What I Wish My College Students Had Learned in High School

Dr. Mike Milway


For most of my professional career, I taught European History to smart, affluent students at large research universities and one small liberal arts college.  Then eight years ago, I accepted a loftier calling, to teach high school students in the City of Boston.  What attracted me initially was the faith-based learning environment at Boston Trinity Academy, as did the student body’s ethnic and social diversity.  What kept me, however, was more.  I soon realized that the school was nurturing graduates who were better equipped for university than many of my strongest students at the University of Toronto, Wellesley College and Tufts University.

So what kind of students do universities want?  Two academic virtues come to mind.

Curiosity trumps knowledge

 All students arrive at college with some gas in the tank, with knowledge upstairs.  College Admissions Officers measure it according to grades and SAT scores.  But they can’t test for curiosity, which is more important.  Students who arrive with curiosity, with a real heart for new ideas and a genuine hunger for the unexplored, have more than gas in the tank.  They live at the station.  There are too many high schools, both public and private, focused on filling students with knowledge at the expense of nurturing curiosity.  

Confidence trumps accomplishments

 Some of my brightest students at university, those with the highest GPA in class, were also among my most insecure.  Ability doesn’t correlate well with self-assurance.  The truth is, I’d rather have a B student who thinks she can, than an A student convinced he can’t.  During the college admissions process, applicants always detail awards, victories and milestones.  But universities cannot discern in applicants’ essays about accomplishments and the real level confidence that those students bring, which is more important.  

The Senior Honors Symposium at BTA is a demanding, college-level, interdisciplinary course, team-taught by four faculty.  Students write a 25-page research paper on a topic of their choice, as long as it relates to the course theme of “Justice.”  The moral dilemmas they investigate nurture their curiosity about right and wrong, about why smart people with good values disagree, and about how to make strong ethical arguments.  After finishing the paper, they defend their ideas orally in front of a panel of university professors and Boston-based professionals.  That builds their confidence, and they leave for college knowing that they are well equipped to participate in public dialog with smart professionals.

Nurtured by curiosity and buttressed by confidence, some of my BTA seniors have written symposium papers that would rank among the strongest research papers I ever received from undergraduates in college, and none of my college students ever had to defend their ideas orally in public.

That’s what I wish my college students had learned in high school.


Dr. Mike Milway is a Fulbright Scholar who taught at the university level for 15 years. He has taught at BTA for 8 years.

Please watch this Senior Symposium video featuring Dr. Milway.