How College Works

Similar to our students, the majority of the St. John’s College admissions staff are “readers”. Therefore, this past month, a number of us joined together to form a summer reading group. We wanted to select a book that is topical to higher education and quickly agreed upon How College Works by Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs. Published in 2014 this book has been been circulated and well-referenced within our industry.

Reading Group Members (from left to right Natalie Blais, David Conway, Karin Ente, Todd Cooley):




Lessons Learned

Karin: “College students make the freest yet most consequential decisions of their college careers when they are relatively new.” I believe that, within the first few weeks of school, it is important for you to put yourself out there, don’t be afraid to say hi to everyone, take chances, or try something new. You never know what will stick!

Natalie: I first heard about this book from a group of Board members. They each had read it. The myths concerning student retention are important! It is required reading for everyone in our student affairs office.  The book also reinforced my belief that relationship building is important, not only for students, but for staff and faculty too.  I love the idea that we each have a role in creating a meaningful student experience. In Admissions I think we  take this very seriously.  We are lucky because we get to start that relationship building often during the application process. Once the students step foot on campus, the relationship doesn’t just end. Each of us has our own way of keeping up with our students.

David: One of my main takeaways from how college works was the idea that, when trying to understand the success or failure of a given program or class, it’s important to keep student access in mind. If you have an amazing class that students love, but only a tiny percentage of your students take it, it’s overall not as helpful as it might seem. That’s actually one of the things that drew me to a small college (St. John’s), and to our Program. Almost everything I can think of here is open to anyone in our community, with no particular cap or limit, and of course nobody is ever “shut out” of a class they want because everyone takes everything!

Todd: My summarized thoughts on the book  are pretty simple: college is a place where students seek to gain a better understanding of themselves and their world. Their experience is made better through good teachers, a wide variety of experiences (which don’t necessarily fit in with a specific plan), and maybe most importantly, the forming of relationships between peers, teachers, and mentors on a personal level. Throughout the entirety of the book, I kept coming back to what St. John’s does well. It offers an experience that emphasizes individual student development, close peer to peer and student to teacher relationships, and rather than focus specifically on the mastery of certain material, it emphasizes critical thinking skills, writing and speaking consistently throughout each student’s experience, and a confidence in tackling a wide variety of academic problems. One part of the book which struck me was this idea of intellectual “elitism” which can exist in science departments at colleges, and the resources and experience which is necessary to be successful in the wildly popular majors of STEM subjects. The book brought to my attention that students need a wide variety of extra resources to be successful in some of these more intense subject areas, including access to more expensive equipment and access to high school courses which are more specific and rigorous in nature (calculus, being an example). I thought this ending passage also strangely reminded me of our mission at St. John’s:

Socrates and his followers didn’t have a fitness center. They didn’t have much of a campus, or dorms, or “smart” classrooms with Smart Boards, clickers and docu-cams, and video capability. So far as we know, they didn’t do strategic plans…What they did have, though, was each other. To make college work, that’s all you’ll need, too.


The main take-away is short and sweet—what matters most in college is “who meets whom, and when”. It’s not necessarily about your academic major, nor is about the specific clubs and organizations you are involved in. What is important is that you were present, you were engaged, you were challenged, and you made connections that will carry you forward.

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