The College Conversation: Why reading, curiosity still matter

At most elementary schools, it is recommended for students to set aside quiet time and read self-selected novels a minimum of 30 minutes a day. Some middle schools even "stop and drop" whatever they're doing for a 20-minute reading break in the middle of the school day.

But something happens in high school, and as a former English teacher, I consistently noticed teenagers' abhorrence for assigned reading; it's become a means to an end. They read to write a paper or pass a test, not for the pure joy of it.

Spark Notes, defined as a "resource you can turn to when you're confuzzled," has replaced assigned reading. The Spark Notes website goes on to explain, "Sometimes you don't understand your teacher, your textbooks make no sense, and you have to read sixteen chapters by tomorrow."

I can tell you that most students rely solely on Spark Notes to get through the day-to-day reading assignments.

In honors courses, students are usually assigned heavier reading loads, sometimes up to 50 pages a night. The regular college prep levels often read easier novels, and have a shorter required reading list. In many high schools, absent from the curriculum is assigned, self-selected reading due to the need to get through the required pre-determined novels for a course.

This must change for the sake of encouraging our teens' intellectual curiosity and also for the sake of improving your child's chances for selective college admission. And most of the colleges in our area are highly selective.

When discussing college-readiness with clients, I always raise the question, "Do you read your required English novels?"

Many students tend to squirm at that question, eventually admitting they don't read them at all or simply choose to skim through them, in order to pass the daily comprehension quizzes.

And when I follow up with my next question regarding whether or not they read books for pleasure, the answer is usually an obvious one:

"I haven't read an unassigned book since middle school."

Often, the excuse falls on not having enough time to read what they want. Yet, more and more often, students explain their sheer boredom with reading and lack of interest with the content of the assigned novels. This is a serious issue when it comes to college admission.

Students who read the required novels in class and read for pleasure are often more competitive for selective colleges. Of course, grades, test scores, essays and other extracurricular activities are important, but reading for pleasure tends to give these students an edge.

First of all, readers often gain easier access to honors, AP, and IB English courses. Since their reading comprehension and ability to analyze text is strong due to passionate reading, their placement test scores are higher and upper-level English classes open their doors.

There's also a direct connection between scores on the critical reading and writing section of the SAT. The more avid the reader, the higher the score.

Readers tend to write better as they imitate the style and diction of different authors.

Readers stick it out when books are tough — not dissuaded by the thickness of a novel. They annotate text and ask important questions.

And most importantly, readers illustrate an insatiable curiosity for subjects that interest them, seeking out specific genres and topics to quell their appetite.

I am not insinuating this is yet another requirement that must be forced on your teen. Yet, there are proven ways to encourage him or her to read.

First of all, parents: model reading. Set aside time in the evening or before bed to read a book in front of your child. I practice what I preach, and if you look at my bedside table, at least two books sit there. One is usually connected to my profession and another is for pure pleasure.

Do your best not to force specific books on your child. After all, the key idea here is encouraging "self-selected" not "parent-selected" reading. Take him or her to the local bookstore and browse by subject. Does he or she love to travel? Seek out a memoir where a real person describes a harrowing adventure. Is he a basketball player? Ask if he might be interested in a book about the late John Wooden.

So whether you prefer a paperback, hardcover, Nook or Kindle, encourage the love of reading. Colleges will reward your child for their intellectual curiosity and illustration of "learning for the sake of learning."

What college wouldn't want that?

LISA McLAUGHLIN is the founder and executive director of EDvantage Consulting Inc., an independent college admission counseling firm in South Orange County. Her column runs on Saturdays. Please send college admissions questions to

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