University, the rest was just a matter of time. Some of my friends got a student loan with ICETEX or worked and studied at the same time. It’s fair to say that going to university depended basically on scores and money.

Your ICFES score determines which universities and programs you can apply to and a higher score generally equals a higher quality program. Luckily, my results were good enough to study engineering which was just what my mom wanted. Unfortunately for her, I had other plans and ultimately took a psychology degree.

It’s been 20 years now, and as I watch these students getting ready for their prom and thinking about their future and their next steps, I can’t help but wonder if their ideas now are different than mine were back then. So, I brought the topic to them. To my surprise, time hasn’t changed things that much. In general, they see university as a necessary step; something they need to do quickly without wasting any time.

Many young students here find it very difficult to decide what path to take; what subjects to study, which university to attend. There are of course some people who don’t go to university at all and for many of them it’s because they’re unsure what they want to do in life.

Out of curiosity, I asked them.

How do you know you’re ready to go to university?

Daniella Rubio (Senior Student)

I don’t know how things are going to be there, like exams, teachers, or my schedule. I mean,  I still don’t know how they’re going to evaluate me. I feel very confident about many things because I’m a very independent person, and I don’t think I’m going to have problems with the classes. Attending university is going to be awesome because here in school you have to study and get good grades on subjects that you don’t even like. I’m not going to be asked to solve the equation for x, and y. Instead, I’m going to learn how to solve problems in the real world.

Natalia Franco (Senior Student)

It just happens, it’s a step to follow. Like when you go to primary, then middle school and high school, and now comes university. I don’t feel like I’m finishing school, it feels very weird. We all have to do the same things every day, and we are just about to start a new phase in our lives. In our last years of high school they should get us involved in classes that have some relation to real professions. We still take classes regularly but we don’t know how it will be in university.

Daniella and Natalia. Photo: Liliana de La Hoz

In Barranquilla, it’s easy to understand why parents want their kids to go to university right after graduation. They need them to work, become a professional, or contribute with money. And young people feel naturally excited about university. It’s the sense of freedom without having to leave home (unlike North American culture). It’s normal to relate university readiness with having academic skills, which isn’t far off the mark given that all of the universities in this city and most across Colombia, base their admissions almost entirely on the ICFES score.

While it doesn’t appear to cross the minds of the young students, counselors and teachers agree that university readiness is more than just having good grades. Students need to be responsible and utilize the information available to them regarding university academic and financial requirements and more importantly, they need to have personal role models available who can give them guidance; parents, relatives, counselors or educators.

Here are some suggestions of how can you assess your university readiness:

  1. Are you applying to university on your own?

Your parents should be there for you to discuss your interests, but by the time the actual admission process begins you need to feel that the next step in your education is your own decision.

2. Can you manage your time?

In high school, you’re supposed to have more control over your time and learn to manage it effectively. If you still complain about deadlines and struggle to get work in on time, you are going to find out that having the freedom to schedule your activities in university can become a heavy responsibility.

3. Can you cope with the “hard” side of life?

Life in high school is filled with both academic and social complications. Even when some of these experiences are not nice to go through, you should put some value on them because they prepare you for adult life. When you get a bad grade, do you evaluate your own performance or do you blame the teacher? When you’re having doubts about something, do you talk to your parents, hoping for a compassionate listener or someone to let things off and solve the problem? When you go through a romantic setback, do you soothe it with music or do you drink beer?

4. Can you take responsibility and learn from your mistakes?

We all make mistakes. As a teenager, you’re still learning to control your impulses and develop good judgment, but you’re capable of changing much faster than your parents. You can have an occasional lack of judgment, but you should be concerned when your misbehavior doesn’t allow you to own up responsibly and alter your future decisions.

As a final point to the matter, I asked some of my colleagues about their considerations on college readiness.

How do you know your students are ready to go to college?

Angela Buendia (Highschool Counselor)

You can tell when your students are ready to start life in college when they can answer questions about their life like analyzing who they are, and what they want in the future. Most of the time, students stay focused on what profession makes more money, and on what others say about universities and programs, but they don’t like to take the time get to know their passions and vocation.

Christopher Willis (12th grade English teacher)

One way to tell that your students are ready is that they just literally outgrow school, they outgrow the uniform policy, they outgrow the bell, and eventually, they outgrow all the school’s procedures. It doesn’t capture their attention anymore; they are far too independent. They also can’t function well within all the rules in school. Unfortunately, near the end of 12th grade, it’s a super battle for all of the teachers just keeping them focused, to keep reminding them that they’re still in school for another month. Skills-wise, what I sort of notice when they’re ready to leave the nest, so to speak, is how interesting it is that they start working independently. They’re still doing assignments but now they interpret them the way they want to, so it’s more satisfying. They stop wanting to make teachers happy, and they stop worrying about getting good grades. They just want to make something out of it, and enjoy it. Which is kind of cool.

The Seniors Ride
A t-shirt depicting the period just before graduation from high school.