Advice for Seniors: Exercise the Mind to Prepare for College

Students react to Mr. Sarat’s engaging talk.

“To prepare for college, you need move beyond just spitting out what you’ve memorized or read,” Amherst College professor Austin Sarat told seniors the morning of October 14 in Assembly. “You need to actually think. And then you need to take it one step farther and think against your idea.” Sarat, who is the William Nelson Cromwell professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, described this process as a form of resistance training that is essential for reasoning and thinking independently in college. “When your teachers here question what you are writing or saying, they are the equivalent of your strength and training coaches,” he said.

Sarat asked the audience of seniors and a panel, which included Head of School Robert W. Hill, Theater Director Emily Ditkovski, and Math Teacher Carey Baldwin, to come up with arguments and counter-arguments for a number of hypothetical scenarios. For example, if a student steals a book from the library, but minutes later learns it was “Take any book you like from the library day,” should the student be punished for his actions? Was a rule actually broken?

As various answers were debated, Sarat reinforced the importance of listening carefully, actively thinking versus waiting for a classmate or teacher to reveal “the answer,” and cultivating these habits now to prepare for the rigors of college classes.

Sarat similarly urged thoroughness when offering seniors a collection of his rules for reading and writing in college. “Reading is mental exercise. Some of it will be easy and fun. Some of it will be hard and no fun. The harder the reading, the more valuable it is to your intellectual development,” he said. “Reading something once and fast is merely ‘horizontal eye exercise,’” he added, asking students to think of reading the way they think of fitness, acting, or other pursuits. “You don’t just practice your lines for the play once, right?” he said. “The same is true of reading well.”

Sarat closed by reminding seniors of the importance of daily practice. “Writing, reading, thinking…practice these habits every day here at Williston,” he said. “Don’t skip a day. They will prepare you for college.”