Skip to main content

How to Help Your Student

How To Help a Teenager Be College-Ready

Being admitted to college doesnʼt mean a student is ready for it. Parents can encourage kids to step up their levels of personal responsibility while still in high school.

By Mark McConville (The New York Times)

July 26, 2018

As a psychologist, I receive calls each summer from anxious parents, worried that their high school graduate won’t be ready for college. In some instances, they describe the normal conflict that signals impending separation. But in some cases, they describe a child who isn’t ready for the independence of college. I do an assessment and issue a recommendation — mostly green light (he’s ready for college) or occasionally red light (he’s not).

Either way, I’m left with a question: “Why didn’t they call a year ago?” The ideal moment to think about this isn’t just before college, but instead the summer before senior year or even earlier in high school — which provides ample time to address issues of college readiness. But regardless of your time frame, there are steps you can take.

Ready or Not?

Parents can’t be 100 percent certain that their child is ready for university life, but 30 years as a psychologist have taught me what to look for. College-bound high-school upperclassmen are on the cusp of emerging adulthood, a transition to adult status that, according to research on emerging adults by the psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, typically takes eight to 10 years. The key indicator that an individual is ready to begin this transition is the emergence of a new level of
personal responsibility.

In childhood, we associate responsibility with the dutiful fulfillment of obligations and duties: performing household chores, completing homework assignments, brushing teeth at bedtime. A responsible child is a compliant child, as it is ultimately the parent who owns the younger child’s responsibilities.

In adolescence, we expect more initiative and investment regarding duties and obligations, but most parents don’t abdicate oversight altogether. In other words, the parent and adolescent co-own the adolescent’s responsibilities. The most reliable signal that the transition to emerging adulthood has begun is evidence that the child has begun taking sole ownership of these responsibilities — independent of parental involvement — via personal initiative and follow-through.

This emerging ownership manifests itself in three predictable areas: medical and behavioral health, academics and administrative tasks.

Medical and Behavioral Health

Everyone has something to manage, such as a medical diagnosis (for example, diabetes or attention deficit disorder) or a behavioral challenge (such as problems related to diet, sleep or substance use). Children and adolescents manage these issues with oversight and assistance.

Transitioning to emerging adulthood requires personal ownership of these issues and learning to manage them effectively. I’ve worked with hundreds of students who failed in college on this account — inability to manage sleep-wake cycles, procrastination, substance abuse or unmet medical needs.

I met recently with a 17 year-old student whose parents were still setting “lights-out” curfews and providing morning wake-up services. “She can’t manage her sleep needs,” they lamented. “Not ʻcan’t,’” I said; “Won’t is more likely, because she really doesn’t have to.” A change of family policy, several mornings of parental nail-biting, and a few demerits later, their daughter was managing her sleep-wake needs just fine.


By junior year, we want to see students taking ownership of their academic careers. This shows up not necessarily in grades, but in academic initiative — schedule planning and management, and learning when and how to seek help. Specifically, we want to see college-bound students mapping the connection between their current academic performance and future life plans.

They need to know how to pay attention in class, take notes, do their homework and turn it in on time, study for tests. They should have been learning this all along, of course, but some kids manage to slip by without mastering academic routines.

If your college-bound junior or senior still requires external accountability for school work, your child may be telling you he’s not ready for academic independence. Many parents focus too intently on grades themselves, rather than the process by which those grades are attained. If you still feel like the homework police at the end of 11th grade, it’s time to retire. A C-student who can manage his own academic life has a better chance of succeeding in college than an A- or B-student who depends on parental oversight.

I’m reminded of one former client whose genius-level I.Q. and intellectual acrobatics both excited and teased his high school teachers, even as he frustrated them with a lack of academic discipline. The adults in his life shepherded him through a demanding high school curriculum, ultimately landing him in a top-flight university. Obscured by the dazzle of his prodigious intellect was a crucial missing ingredient — ownership of his academics — and sadly, he failed out of
college after two semesters.

This young man and I worked together in therapy for a year. At my direction, he took courses at a community college that required him to master the mechanics of breaking down a syllabus, keeping a calendar and managing follow-through. His parents cooperated by staying out of the process. The following September, he was successfully back in university — this time in command of his academic life.

Administrative Tasks

The third signal of readiness involves mundane life tasks — maintaining a calendar, meeting deadlines, filling out forms. Parents supervise these matters throughout childhood and adolescence, but college students must manage them on their own.

These minor tasks actually constitute a major developmental marker, because owning them signifies a readiness to begin feeling, thinking and behaving like an adult. Learning the nuances of administrative responsibility takes time, but is a reassuring sign that your child is up to the task of navigating day-to-day life at college — without your oversight.

If, however, your transitioner is reluctant to assume simple (but unfamiliar) tasks, it may be worth exploring what the problem is.

