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A Definition of College Readiness

Education Policy Information Center (EPIC)

A list of knowledge, skills, and attributes a student should possess to be ready to succeed in entry-level college courses.

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It is possible to compile very lengthy and detailed lists of the content knowledge students must know and the key cognitive strategies they must possess to be college-ready. In fact, a variety of such compilations have been produced lately by Achieve, The Education Trust, and The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. In addition, others have identified the academic behaviors and context knowledge students need.

Rather than repeat each of these previous lists in detail, it may be more useful to consider this highly representative list of knowledge, skills, and attributes a student should possess to be ready to succeed in entry-level college courses across a range of subjects and disciplines.

General characteristics

Students who possess sufficient mastery of key cognitive strategies, key content knowledge, academic behaviors, and contextual knowledge would be defined as being college-ready to the degree to which they could demonstrate the following:

  1. Consistent intellectual growth and development over four years of high school resulting from the study of increasingly challenging, engaging, coherent academic content.
  2. Deep understanding of and facility applying key foundational ideas and concepts from the core academic subjects.
  3. A strong grounding in the knowledge base that underlies the key concepts of the core academic disciplines as evidenced by the ability to use the knowledge to solve novel problems within a subject area, and to demonstrate an understanding of how experts in the subject area think.
  4. Facility with a range of key intellectual and cognitive skills and capabilities that can be broadly generalized as the ability to think.
  5. Reading and writing skills and strategies sufficient to process the full range of textual materials commonly encountered in entry-level college courses, and to respond successfully to the written assignments commonly required in such courses.
  6. Mastery of key concepts and ways of thinking found in one or more scientific disciplines sufficient to succeed in at least one introductory-level college course that could conceivably lead toward a major that requires additional scientific knowledge and expertise.
  7. Comfort with a range of numeric concepts and principles sufficient to take at least one introductory level college course that could conceivably lead toward a major that requires additional proficiency in mathematics.
  8. Ability to accept critical feedback including critiques of written work submitted or an argument presented in class.
  9. Ability to assess objectively one’s level of competence in a subject and to devise plans to complete course requirements in a timely fashion and with a high degree of quality.
  10. Ability to study independently and with a study group on a complex assignment requiring extensive out-of-class preparation that extends over a reasonably long period of time.
  11. Ability to interact successfully with a wide range of faculty, staff, and students, including among them many who come from different backgrounds and hold points of view different from the student’s.
  12. Understanding of the values and norms of colleges, and within them, disciplinary subjects as the organizing structures for intellectual communities that pursue common understandings and fundamental explanations of natural phenomena and key aspects of the human condition.


Example performances

The general characteristics listed above are suggestive or descriptive of tasks that students will have to be able to complete in college courses. The following examples, while far from all-inclusive, illustrate what a student who has sufficient competence in the general areas listed above would be able to do in a college course. Any student who can do the following with proficiency will likely be ready for a range of postsecondary learning experiences.

  • Write a 3- to 5-page research paper that is structured around a cogent, coherent line of reasoning, incorporate references from several credible and appropriate citations; is relatively free from spelling, grammatical, and usage errors; and is clear and easily understood by the reader.
  • Read with understanding a range of non-fiction publications and technical materials, utilizing appropriate decoding and comprehension strategies to identify key points; note areas of question or confusion, remember key terminology, and understand the basic conclusions reached and points of view expressed.
  • Employ fundamentals of algebra to solve multi-step problems, including problems without one obvious solution and problems requiring additional math beyond algebra; do so with a high degree of accuracy, precision and attention to detail, and be able to explain the rationale for the strategies pursued and the methods utilized.
  • Conduct basic scientific experiments or analyses that require the following: use of the scientific method; an inquisitive perspective on the process; interpretation of data or observations in relation to an initial hypothesis; possible or plausible explanation of unanticipated results; and presentation of findings to a critical audience using the language of science, including models, systems, and theories.
  • Conduct research on a topic and be able to identify successfully a series of source materials that are important and appropriate to explain the question being researched; organize and summarize the results from the search, and synthesize the findings in a coherent fashion relevant to the larger question being investigated.
  • Interpret two conflicting explanations of the same event or phenomenon, taking into account each author’s perspective, the cultural context of each source, the quality of the argument, its underlying value positions, and any potential conflict of interest an author might have in presenting a particular point of view.
  • Communicate in a second language, using the language in a culturally appropriate fashion for common daily tasks and interactions, without resorting to literal translation except for certain specific words.
  • Punctually attend a study group outside of class with students who represent a continuum of academic abilities and cultural backgrounds, incorporating the strengths of group members to complete the assignment or project at hand or prepare successfully for the exam or presentation in question.
  • Complete successfully a problem or assignment that requires about two weeks of independent work and extensive research, utilizing periodic feedback from teachers and other pertinent resources along the way to revise and improve the final product.
  • Create and maintain a personal schedule that includes a to-do list with prioritized tasks and appointments.
  • Utilize key technological tools including appropriate computer software to complete academic tasks such as conducting research, analyzing data sets, writing papers, preparing presentations, and recording data.
  • Locate websites that contain information on colleges, the admissions process, and financial aid, and navigate such websites successfully, comparing the programs and requirements of several colleges and assessing the financial requirements and feasibility of attending each.
  • Present an accurate self-assessment of readiness for college by analyzing and citing evidence from classroom work and assignments, grades, courses taken, national and state exams taken, and a personal assessment of maturity and self-discipline.
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Excerpted with permission from Redefining College Readiness