As winter break draws to a close, high school seniors are rushing to get their college essays written and their applications turned in. But it doesn't end there: There's still scholarship and financial aid applications to submit and college decisions to be made. In all of the hustle and bustle of helping your child prepare for their first year of college, it's easy to lose sight of the soft, life skills students need to be successful.
We spoke to experts and seasoned parents about the life skills every teen needs to develop before they head off to college.
College students needs to be prepared to live independently from their parents. For many parents, this means taking a few steps back and letting their child start to figure things out on their own.
“In other words, we need to equip our young people not to feel the urge to call home every time they hit an obstacle,” says Dr. Cary Green, author of "Success Skills: For High School, College, and Career." “We need to help parents understand that jumping in to solve a problem might help in the short term, but it really limits long term growth.”
Kimberly Yavorski, mom of four adult children, taught her children this skill by allowing them make their own appointments, navigate public transportation on their own and ask for directions when they needed them.
“I found they were more likely to take the risk when it was for something they really wanted,” she shares. “I simply took a step back and refused to speak for them. The first time we do these things is scary. It is easier when you know you have someone to step in if necessary (and it almost never is).”
If your teen doesn't know how to cook, clean, do laundry and generally care for themselves, now is the time for them to learn. It's much less daunting for teens to learn these important skills at home with their parents' support than it is to realize they have no idea how to adult when they're on their own.
In college, time management skills are essential to a student’s success.
Young mom Jessica Sillers recalls how her mother helped prepare her for managing her own time well before she began her college career.
“Before I started college, my mother took me shopping for a planner I liked and recommended that I add test and paper due dates as soon as I received my syllabi in the first week of classes," she says. "It was such a helpful kick-start to help me anticipate tough weeks and plan ahead.”
Green encourages parents to move beyond teaching their child to keep a to-do list, helping them to learn how to prioritize their time. This skill is especially important when they’re faced with choosing between something good and one of their top priorities, like choosing between attending a school event and studying for the next day’s exam.
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Additionally, parents should help their children identify time wasters in their life and optimize their time to be more productive.
“For example, if a student has a couple of classes back to back and then has an hour break, that hour is a good time for them to review their notes from the previous classes,” he explains, pointing out how frequently these small blocks of time get wasted.
Helping your child find a time-management strategy that works for them now will help them build positive habits long before they head to college. And with months of practice under their belts, they're more likely to keep up the good work.
“It sounds cliche, but we want to teach our young people the value of always performing at the level of their ability,” says Green. “In terms of students, that means going to class, turning their assignments in on time and doing the best they can.”
The truth is, many students don’t perform to their best ability, making this “cliche” advice incredibly relevant. Instead, it’s fairly common for a significant gap to exists between how a student performs and what they’re actually capable of accomplishing, according to Green. Before kids head off to college, they need to clearly understand the importance of working hard, instead of simply sliding by in their classes and their careers.
Parents can encourage this in their kids by holding them accountable for doing their best, whether it's homework or chores. Praise your kids for hard work, not just the results they achieve. And make it clear that they'll be expected to contribute to their own education, whether by taking out loans or working a part-time job. That investment will help your teen feel a sense of ownership in their education and, ultimately, their future.
“We need to teach our student to think, as opposed to memorizing facts and figures,” urges Green. “They need to be able to use evidence and logically evaluate information and be able to develop their own opinions.”
For most students, this will have practical implications in college, allowing them to formulate well thought out answers for tests and write intelligent papers. Critical thinking is also a skill that will be appreciated in their future place of employment, according to Green, who emphasizes that recent employer surveys reveal that this skill is lacking in new college graduates.
Talk to your teen about news and current events, and encourage them to go beyond the headlines and do their research. Don't be afraid of a healthy debate, either. Parents and teens can get in a little extra bonding time while building these important skills.
Being able to effectively communicate both orally and in writing is essential to success in college. Green encourages parents to begin preparing their student early by suggesting they take communication classes in high school. Students can benefit from being involved in the school’s speech and debate program or finding a mentor.
“If a student really wants to brush up on her writing skills or speaking skills, then she can seek a mentor who's an editor for a magazine, a professional writer or someone who is very adept at public speaking,” Green suggests.
Parents can also build strong communication skills by talking through issues with their teens. Instead of laying down the law, encourage your teen to discuss problems as they arise. Talk about your own communication challenges and how you solved them, and model positive and effective communication at home.