Recently I met with a mother and her 12th grade son, and witnessed a loopy argument concerning his refusal to reschedule a medical appointment. After I excused the mom from my office, the young man confessed with embarrassment that he didn’t want to call because he did not know what to say, and feared the office staff would yell at him. I can recall thinking the same kind of thing when I was his age. How many of us understood the nuts and bolts of how the world
actually works when we were 17 or 18?

After inviting his mom to return, I asked if she would call the doctor’s office on speaker phone, modeling how an appointment cancellation is done. Afterward, he commented predictably: “Oh. That’s simple!”

All he needed was a script for what to say. Next time, he’ll have no trouble assuming this tiny (but important) responsibility — and the broader range of administrative tasks that college life requires.

Mark McConville is a clinical psychologist in Beachwood, Ohio, and the author of “Adolescence: Psychotherapy and the Emergent Self” and a forthcoming book about helping your twentysomething grow up.

How You Can Help Your Student Through the First Year of College

Moving Out/Moving In

The most important question you can ask your student as he/she prepares to go to college is “What can I (we) do to assist you with the process of adjusting to your new life in college?” Students want to launch new freedoms quickly, but they also want family ties to remain intact.  Some want fast departures, and others prefer delayed separations.

Developing an Attitude for Success

Students who possess high self-esteem are most likely to take on college demands with the attitudes and enthusiasm needed to meet expectations.  They also experience comfort adapting and adjusting to college, unlike those with low self-esteem.  As a parent, you know your student better than professors, peers, and college staff; you possess an awareness of student strengths and limitations, and you are often in the best position to encourage and support behaviors which, in turn, influence attitudes and motivations.

Setting Goals

One of the primary reasons students leave college early is that their goals and motivations are unclear.  You can assist your student in establishing both short- and long-term goals.  Unless your student is very focused on a particular business major, encourage him/her to explore the many wonderful options the Parker College of Business offers and to use university resources (such as the Parker College of Business Student Services Center and the Office of Career Services) to help select from those options.  Goal-oriented students ultimately do better than those who remain unclear about their direction.

Building a Support Network

What we know is that prior academic accomplishments, social experiences, and personal achievements have less to do with a student’s satisfactions in college than do the quality of academic and social engagement and relationships established with faculty, staff, and peers.  You can assist your student in maintaining the support networks he/she had before entering college, as well as providing assistance in building new ones.

Developing New Habits for a New Learning Experience

The best learning experiences in the college classroom will be those that challenge students to think in new ways, to question the assumptions they brought with them to college, and to interact with people who are different from them.

You can help your student successfully meet these new expectations by understanding what they are as well as how the curriculum is organized and what is reasonable for students to anticipate in terms of class requirements.

Getting Involved

National research continues to document that regardless of institution type or student profile, the more students work to play a meaningful role on campus, the more likely they are to experience satisfaction, achieve success, and complete a degree. Encourage your student to explore options through the Office of Student Activities , the Office of Student Leadership and Civic Engagement , Greek Life, and the Multicultural Student Center .

Accessing Campus Resources

One major difference between high school and college is the number of resources available to students.  Georgia Southern wants to provide a positive, supportive learning environment so that the number of students who succeed is maximized.  Encourage your student to seek out these campus resources when he/she is experiencing difficulty or needs additional support:

Becoming Responsible

Successful college students practice particular behaviors.  They prioritize educational goals, consistently practice good study habits, and manage time effectively to meet these goals.  Their desire to succeed drives them to organize their responsibilities and to practice discipline and determination.  Successful college students also learn to stay financially afloat and take responsibility for their own health and safety.  Further, they recognize the importance of the college years and participate in activities in order to gain the most from their experiences

Identifying and Overcoming Problems

It may be helpful for parents to perform an assessment of their student’s skills even before the academic term begins.  You can ask yourself whether your student can or will accept a new roommate, adjust to new study habits, and adapt to the social challenges of living in a residence hall.  How will your student manage the longer study hours and meet academic expectations that the university experience demands?  Does your student have the skills to balance academic demands and social pressures wisely and sensitively?  Will your student know when academic help is needed, and is he/she one who will seek help?  Can your student get to every class on time, books in hand, assignments done, and mind cleared?  Will your student be in tune with his/her own health and wise about when to see a nurse or a doctor?  Can your student do his/her own laundry and manage personal wardrobe needs:  Will your student respond well to professors?  Does your student have the budgeting skills to make a limited amount of money last through a given period of time?  Will your student find a peer group that offers friendship and the encouragement to excel personally and academically?

Discovering It’s Worth It

From the student perspective, college is about learning how to balance a number of often conflicting emotions and expectations.  Students learn from their successes and from their failures.  Most importantly, they learn to trust themselves and their decisions.   Both the tangible and intangible lessons of college result in a variety of long-term advantages for those who complete their degrees.

Reference: Helping Your First-Year College Student Succeed by Richard H. Mullendore and Cathie Hatch

Last updated: 8/3/2021