Getting Students Ready for College

While your teens are in high school, like most parents you’re probably trying to help them get into college. This may include encouraging them to keep their grades up, overseeing their extracurricular activities, scheduling their SATs and/or ACTs, and taking them on campus tours. Once the application process starts, you might guide kids toward certain schools and advise them on writing their personal statements and essays. But these days, with the emphasis on getting into college, too many freshmen leave home without enough preparation to manage living and learning on their own.

As a result, in the past several years I’ve seen more college students come home early—either because schools asked them to leave, they were put on probation, or because of trouble they chose to start over somewhere else—than in the previous 25 years all together. These were all lovely kids from good families, whose parents were beside themselves when they got calls about failed classes, visits to emergency rooms, suicide thoughts or attempts, arrests, requirements to appear before disciplinary boards, and other crises.

Statistics bears out this trend. For nearly half a century, UCLA’s Higher Educational Research Center has been surveying the mental health of college freshmen. Last year, they found that recent high school graduates were in the worst psychological shape than ever before. About 50% more were depressed than in the past five years. Nearly 75% reported feeling overwhelmed by everything they had to do. It is no wonder campus counseling centers are inundated by students who need services for mental health issues far more serious than classic homesickness or roommate problems.

Shifting the Focus

All this has convinced me that our focus needs to shift from getting teens into college to getting them ready for college. The first step is thinking honestly about whether your kids are capable of being on their own. These days, it may be harder to know because so many students are getting through high school with tremendous scaffolding. Parents often tell me that their teens couldn’t possibly function without their help. If this is true for you, consider this a possible sign your son or daughter needs more skills to make it on their own in college.

Think about what your high school students will need to do for themselves to be successful while living away from home, and how much of those responsibilities you are doing for them now. Assess where they fall on the continuum of independence by answering these questions as truthfully as you can. Do your teens:

1. Manage their everyday lives? Can they regulate their sleeping, eating, and studying schedules? Do they get to classes on time? Does your daughter keep track of her obligations, or does she need constant reminders? Does your son keep hitting the snooze button and miss the bus unless you awaken him repeatedly? Are you notified about tardiness or unexcused absences? When you lie awake at night, do you ask yourself how your teen will survive on her own?

2. Take good care of themselves? Are your teens able to establish a daily balance of work, play, and rest? Do they typically cope with stress well or resort to less effective or worrisome strategies? Do they stay up all night and then sleep away the afternoon? Can they keep their emotions and energy level on an even keel? Does your son eat regular, healthy meals, or binge on snacks and junk food? Does your daughter starve herself or use food to self-soothe? Are they constantly sick? How are they managing any health conditions they have? Do they take prescribed medications faithfully?

3. Use self-discipline? Is your son addicted to his gaming devices? Does your daughter regret her decisions in social situations? Do your teens often get immersed in social media to procrastinate before doing their work? Have there been signs of substance abuse, episodes of breaking rules, or medical, disciplinary, or legal troubles? What does your gut tell you about whether these behaviors reflect normal adolescent foolishness or are harbingers of bigger problems to come?

4. Navigate relationships well? Can your daughter be assertive, ask for what she needs, and set limits in intimate relationships? Can your son discuss and resolve conflicts with peers? Are your teens apt to withdraw and isolate themselves in new situations? Do they typically struggle to get along with others? Is your daughter able to focus on her own needs and responsibilities when her friends are having problems? Do they still need you to help them manage their relationships?

5. Advocate for themselves? How much confidence do you have that your teens can speak up to protect themselves (e.g., if his roommate is staggering in drunk every school night at 5 AM or dealing drugs from their room, or if her teaching assistant makes inappropriate remarks and grades her exams unfairly)? Do your teens recognize when they need more help? Are they receptive to feedback and advice? Can they figure out the proper people to ask for assistance?

6. Keep up academically? Are you still keeping track of your teens’ due dates for papers, tests, and quizzes? Do you have to remind them of what to put in their backpacks, or make emergency trips to school for forgotten homework, musical instruments, or sports equipment? Do you worry that they’ve never been particularly interested in school or motivated to do well academically? Do they understand assignments and initiate work on their own? Can they write papers and study for exams without significant help?

