What are the academic skill requirements for students who want to be successful in college?

We’ve all seen “skill requirements” when applying for a particular job. Imagine if there was a job description for being a college-bound high schooler.

I work with students who tend to struggle in high school. Some are inattentive and unorganized. Others have weak decoding or writing skills. Thankfully, there are many types of support in college for students with academic or organizational challenges. However, for most students some basic cognitive skills are required to ensure the best odds of success in high school and later in college.

From an academic standpoint, a high school student who is interested in a four-year college should be able to take information in (input) and respond to it (output) in the following ways.

Information Input

Read text from both fictional and non-fiction sources accurately and fast enough to create meaning that is literal, predictive, and inferential (e.g., Why is the main character driving to New York City? Why is he driving so quickly? What do you think will happen when he gets there?).

• Comprehend information presented auditorily in person or via technology accurately to create meaning that is literal, predictive, and inferential (i.e., who, why, what, etc.).

• Understand and retain text, images, or numbers viewed in person or via technology to create meaning and understanding of literal, predictive, and inferential contexts or to retain facts and images for future recall.

Information Output

• Incorporate new information with past knowledge heard, seen, or read to produce meaningful verbal and written output.

• Be able to respond to requests for analysis or recall of rote information under certain time constraints, including classroom participation, homework assignments, class tests, etc.

• Be able to respond to requests for analysis of content or recall of rote information in written language.

• Employ organizational skills to complete different tasks, using time, physical space, etc. effectively and efficiently in order to successfully complete school assignments and other responsibilities.

Here’s an example of how these skills come into play. In grade 11, many students read or listen to The Great Gatsby. They will be asked questions about the characters, including their intentions, motivations, etc. The strongest students have exceptional skills in reading, written, or auditory comprehension, analyzing information written or heard in class discussions or via technology. They also write useful notes, record assignments correctly, and plan out their homework. Additionally, due to years of advanced vocabulary acquisition and analytical skills, strong executive language skills, etc., they are able to respond frequently and meaningfully to class discussions and produce well-constructed written analysis.

Though students can have many areas of relative challenge, in my experience, the two language-based, cognitive areas that can cause the most decline in high school success are weaknesses in comprehension and processing speed. Why? One needs to be able to develop a picture, movie, and memory bank for what they are learning. And they need to get their thoughts out efficiently. Without these skills, school can be a real challenge. Here are descriptions of how these deficits can impact high school and college success.


Some students have a weaker-than-average ability to comprehend complex information that they hear, see, or read. They slip through the cracks in elementary school because they frequently have success in reading (decoding) words. And yet, the teachers might notice a worrisome “deer in the headlight” look in their eyes when they’re asked questions or trying to follow more complex conversations. These students tend to enjoy non-fiction over fiction, in which background and prior “known” information are typically part of the narrative.

School is a daily struggle for high school students with comprehension that “decays” too quickly when they are reading text or listening to classroom conversations. Even social interactions can be problematic. With comprehension challenges (sometimes known as a “receptive language disorder”), academics and, at times, subtle aspects of social exchange can be struggle.

A student with weak comprehension can still be a candidate for college. However, they need to examine the depth of each potential college’s academic support and perhaps avoid majors in which constant analysis of literature or heavy reading assignments are required. Remediation using Lindamood-Bells Visualization and Verbalization techniques can be very useful, especially if started early.

Processing Speed

Processing, as we know, is a general term. It’s how efficiently a student can pull together information and “output” what they know when they write or speak. Students with slow processing speed can have difficulty with tasks that require “fluency,” like reading, doing math quickly, listening and taking class notes, etc. Challenges can occur when a student is called upon to answer a question. They are unable to get their answer out in a timely fashion. Their thoughts can be fairly sophisticated, but the “cognitive fluency” required for this type of output is slow and/or difficult. The student struggles to get information out at an expected rate. They can tend to remain silent, afraid to be called upon. Many have difficulty with timed tests, and written output is usually laborious.

For example, do you know a student who gets high scores until a test or class discussion situation requires a more rapid response? Consistent low scores on “fluency” assessment tests suggest that the efficient output of information is an area of weakness. In high school, each day can be filled with those conditions.

Back to the job description. Imagine being a businessperson who can describe a product superbly—each and every feature and benefit—and yet, when asked to do so in front of important clients, pauses, awkwardly responds, or stays silent. It’s easy to understand how a student can start to feel anxious or depressed if their processing speed is lagging.

Again, these are students who can be successful in college but need to be vigilant about getting extra time on assignments and tests, downloading books if reading is slow, and ensuring their teachers are aware that extra time is needed for class participation or note-taking.

The impact on self-esteem can be significant for students with these or other learning challenges. However, many students can be successful in college. Using LD college-search databases or guides that detail colleges and their academic support offerings are terrific resources for independent educational consultants and their clients, including College Web LD and College Supports as well as the K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences. It is exciting to see that many colleges now offer multiple levels of support for their students with learning challenges.

By Carol Kinlan, MEd, MBA, Carol Kinlan Consulting, IECA (MA)