College admissions letters are cause for celebration.  But they’re not the end of the road.  Forty percent of students who enroll in a four-year degree program will not finish within six years, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.  What causes some students to soar and others to struggle?  Joyce Draper, founder of Draper College Consulting, believes social, emotional and life skills are just as important as academic preparedness.  She shares the college transition advice she gives to all her graduating seniors before they head to campus. 

What’s the purpose of a college readiness checklist?  

We spend so much time talking to students about how to apply and get in, but then we don’t talk enough about what they’ll need to do when they get there.  I have a frank conversation with all my students about what their everyday life will look like on campus and how to prepare for it.  Choosing a major isn’t the most important thing, but students need to have a mental image of what they can expect during their first year of college and what they want to get out of it.  

Over the years, I’ve developed a list of soft skills students need to work on before and during college: time management, self-advocacy, interpersonal and communication skills, budgeting and housekeeping.   

If a student has six months before they head to college, what skills should they be developing?  

Before they go to college, students need to start planning their own time, taking ownership of their life and prioritizing commitments.  I ask them if they have a system for managing their own time – they need to build their own calendar because parents won’t be there to remind them about appointments and assignments.  Are they able to organize their own work and divide a large task into more manageable pieces?  

It sounds small, but students need to master their email.  Most don’t check email, but that’s how professors will communicate with them.   

What academic skills should they have in place?  

It’s amazing how much work students can be given in high school without being truly prepared for college.  Even students with Advanced Placement course experience may not be ready, because those classes often don’t deliver the rigor of a college course.  I encourage students to think about whether they can read 200 pages per week or write a 10-page paper.  I really emphasize honing notetaking skills.   

Many students are astonished to learn that for every hour of class, they’ll have two to three hours of work.  They need to arrive with the mindset that college will be a full-time job or they’ll see those empty blocks of time and not be sure how to manage them.  

Students also need to be prepared for what happens if they struggle in their first semester.  I ask them to do research on their school’s writing center and math lab.  If they’re having trouble in class, how do they learn about the professor’s office hours and what do they ask when they get there?  

How do you talk to students about the difficult social transition to college?  

Managing interpersonal relations can be one of the trickiest parts of the college transition.  I talk to students about how to minimize potential conflict, such as navigating a roommate who may be very different from them in habits, background and disposition.   

Students who experience anxiety, depression or ADHD also need to reflect on how they will manage that independently in college.  Are they in charge of filling prescriptions or is that their parents’ job?  That’s a family conversation they need to have.  They also need to research their school’s mental health resources – many schools have a cap on therapy sessions per student, and it can be challenging and expensive to find private support near campus.  

How should students prepare to manage their finances?  

It needs to be the topic of a pre-arrival conversation between a student and his or her parents.   Every family manages finances differently, with student having differing levels of financial independence and accountability.  Parents may want to help their student set a monthly budget.  Will the student have a debit card or a credit card, and do they know how to manage that responsibly?  With some kids, parents need to set a limit or a notification so that there’s not a rude awakening when they get a monthly credit card bill or a checking account is depleted.  Before freshman year starts, parents can encourage a student contribution through a summer or on-campus job, which is great for both their accountability and self-confidence.   

What other life skills should students work on?  

Many students have little experience with housework.  Some colleges house freshmen in suites with minimal monthly housekeeping services.  The students are expected to clean the refrigerator and take out the trash, and they may even need to go to the grocery store or learn to make basic meals.  Daily life can be pretty unpleasant and relations with roommates challenging if students don’t learn some basic cooperation and housekeeping skills.  


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