Choosing The College

That's Right For You

By Richard L. Ferguson, Former CEO of ACT Inc.


o you’re thinking about going to college? That’s great! A good education is important. But what’s even more important is going to the right college, one where you’ll be happy and successful. Today, more minority students than ever before are pursuing higher education. That means there’s a college out there for you, too. It might be right around the corner, or it might be halfway across the country. It could very well be one of those described in this magazine.

College spells the chance for a more fulfilling life. First, there’s nothing quite like the experience of being on campus:

  • the academic atmosphere,

  • the friendships,

  • the sports and cultural opportunities.

Then there are the benefits that come later:

  • lifelong networks of friends,

  • more options in life,

  • higher salaries, more interesting careers,

  • longer lives.

These are facts, and they can make a large investment of time and money well worth it.

But it’s also an unfortunate fact that not everyone does well in college. Many freshmen drop out before they become sophomores. It might be due to homesickness or lack of money or a feeling that you just don’t fit in. It might, however, be due to struggling with class work and poor grades. Please remember this: No matter how familiar they may seem at first, college classes are very different from high school classes. They’re generally much tougher. And, in most cases, your teachers won’t know you like your high school teachers do. So, you need to be ready. You should make sure, before you get to campus, that you have the skills and knowledge you’ll need to succeed.

ACT scores from recent high school graduating classes suggest that only around half (51%) have the reading skills they’ll need to keep up with the reading demands of social studies courses during the first year of college. Even more disturbing, fewer than half (41%) of these college-bound students were prepared to earn a “C” or higher in college algebra, and only around a fourth (26%) were prepared to earn a “C” or higher in college biology. Far too many students are graduating from high school unprepared for college-level coursework. Don’t be one of them.

What can you do to ensure that you are prepared for college? The best way is to take high school courses designed to get you ready for college. If you take those courses and study hard, you’ll probably acquire most of what you’ll need to get started. If you haven’t yet taken enough of those courses — Algebra II, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, chemistry, physics, etc. — now is your chance to make up for lost time. Read books that contain complex material and develop your skills of comprehension. If you don’t make good decisions now, you are likely to find your options for higher education and careers significantly narrowed when you leave high school.

For example, let’s say you’ve heard about the great opportunities that exist for computer programmers, and you think you’d like a solid, well-paying career like that. If you go off to college without a strong background in math, you’ll probably be told that you can’t enroll right away in the computer classes you want. Computer science classes require strong math skills. Before you can get to those classes, you may have to take remedial math to fill in the gaps. That’s not necessarily the end of the world, but it can be frustrating. So it’s best to take all the recommended math courses before you get to college. If that doesn’t appeal to you, maybe you should take a realistic look at your academic strengths, as well as your interests, and then rethink your career goals.

A solid college-prep curriculum usually includes at least:

  • four years of English (grammar, writing, literature, etc.),

  • three years of math (starting with Algebra I),

  • three years of science (earth science, biology, chemistry, etc.),

  • and three years of social studies (history, economics, psychology, government, etc.).

Take these courses, study hard, learn all you can, and you’ll be in a good position to make a solid score on your entrance exam and do well in your first year of college.

Better yet, however, go beyond these core courses, taking advanced classes like trigonometry, physics, and calculus. Students who do so tend to earn significantly higher scores on the ACT. The more challenging courses you take in high school, the better prepared you will be to succeed in college — and the more impressed college admission officials will be with you.

Some students shy away from taking more difficult classes because they’re afraid they might hurt their GPA. Instead, they take easier courses to be better assured of earning high grades. Colleges are impressed by a high GPA, right?

Yes and no. All colleges will want to see your high school transcript in deciding whether or not to accept you as a student. They’ll look at the grades you earned, of course, but they’ll also look at what specific courses you took. They’ll especially look at whether you took tough courses or easier courses. Earning a “B” in a tough, advanced class such as trigonometry or physics can mean more to a college admission official than earning an “A” in a less challenging class such as business math or general science. Your high school transcript is more important to colleges than anything else, even than your ACT score. The test score is generally the second or sometimes even the third thing that colleges look at.

But what about that college entrance exam? The good news is that the best preparation for college—taking the types of classes I just described—is also the best preparation for taking the ACT. You can’t learn any “tricks” to do well on the ACT. We test your academic skills in English, math, reading, science, and writing. (The ACT Writing Test, however, is optional—you can choose to take it if your prospective colleges require or recommend a writing score. The majority of colleges don’t, so you should check the requirements of the colleges you’re considering before registering for the ACT.) If you know the material, you’ll do fine; if you don’t, you’ll likely have some trouble.

Some parents insist on paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars for test-preparation classes for their children. The choice is theirs, if they have the money, but many of those classes aren’t particularly helpful. And they’re certainly not necessary to do well on the ACT. The only type of test preparation that helps students do better on the ACT is that which focuses on reviewing class materials and content — what you’ve learned in school. If you haven’t studied the math and science already, paying for test-prep advice won’t raise your score.

Of course, you do want to be familiar with the test—what it looks like, how the questions are designed, how much time is allowed for each section, etc. That’s why we send high school counselors a free booklet — Preparing for the ACT — to distribute to you and your fellow students. This booklet contains a complete, actual ACT test that you can take for practice. You can also take and study ACT sample test questions for free on our student website.

If you want even more practice, you can buy The Real ACT Prep Guide at your local bookstore or online. You’ll probably find similar books, but this is the only one that contains real ACT material put together by the same people who make the tests. If you’d rather use the Internet, ACT Online Prep™, our online test prep service, may be available through your high school. If not, you can sign up for it on our website or purchase it when you register to take the ACT.

There’s a lot of free information about preparing and registering for the ACT on our website. The website includes a database of colleges so you can find out which ones require — or don’t require — a writing test score. You can even estimate how much financial aid you qualify for and what your family’s expected contribution will be.

Another good idea is to take the ACT once just for practice, preferably when you’re a junior so you can take it again as a senior and still meet application deadlines. A trial run will really let you know what it’s like to take the test. And you’ll also have a better idea of how close you are to being ready for college in each of the subject areas tested. If you’re worried about how your scores will turn out, wait until you see them before you have them sent to a college. With the ACT, you can take the test as many times as you want and send only your best score to colleges.

If you’ve taken the ACT, you’ll be surprised how much easier it is the second time around. If your income is limited, ask your guidance counselor or contact ACT for a fee waiver application, which lets you take the ACT once free of charge.

Every year, millions of high school students have their ACT scores sent to colleges all over the country. From the Ivy League schools to large state universities to small liberal arts colleges, the ACT is America’s most widely accepted college admission test. What’s more, the ACT alone can do the job of three or four other tests, reducing both your costs and the time you need to spend reviewing and then nervously filling in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil. As you read about the colleges in this magazine, for example, you’ll notice that some will accept ACT scores instead of scores from another test and as many as three achievement tests.

The ACT can save you money, time and trouble because the exam measures more than just one or two skills. ACT combines, in one report, all the information that colleges want about you:

  • your skills in the critical areas of English, math, reading, and science

  • your high school classes and grades

  • your extracurricular activities

  • your interests in regard to a college major or a career.

The college will use this information to advise you about your course of study and what classes you should enroll in.

There are over 2,000 four-year colleges in the United States, some very exclusive and many open to almost anyone. But not one of them uses test scores alone to decide whether or not you’ll be admitted. The colleges know that many of your best qualities aren’t measured by tests. So don’t get discouraged or give up on the college of your dreams before you’ve even started. Challenge yourself now, while you’re still in high school, to be prepared, and you’ll succeed in meeting the challenge of getting into the college that’s right for you.