When Skills Need Improvement

The sooner you recognize where your teens need help, the better. Ideally, this will be well before high school graduation. That’ll give students time to work on their readiness skills. Just as you’ll talk about what colleges want to see in their applications, be direct in saying what you’ll need to see for you to be comfortable with them leaving home. Here are some suggestions for helping teens become more self-sufficient:

1. Help only when it’s really necessary. The more practice teens get, the better they will be able to do things for themselves when you’re not around. As much as you may enjoy staying close to them for as long as you can, for their sakes find other ways to be needed. Pull back as much as possible. Buy them an alarm clock rather than being their morning wake-up call. Enlist them in doing household chores such as laundry. It’s not that they need practice separating loads, the benefit is in learning to prioritize all sorts of self-care, academic, and social tasks to manage their lives well.

2. Show them rather than doing it for them. Instead of stepping in when your teens can’t do things for themselves, be a consultant who coaches them to develop the necessary skills. So don’t rewrite the English paper; teach how to outline, proofread, and edit. Don’t keep track of your high school junior’s schedule on your phone; show her how to do it.

3. Stimulate their problem-solving. Even better, rather than imposing your ideas of what they need to do to be more capable, ask your teens what they think they ought to do to improve. Be the sounding board for their ideas. Help them anticipate the likely consequences of each idea so they can choose the best direction. When they’re the ones coming up with the plan, they’ll be more motivated to follow it.

4. Parlay their strengths. Often, teens are able to take initiative, be organized, and solve problems creatively in some areas of their lives but not others. Point out your son or daughter’s strengths and demonstrate how they can apply them to other situations. For example, the teen who runs for office with a well-thought out platform, skillfully delegates tasks to her team, and energetically makes posters can channel those same skills when exploring summer internships or jobs for the first time.

5. Reward independence. Many teens are perfectly content letting their parents do things for them that they’d rather not be bothered with. But being too helpful to your teens does them a disservice; it doesn’t prepare them to be on their own. The best way to give teens incentive to be more self-reliant is to make clear that they’ll get more privileges when they demonstrate more responsibility. Just as you did when teaching them to drive or use public transportation, you looked for mastery of specific skills to gauge when they were ready for more independence.

If You’re Still Not Sure

Deciding whether your teens are ready for college is a huge decision. As a loving parent who wants the best for your teens, it may be hard for you to assess this objectively. You just want your kids to be happy. In some cases, their behavior makes your decision easier—for example, if they sabotage their plans for college by not fulfilling their graduation requirements or failing core classes. Or if the stress of leaving home worsens their anxiety, depression, eating disorder, or other challenges to the point they need more intense treatment. But most often, it’s a tough call.

If your son or daughter is adamant about starting college when his friends are, you may be afraid to push him about taking time off. Even broaching the idea with your daughter may seem impossible, since she is already so stressed out and unhappy. Fears of damaging your teens’ self-esteem may always be on your mind. Plus, if you’re already sailing through the college application process, the thought of changing directions mid-course and having to come up with an alternate route may seem overwhelming.

If there is any doubt, seek out a professional perspective. Find a psychologist who specializes in assessing older teens or an educational consultant for this age group and discuss your concerns. Getting the opinion of someone who’s not invested in the outcome can be invaluable.

When They Do Need More Time

Like many parents, even when you come to see that your teen needs more time, it can still be hard to follow through on the recommendation for a gap year. Although this is understandable, I agree with Lisa Damour, a psychology professor at Case Western Reserve University, therapist, and author of the recent New York Times piece “Getting Into College Doesn’t Mean Students are Ready to Go.” When you consider the steep emotional and financial costs of students not making it in college because they struggle with substances, sleep through classes, miss exams or due dates, or harm themselves, it’s far better to delay matriculation. That way, teens are better able to take care of themselves and make the most of their opportunities.

Although your teen may resist, this is one of those times you have to be the parent and firmly do what you believe is best. Although they might not appreciate its value right now, a gap year is a time to grow into themselves—whether they work, travel, study, do community service, learn a new skill, or do any combination of the above. Help overcome resistance by coaching your teen in what to tell family and friends (a simple “I’d like to travel before I go to college” will do) so she doesn’t feel awkward or defensive about not being “ready.” If you’re worried about other people’s reactions, remind yourself that your child’s well-being is what really matters and getting through college is not a race.

In all the years I’ve been seeing adolescents and young adults, I have never met anyone who regretted taking time off before college—only students who were sorry they hadn’t. Making sure your teens have the skills to keep themselves healthy and safe while learning, socializing, and discovering their passions is both a gift to them and an even greater investment in their futures than college tuition.

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