In an increasingly connected world, reading beyond what pops up on a computer screen is dropping to the bottom of priority lists for many teenagers. And for those of us dedicated to books and the power of reading to educate, inform and entertain, this is REALLY bad news.
It’s hard to think how anyone can build fundamental communication skills without dedicating significant time to reading, whether for pleasure or information gathering. And it’s not just about developing an interesting mind or expanding vocabulary. Students who aren’t readers often don’t write well. They have a hard time imagining as well as organizing thoughts, developing arguments, and articulating ideas.
For college-bound students, this is more than just bad news—it’s a crisis. Colleges not only care that you read, they also care what you are reading as well as what you have learned from the experience.
These concerns play out in many different ways in the admissions process, and the most successful applicants are often those who set aside time in their busy schedules to read.
It’s no secret that many of the most academically challenging courses in high school require strong reading skills—the ability to absorb and retain a large volume of material in a relatively short amount of time. Advanced Placement (AP) as well as International Baccalaureate (IB) curricula in social studies, literature, and language are notoriously reading-intensive. And colleges want not only to see you’re taking these courses but also that you’re succeeding with good grades.
Summer is a great time to “study forward” by obtaining AP/IB texts and reading beyond what is assigned or expected by the first day of school. Get ahead and stay ahead of the reading. You’re bound to see results in terms of improved reading skills, better grades, and less stress.
You can pay thousands of dollars to the best test prep company in town, but nothing improves test scores like being an active reader. And recent announced changes in both the ACT and SAT suggest that advanced reading skills will become more important than ever in future editions of these tests.
Push your reading level higher by mixing summer pleasure reading with more academic magazines, journals, or texts. Challenging yourself by not only reading from AP/IB course materials but also taking the time to annotate texts and look up vocabulary words. A little extra effort over the summer months can pay off in a big way in terms of improved test scores—ACT, SAT, and AP.
Colleges have learned that a good way to get to know a student in the application process is to ask about their reading habits. For example, one of the supplemental essay prompts required by Columbia University during 2013-14 asked, “List the books for pleasure that you enjoyed in the past year.” In fact, Columbia asked three questions designed to probe applicants’ reading tastes and interests. Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago, the University of Southern California and many other schools have their own versions of the same question asking everything from what books and magazines you read to what academic experiences [including reading] you bring to campus.
Knowing these kinds of essay questions may be in your future, use the summer months to dive into a wide variety of literature. Don’t limit yourself to a single genre or to reading only fiction or nonfiction. Mix it up. Go a step further and read something that relates to potential career and/or academic interests. And be sure to keep track of what you have read noting best books or interesting magazines as well as favorite authors.
If you’re applying to a college that either recommends or requires a personal interview, you had better come prepared with at least one favorite book about which you can knowledgeably speak. The “reading” question appears in many different forms, but the bottom line is that if you stumble here and can’t come up with a title or are forced to reach back to middle school, you could be in a bit of trouble. And you wouldn’t be alone. It’s shocking to interviewers how often students can’t remember the last book they read for pleasure or respond with cheesy middle school novellas. And worse, they might remember the title of something read for class, but they either have the story all wrong or simply can’t remember any element of the plot.
Avoid the embarrassment and read some good books this summer. Take notes, think about what you read, and even talk over the best books with friends or family. Know why you would recommend a book. And get feedback on your recommendations. Don’t think you have to re-brand yourself as an intellectual by only reading great literature. Interviewers can have fairly ordinary literary tastes. And don't try to “fake it” by suggesting a book you think will make you seem smart. If you're honest about what you like, you might be surprised to find that you and your interviewer share tastes in authors to the point that an interesting conversation ensues.