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What Colleges Expect

A Statement on Preparing for College from the

Academic Deans of the Commonwealth Partnership


            A decade ago, the deans of twelve academically rigorous Pennsylvania colleges that comprise the Commonwealth Partnership wrote “What we Expect,” a joint statement on the ways students should prepare for higher education.  Prospective students – as well as their parents and their secondary-school teachers and advisors – welcomed this clear, forceful statement of what was expected of them.


            It is time to reaffirm those expectations.  Our revised statement is the expression of a partnership of deans and secondary-school teachers committed to the strongest possible academic preparation for college.  Its purpose is to guide high school students in their course selection and to encourage the cooperation of parents, teachers, and administrators responsible for the curricula of our secondary schools.  We are convinced that students who have prepared thoughtfully for academic life at college, and who have chosen the most challenging academic program that their secondary schools have to offer, are far more likely to make a successful transition to the demands – and delights – of college courses than those who have not.


            We also share another conviction:  that every able and motivated student should have access to the strong secondary-school curriculum which best prepares them for college.  However modest their financial means, students who have succeeded in a strong secondary-school program are eligible for admission to our colleges, and we are prepared to offer the financial aid that will make it economically possible for them to attend.  We urge school boards, administrators, and teachers to offer every able student access to the kind of curriculum we describe below.



            We are as concerned with how students learn as with what they learn.  WHAT we learn – knowledge of facts, processes, and concepts – is critical to success in college.  HOW we learn is equally critical.  We attach the highest value to the cultivation of such habits of mind as curiosity; independence, clarity, and incisiveness of thought; tolerance for ambiguity; and an ability to solve problems coupled with a willingness to work hard and an ability to manage time.  Students will be poorly prepared for college-level learning if their success in secondary school is largely a result of memorization.


            To help students develop and strengthen these habits and abilities, courses in secondary school need to be challenging and intellectually demanding.  Because we believe that effective writing promotes clear thinking, we expect courses to include frequent writing assignments.  Clear, persuasive writing is grounded in the mastery of such skills as analytic thinking, problem solving, the interpretation of texts, informed speculation, and the ability to communicate information and ideas to others.  Teachers should assign work which requires students to assess and integrate what they have learned, thereby developing their ability to read and think critically.  Those courses and assignments challenging enough to require students to manage their time well help prepare students for similar demands in college.  Serious independent projects reward students’ curiosity and allow them to demonstrate their knowledge by defining issues carefully and presenting their own analyses and conclusions.  Collaborative assignments develop students’ ability to think and learn from others as well as on their own.  When students question, interpret, and respond to ideas in conversation with others and draw conclusions through group discussion as well as solitary speculation, they are better prepared for the complex variety of tasks that they will face in college.


            Activities such as providing service to the community, writing for the newspaper, participating on a debate team, acting in theater productions, playing in musical organizations, and performing on the athletic field all help college-bound students to strengthen the habits that will lead to success in college.  Most students will need to learn to budget their time carefully so that valuable experience in co-curricular activities can be gained without sacrificing the effort necessary for academic success.


            We are concerned that the pressures of paid employment during the school year not come at the expense of academic achievement.  Therefore, we urge students in secondary school to keep working hours to a minimum while school is in session and not to let work obligations interfere with the academic preparation that they will need to succeed in college.




We continue to believe that our incoming students need thorough grounding in six specific subject areas:  the arts, foreign languages, history, literature, mathematics, and science.  Students preparing for work at the college level will serve themselves best if they elect challenging courses in each of these disciplines.  Because highly competitive colleges do not usually offer remedial courses, the stronger the secondary-school preparation, the more easily a college student can begin to experience the benefits of serious academic pursuits.  Our administrations officers look carefully at the courses each applicant has chosen as well as at the grades the applicant has achieved in those courses.


Although we recognize that no single set of recommendations can address the unique circumstances of each student and each secondary school, we propose the following as goals:


The Arts:  Music, theater, dance, and studio art enrich our appreciation and understanding of the world.  Students drawn to the arts should take every opportunity to develop their talents.  All students should learn to appreciate major artistic creations, develop an understanding of artistic sensibility and judgment, and seek to increase their understanding of the creative process.  We recommend two challenging semester-long courses which introduce students to the arts of their own and other cultural traditions.


