You may be eager to go to college, but are you ready? If you’ve succeeded in your high school courses, you might be feeling capable to move on to college-level work—but being college-capable is not the same as being college-ready. To earn your degree, you’ll need to do much more than just step it up academically. Going to college, especially if you live on campus, is a huge leap in independence. There are many skills students need to have in order to make it through four years (or more) of college. If you’ve held a leadership position, had a job, or maintained other significant responsibilities, you may have a head start. Here are some of the key skills you’ll need for college—broken down into self-awareness, self-advocacy, and self-management.
How well do you know your strengths and vulnerabilities? To really be ready for college, students need to be able to acknowledge them to best manage their health, study habits, and more. To increase your self-awareness, try answering the following questions:
- Do you know which subjects are most difficult for you?
- Can you tell when you’re struggling enough with a course to need assistance?
- What time of day are you best able to study and learn?
- When you’re in stressful situations, how do you normally respond: do you tackle problems head on, withdraw and isolate yourself, reach out to others for support, or something else?
- Have you suffered from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or any form of addictions? If so, what are the “red flags” of these struggles, and what are your go-to techniques for recovering from these setbacks?
- How do you react to disagreement or conflict: do you tend to withdraw from the situation, “freeze,” become more aggressive, or experience some other reaction?
- What are the qualities you look for in a friend?
- How will you ensure that your intimate relationships are safe and healthy?
- Can you tell when you need medical attention?
How well can you speak up and reach out for assistance when needed? There are some problems a student can’t (and shouldn’t) face alone, and that’s why colleges have student support offices. Can you answer yes to all of the following?
- Are you able to comfortably approach an instructor to ask questions about course content or assignments?
- Are you comfortable contributing to class discussions and presenting to your peers? (These skills are expected in college and in many careers.)
- Will you maintain regular appointments with your academic advisor to discuss your interests and course preferences?
- Would you take the initiative to sign up for tutoring if you were having difficulty in a class?
- Are you willing to approach instructors or visit the career center to inquire about jobs, internships, research opportunities, or other hands-on experience? (Most of the time you’ll have to take the initiative, and it pays to start the process sometime during your first two years of college instead of waiting until the latter half.)
- Do you know how to participate in productive discussions with your roommate about topics such as cleanliness and sleep schedules?
- Would you feel comfortable speaking with a resident assistant (RA) about personal problems you may need help with?
- Would you be willing to contact the counseling center for an appointment if you felt overwhelmed?
- If the dining hall options didn’t meet your dietary needs, would you speak with food service staff to find out what your options are?
- Can you make a doctor’s appointment and go alone if needed?
- Are you planning to join clubs, teams, or social events to develop new friendships?
How well can you regulate your actions and reactions? Time-management is more important than ever, because in college your parents won’t be there to tell you to do your homework or boost your morale if you’re frustrated. To understand your self-management abilities, consider these questions:
- Can you get yourself up and ready for morning classes?
- Do you go to bed at a reasonable time to ensure that you get enough sleep for adequate functioning? (In college, you‘ll need to do this despite temptations of social activities.)
- If you have a whole day free, will you plan your time productively?
- Can you keep track of your assignments and consistently turn them in on time? (Your professors will provide a syllabus at the beginning of the semester but may not provide reminders for when papers and projects are due, so it will be up to you to keep track of deadlines.)
- Will you start assignments early so you don’t have to cram at the last minute? (The amount of reading in college is much greater and the projects are often bigger, so it’s important to plan your time wisely.)
- Can you safely manage any potential use of alcohol, drugs, and entertainment without sacrificing your schoolwork and social life? (Remember that many drugs are illegal, and no one is legally allowed to drink alcohol until they are 21 years old.)
- If you have a medical condition, can you take medication, get refills, and take other necessary measures (e.g., following a special diet) without supervision?
- Will you eat regular, healthy meals without parental oversight?
- Will you shower/bathe and do your laundry regularly without being told?
- Can you live cooperatively with someone (for example managing your side of the room in a way that’s acceptable to your roommate)?
- Can you manage money responsibly, saving as needed for bills and expenses? If not, do you have a plan to address this issue?
- Can you control your emotional reactions when things don’t go your way?
Analyzing yourself and your options
As you look through these lists, give yourself credit for the skills you’ve already mastered. You’re that much closer to being a successful college student! But chances are you didn’t check off all these items. What should you do about the skills you have yet to acquire?
Option 1: Work on these skills during high school
Use the time you have left before college to your advantage. If you don’t know how to work on some of these areas, ask your parents, your school counselor, or a trusted teacher. A mental health professional, such as a psychologist or social worker, can help with some of your emotional skills, while an academic or executive function coach can help with areas such as time management. Of course, there are also many helpful apps, videos, and articles available online on topics such as personal finance, communication, and study skills.
Option 2: Take a gap year
Give yourself another whole year to get up to speed by taking a gap year before you head to campus. If you get a job in that time, it’ll not only help you pay for college but also enhance your skills in money management, time management, and communication. Alternatively, consider a post-graduate program (offered at some private high schools) or a college readiness program. In any case, simply waiting longer to start college isn’t enough. You need to be productive in your time off, and you’ll benefit much more by creating a plan to boost your skills.
Option 3: Hone these skills in college
If you’re mostly ready for college but still struggle in a handful of areas, consider seeking out colleges with specialized programs. Some schools have academic support programs where you can meet with a coach or mentor weekly to improve your study skills and ensure that you complete all your assignments on time. Other colleges have wellness-oriented living-learning communities or residence halls that focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and avoiding substance abuse. And almost all colleges have peer tutors, mental health counselors, career counselors, and academic advisors for students to consult as needed.
Bonus: College readiness Q&A with Dr. Endlich
1. In your blog some of the key skills you mention that are helpful for college students are self-awareness, self-advocacy, and self-management. Can you explain what students and parents can be doing while in high school to prepare these skills for college?
2. One of the options you list to help students acquire some of these skills is taking a gap year before college to grow, can you elaborate on what students can be doing on their own during this time to stay productive, impress colleges, and build their skills?
3. What would you say to a student reading this who is entering college this year not sure if they are ready—especially pandemic graduates who had a strange end-of-senior-year and with the upcoming semester looking so uncertain?
Getting through college may seem daunting at times, but you can do it with a little skill building. There are many resources available to help ensure that your experience is everything you hope it will be!
For more advice on preparing for life at college, check out our Student Life section.