Many families take the transition to college for granted. We mark the end of high school with celebrations and ceremonies — and then cut students loose to figure out what comes next.
Some students naturally develop the skills they need to be successful by the end of high school. But others need more support to prepare for living on their own, managing less-structured schedules, and being self-reliant in their decision-making.
I spoke with Dr. Eric Endlich, a psychologist and educational consultant who helps students transition to college and graduate school. Eric has great insight on how to approach and prepare for the college transition. He also talks about college readiness in the year of a global pandemic.
Here’s a condensed version of what he shared during our conversation:
Being “college-ready” is distinct from being “college capable.” College capable means a student has the capacity to handle college-level course material. College readiness, on the other hand, is more about the life skills a student needs to function independently. I put those skills into three categories:
- Self-awareness is knowing your strengths and vulnerabilities. If you tend to procrastinate, you need to know that about yourself. Putting things off until the last minute might have been okay in high school, but it’s not going to fly if you try to write a 20-page college research paper overnight. Emotional self-awareness is important too. How do you respond to stress? What habits do you default to—and what behaviors help you manage stress when it arises?
- Self-advocacy is being able to ask for what you need. That could mean speaking up in class to state your point of view, talking to your professor during office hours, or seeking out a counselor for mental health support. Self-advocacy requires tenacity: you’ll inevitably run into obstacles, and you need to be persistent enough to surmount them.
- Self-management is how you regulate different aspects of your life: time, money, emotions, behaviors. When something happens that upsets you, self-management helps you think through the situation and decide how to deal with it instead of letting your emotions provoke a knee-jerk reaction.
- Time in college is much less structured than it was in high school, and there aren’t adults prompting you at multiple points during the day. Time management helps you make wise decisions about what to do with that free time: do you talk to friends in the residence hall, play video games, get a jumpstart on your assignments?
Being able to meet your physical needs is also crucial. It sounds simple, but doing laundry, eating decently, exercising enough, and maintaining basic hygiene can be challenging for some students.
Developing College Readiness Skills
If you have a handle on most of these skills, most of the time, you’re probably college-ready. You’ll make a few mistakes, but you’ll learn to be more independent and grow as a human being. But if these skills are underdeveloped or very challenging, you may need support and a plan to get you college-ready.
There are three main opportunities for working on these skills:
- High school: For younger students, there’s time to address these concerns during high school. An academic coach can help families create a plan to build up the student’s skills. Over time, the student assumes more responsibility as parents step back from driving the student’s agenda.
- Between high school and college: Each summer, an influx of rising high school seniors come to me for help with the college transition. For some students, that’s enough time to build up their skills before college. But others need more time if they’re going to be set up to succeed: in some cases, this results in students taking a gap year.
- If done right, a gap year can give a student the opportunity to address whatever college readiness skills need to be improved. The brain continues to develop executive function abilities well into our 20s, so an extra year allows students more time to mature. Students can also enroll in programs designed to teach college readiness skills.
- During college: Students who are already in college and are struggling may have access to academic support programs for students with learning differences or challenges. Social skills, study skills and even career components may be part of these programs, sometimes offered through a school’s accessibility office. Most colleges also have extensive orientations, which at least point students in the right direction for accessing the resources they need.
The Role of Academic Coaching
An academic or executive function coach can help families understand a student’s readiness, identify areas for improvement, and create a plan to help them build their skills. A student who finds the right coach in high school can continue the relationship as they enter college, which provides continuity during a period when almost everything else is new and different.
Navigating the College Transition During a Pandemic
Colleges are fascinating places full of excitement and dynamic learning. It makes sense if students are disappointed that they can’t be on campus and have the experience that they expected.
That said, difficult experiences often have a silver lining—if you have the perspective to see it. One benefit to the current situation may be that by staying at home, students have a longer runway for the college transition. They can learn to manage new schedules and a different level of academic work in their home environment, then focus on building other skills once they’re out of the house and on their own.