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  • Gail McNiece

Beyond Academics: Preparing Students for College Success

Student and folded piles of clothing.

College is a time of tremendous academic and personal growth. High school students have been preparing for the increased academic rigors for years. Likewise, college admission professionals invest significant time and data-driven research into understanding which students they believe will be successful at their institution. They wade through transcripts, test scores, and other indicators of success and match the student’s abilities with the rigor of their programs. Additionally, they often review the financial resources of the student’s family to determine whether the resources are in place for a student to reasonably afford the annual cost. While colleges do their best to ensure the success of the admitted students, “personal resources” is a critical component that is hard for the college to gauge. Some refer to this set of skills as executive function abilities, or life skills, or maturity. Regardless of the label, there is no doubt that these skills are a significant factor in college success and that they are developed over time, with practice.

Entering college as a freshman often involves living away from home for the first time, making new friends, and navigating transportation around a new city (not to mention campus). In addition to classwork, part-time employment, activities/club membership, sports practices, etc. will all compete for time. First-year courses in any major are foundational, rigorous, and what some refer to as “weed-out courses”. It is not uncommon for students to need to achieve a certain level of mastery in these initial courses to continue in the desired major.

Real growth only occurs with difficulty and sometimes bumps along the way. Some bumps are necessary for growth, but sometimes the challenges can be too much, too fast, and overwhelm new college students. Students and caregivers can ease the process for students and increase the likelihood of success by scaling up to the challenges over time, and certainly by focusing on these personal management skills well before college drop off.

Parents and students should be thoughtful about preparing for student success during high school. Helping students develop the experiences to manage the small life tasks easily so they have the bandwidth to succeed in college as they manage classroom, social and professional expectations.

Personal Responsibility

  1. Seemingly small tasks that are unfamiliar can overwhelm new college students. Before leaving home, a student should have in place: bank accounts (and how to transfer funds), use of Venmo or other payment mechanisms, credit cards (and have mastered the on-time payment of bills), laundry skills, and ways to access (or find) healthcare. Students also need to be able to recognize when they are low on toiletries and be able to order via Amazon, Target, etc. as needed (or arrange for a trip to the store with a list).

  2. Students need to practice meeting their own needs for self-care such as making sure they are getting adequate sleep, eating healthy meals, and carving out time for relaxation and exercise. Healthy students are usually the highest performers.

  3. It is imperative that students know when it is time to ask for help. Top students are comfortable reaching out to professors, writing centers, and mental health professionals.

Time Management

  1. Disparities exist in the way teens manage their time. While some teens have managed their own schedule for years, other students have parents who have managed the family schedule. I suggest working through scheduling fails in high school when the stakes are lower. Parents can help kids with developing and managing a calendar effectively, such as Google, Outlook, etc. Students should know how to block off time for important tasks, set schedules, work reminders, and be able to use folders and other organization tools.

  2. Students should be using an alarm or alternative method to wake up and begin their responsibilities on time. Hint: Required freshman classes are often scheduled early in the morning.

  3. Students must learn to estimate how long tasks will take to complete and become adept at blocking off sufficient time to do their best work.

Social/Professional Skills

  1. Students are expected to be proficient in using email, knowing how to write a request, and when to copy someone. Students are not often on the receiving end of these emails, so some practice is needed. Setting up and confirming appointments with teachers, employers, etc. will go a long way when communicating with advisors, professors, or potential employers while in college.

  2. Savvy students are adept at making friends, pulling together study groups, or finding rides from a “friend with a car”. Students with little experience initiating small talk, introducing themselves to strangers, or initiating friendships may want to consider looking for tips online or reading books, such as How to Talk to Anyone by Leil Lowndes.

  3. Developing connections is a big part of the college process. It is important to maintain connections with parents, siblings, former professors, former co-workers, and friends from home. Having and updating LinkedIn is a given. Additionally, schedule time periodically to check in with your contacts to keep those connections fresh!


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