Foreign languages:  Because our colleges prepare their graduates to live and work in a multicultural society at home and abroad, knowledge of a second language – modern or classical – is an important gateway to understanding peoples and cultures other than our own.  Students at our colleges frequently spend a semester or more studying abroad.  Convinced that language study can progress naturally from secondary school to college, we expect students to pursue study of a second language through the third-or-fourth-year level in secondary school, and we urge that language study continue through the senior year.


History:  We expect students to understand the importance of the past in shaping and explaining the present and to have read in depth both in the history of the United States and in the history of some other part of the world.  From their studies, students should obtain a sense of how history is written and should learn how to examine original sources and conflicting interpretations with a critical eye.  They should understand history as more than a chronicle of events and people and appreciate the process by which political, social, economic, cultural and geographical forces produce change over time.  They should come to appreciate that ways of living and thinking different from their own have value as human responses to different conditions of existence.  Ideally, students should devote two full-year courses to the study of history.


Literature:  Students entering college should have read a broad range of literary works which give elegant and memorable expression to the major problems of human life.  Students should be familiar with a number of major works, classic and contemporary, from several different cultures, and should have made these works their own, finding strength and relevance in their words.  They should have studied texts in all major genres – drama, novels, poetry, essays, short fiction, and film – and should have written frequently about these works, analyzing themes and language, speculating on implications, and using the works as inspiration for their own imaginative writing.  (We have already drawn attention to the importance of writing in the section on “Habitats of the Mind.”)  A strong program should include a literature course in each of the four high-school years.


Mathematics:  Quantitative analysis is crucial to understanding the complexities of the modern world.  The use of algebra, calculus, and statistics is now commonplace in college-level courses not only in the natural sciences but also in the social sciences such as economics, political science, psychology, and sociology.  Weakness in mathematics prevents many prospective majors in these disciplines from pursuing their goals.  We expect students to have gone as far in mathematics as their secondary-school curriculum permits, taking advantage through all four years of all available technology – from graphing calculators to statistical software packages.


Science:  Familiarity with the basic sciences – biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics – has become a practical necessity in today’s world.  We expect students to have gained this familiarity at an introductory level as well as to have progressed on to a deeper understanding of scientific concepts, skills, and attitudes in at least one science.  In addition to a firm grasp of one scientific discipline, a student’s science curriculum should include the study of the environment, the integrated nature of all scientific reasoning, and the relationships among science, technology, and society.  Students should endeavor to take three year-long laboratory courses in the basic sciences; an additional course at an advanced level is strongly recommended.  Whenever possible, science courses should include the mathematical analysis of scientific data.



            We have already spoken of the critical importance of writing in every subject area.  We remind students here that in order to complete college-level assignments in our six subject areas, they will also need, at a minimum, the ability to use the computer for word processing.  In addition, some familiarity with spread sheet and data-base manipulations, and some ability to use the computer to integrate different media (such as slides, videotapes, and text) into project presentations will serve students well.


            Most students will have to make choices.  Few will be able to take all the courses that we recommend in each area, but we urge students to elect the strongest possible academic program.  Students who find success in a program such as the one offered here will have little difficulty succeeding in college.


            We have focused our recommendations on the curriculum because we believe that a strong curriculum plays a critical role in preparing students for college.  Still more critical is a faculty and staff committed to student learning.  College students invariably point to secondary-school teachers whose inspiration, hard work, and high standards prepared them well for the challenges of their college experience.  We offer “What We Expect” as a contribution to the goal of all teachers: the successful transition of their students from secondary school to college.


            Prepared by the Deans of the following colleges:


                        Allegheny College

                        Bryn Mawr College

                        Bucknell University

                        Carnegie Mellon University

                        Chatham College

                        Dickinson College

                        Franklin & Marshall College

                        Gettysburg College

                        Haverford College

                        Lafayette College

                        Lehigh University

                        Swarthmore College