Reading for College Readiness

Reading for College Readiness

If you’re a high school student heading to college, be sure to keep using the important skill you will need for success in all your courses: reading. From stories to plays, biographies, essays, and poems, filling your mind with “healthy” mental nutrition can prepare you for all the work required during your four-year stint in higher education.

Beginning on day one, you will read syllabi, handouts, assignments, and textbooks. Then you must rely on books and resources for information to complete requirements for each professor. Time and again instructors find that the highest achievers are those who have done a fair amount of reading before college.

I have taught Basic Writing for students who come to college ill-prepared for reading and writing classes and require remedial coursework. I also teach English Composition as well as the first three years of literature courses. Honors courses, which I teach on occasion, enroll students who perform at or above the highest college expectations. Working with high school teachers in an Early English Composition Assessment So what should today’s college-bound students be reading to prepare them for a successful college experience?

Fiction stretches the imagination and contributes to life experience. Stories about American culture expand a reader’s understanding of U.S. history and legacies. Instructors often recommend 20th century authors who write about themes like the following:

– Julia Alvarez (the Hispanic experience)
– Frederick Douglass (slavery)
– William Faulkner (Deep South)
– Chaim Potok (Jewishness)
Alice Walker (African American lifestyles)

Representative writers from Europe’s past help to broaden awareness of our shared history and cultural values:

– Jane Austen (social customs and mores)
– The Bronte sisters (Gothic romance)
– Charles Dickens (society’s problems and stereotypes)
– Leo Tolstoy (Russian aristocracy)


Plays bring a story to life on the stage or page. Understanding dramatic conventions like plot, character, setting, and symbols as established in Aristotle’s Poetics and reinforced by literary critics since the fourth century B.C. helps students distinguish between tragedy and comedy and between narrative and performance:


– Sophocles (Oedipus Rex)
– William Shakespeare (Hamlet or other dramas)
– Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun)
– Arthur Miller (The Crucible)
– Woody Allen (Death Knocks)


Rhyme, meter, and poetic patterns from any time period can be delightful reading to help readers enjoy individual and shared meaning. Amy Lowell’s “Patterns,” Keats’ “To a Nightingale,” Shakespeare’s sonnets are popular and meaningful.

– Epic poem (Beowulf)
– Heroic couplet (The Odyssey)
– Sonnet (“Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?”)
– Ballad (“Christobel”)


Many types of nonfiction offer interesting views of life from ancient and modern sources.

– Greco-Roman mythology
– Art history
– The Bible (Judeo-Christian scriptures)
– The Epic of Gilgamesh (Babylonian literature)
– The Talmud (Jewish commentary)
– The Koran (Moslem holy book)
– The Bhagavad Gita (Indian writings)

– Biographies of extraordinary people include The Diary of Anne Frank, and Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life provide insight into diverse perspectives and challenges.

– Opinion pieces from contemporary newspapers, periodicals, and journals inform readers about current events, emerging trends, and conflicting viewpoints.
Appreciating the position or slant of a publication-liberal or moderate, academic or popular–trains readers to evaluate and categorize the differing ways in which today’s thinkers respond to global events.

Literary Analysis
In addition to literary genres or styles, appropriate knowledge about and use of the tools of literary analysis comes in handy:

– Figurative language (metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, synecdoche)
– Character (protagonist, archetype, stereotype)
– Setting
– Theme
– Symbol
– Tone

Literary Criticism

Evaluating a reading requires knowledge of varied analytical perspectives:

– Feminism: the way a work is written by, about, or for women-or not.
– Historical: the time period and relevant events impacting a work
– Deconstruction: the parts of a work rather than a whole
– Cultural materialism: the socio-economic influences on a work

Other approaches include new historicist, psychological, formalist, and performance criticism, the latter with respect to drama.

Reading Tools for College-Bound Students

Reading just minutes a day can dramatically improve a student’s college preparedness. One software program is Developing Critical Thinking Skills for Upper Grades (Merit Software), which “helps students improve reading comprehension with longer and more challenging texts” (
Another excellent resource is the “Outstanding Books List” prepared by YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association of the American Library Association). Check out their extensive recommendations at
Pick up a book from your bookshelf, bookstore, or community library and get on the fast track for college success. While the examples above are by no means exhaustive, they offer a general idea of a professor’s wish list for entering first-year students. Contact your prospective college or university and ask for a recommended reading list. Then have fun this summer escaping into the world of ideas at your fingertips while taking those first confident steps toward college success.

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