Aim Higher: The Achieve Blog


Discover the surprising skills that college freshmen and sophomores lack, according to college professors. In this episode, Pete from Achieve Tutorials interviews Dr. Jack Miller, an associate professor at Portland State University. Contrary to popular belief, writing skills are not the biggest issue. Instead, students struggle with personal organization and self-discipline. Learn why these executive function skills are crucial for success in college and beyond. Gain insights into the changing landscape of communication and the importance of balancing academic and personal responsibilities. Don’t miss this eye-opening discussion on essential skills for college students.


0:00:03 – (Pete): Hi, everyone, it’s Pete from Achieve Tutorials, and I spent a lot of time this summer chatting with friends who are college professors in a wide variety of subjects. My goal was to find out what are the skills that freshman and sophomore college students lack that they should have learned in high school?

0:00:21 – (Pete): So today I’m going to show you some parts of an interview I did with my friend Jack Miller, who’s an Associate Professor at Portland State University. And let me preface this by saying that my assumption was that the biggest skill students lacked would be writing skills. They wouldn’t know how to write a good college essay.

0:00:38 – (Pete): Turns out I was wrong. Across the board, all of my college professor friends had the same comments. Let’s take a look at what Jack had to say.

0:00:47 – (Pete): Hey, everybody, it’s Pete from Achieve Tutorials, and today we’re going to talk with my longtime friend and colleague, Dr. Jack Miller, who is assistant teaching professor at Portland State University. How much do students need to be really good writers by the time they come to college, or do they develop that skill in college more?

0:01:05 – (Jack): Well, it’s interesting because I’ve been college professor for 30 years, and I’ve seen over the course of that time, basic writing skills increase because students now live in such a word heavy environment. Everyone is writing words all the time. When I first started teaching, before there was email, the only time that students wrote words was for papers, and there weren’t that many papers they were required to do.

0:01:36 – (Jack): So there just wasn’t that much time on task of turning thoughts into sentences. With the advent of email and with the advent of texting and all the forms of social media, people are producing words all the time. And the amount of communicating that somebody does before they even arrive at college is astronomical, really. And so the foundation of how do I communicate with people is already there. And then mostly what? It is just a matter of learning, well, what’s college level writing look like?

0:02:11 – (Jack): What is an appropriate type of sentence? The kind of sentence you would send to your friends on a text is obviously not appropriate for a college paper. But the great thing about text to your friends is you’re translating thoughts into words. And sometimes emojis and sometimes TikTok videos and stuff, but even a TikTok video, you’re translating something inside your brain into a form of communication.

0:02:35 – (Jack): And so what I would say is that college writing is a specific form of communication that has its own standards and its own kind of criteria. But don’t think of it as this weird thing that, like, I’ve never written a college paper before. It’s like, yeah, but you’ve been communicating your thoughts and ideas and insights for a long time. And so remember that you already have, really, a vast array of communication skills, and that has changed so much since I first started teaching.

0:03:07 – (Pete): His answer actually makes a lot of sense. Kids do communicate via text literally hundreds of times a day. They are communicating in a very concise way to get across the point that they want to get across using the written word. So what is the biggest skill they lack? Well, let’s go back and hear from Jack.

0:03:27 – (Jack): Honestly, the biggest one. I’ve been a college professor for 30 years, and I’ve seen a lot of intelligent, insightful people come through who struggle because they lack the sort of personal organization and self discipline that’s necessary to do college level work. And it’s always particularly tragic to see somebody who, you know is smart, insightful, curious, interesting person who maybe has a lot of the academic skills, but who is incapable of organizing their time, making sure they meet deadlines, making sure that they understand how to balance all of the things that they are doing in college, social life.

0:04:07 – (Jack): Sometimes people have family obligations. It’s tragic because that set of skills is like, it’s kind of baseline. And so I always hope that students get this in high school. I do know…right now I have a son who’s a freshman in college, and I have a daughter who’s a junior. And so I’ve seen them go through high school, and I know that these skills are taught, and teachers often emphasize how to take notes, how to make sure you meet deadlines, how to set up a personal organizer.

0:04:38 – (Jack): Not every student graduates high school with those. What I would consider to be sort of just basic personal skills that are useful not just in college, but, like, everywhere.

0:04:49 – (Pete): Right, right, sure. Well, these are like basic executive function skills, right? I think you’re right that independent management of time and deadlines, it’s really important. And in a lot of schools, what happens is they are given very rigid deadlines. They’re given a schedule. This is when your outline needs to be in for your paper. This is when your first draft needs to be in. I don’t know that people learn those skills as readily as they should. They certainly do get taught them, but they get taught them in a regimented way.

0:05:23 – (Jack): Yeah, and in an environment in which the stakes are pretty low for them to not develop the ability to sort of manage their time and to force themselves to do things when no one else is forcing them to.

0:05:35 – (Pete): So there you have it. Organizational skills, executive function skills. These are the things that you most need in college because you become responsible for your own learning and your own education. And that’s something I think a lot of people don’t realize. All right, guys, I hope you find that helpful. So go out there and have an organized day. Bye.

0:05:54 – (Pete): Thank you for watching. And for more information, you can go to our website for more videos on our blog, or subscribe to our YouTube or Instagram feeds. And don’t forget, Aim Higher.

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