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High School Habits for College Success

Diane Schwemm

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#1: Self-Advocacy

As I gathered input on this topic from friends and professional educators (and reflected on my own family’s experiences), one habit — or rather life skill — emerged as the clear winner.


It’s not how many hours a day your child spends on homework, or what kind of planner they use (though those things matter). Learning to self-advocate is the single most important skill high school students should develop to set themselves up for success in college. 


What is self-advocacy? Basically, it means speaking and acting for yourself. Your teenaged daughter self-advocates when she talks to her coach after practice about what she needs to do to earn more playing time, or when your son goes to see his history teacher about an assignment he turned in but didn’t get credit for. (Notice that, while you may have talked through these situations with your child beforehand, you are not calling/emailing the coach or teacher.) 


Now, straight off let’s recognize that some high school students are way more ready than others to self-advocate. If your child isn’t doing this yet, it doesn’t automatically mean you are a helicopter who doesn’t know how to back off. Your student might embrace — even insist on — self-advocacy or they may need to get there with baby steps (that continue s-l-o-w-l-y all through high school and college).


Let me also observe that it’s not always easy to allow our children to self-advocate. The process can be messy and the results uneven. Junior and senior year in high school, as the stakes get higher, parental anxiety can increase. We may find ourselves itching to do things for our kids that we know they can for themselves.


But here’s why it’s essential to permit and encourage self-advocacy in our high school students.




My friend Beth has two sons in college; she’s also an educator and counselor who has worked closely with high school students for decades, and she had this to say:


Students who are good self-advocates have the confidence in themselves to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities available at college. They seek out their professors during office hours and ask questions about class work and assignments. They make sure their professors get to know them and see them as enthusiastic, curious students who are eager to be considered for research or internship opportunities. 


This really is how it works. I was surprised and pleased when my middle son told me first semester of his freshman year that he was already visiting his professors’ office hours. He built relationships that led to excellent on-campus jobs (teaching assistant, docent at the natural history museum), a summer research fellowship, even a house-sitting gig. Now as a junior, his comfort in going to see his professors continues to serve him well as he digs deep into higher level academic work. 


How do we help our younger kids get from here to there


The foundation of the self-advocacy habit is the ability to approach, talk to and work with the adults in their lives — teachers, coaches, employers — without parental mediation.


For some personalities, this is difficult. Your child may be fearful. All the more reason to start as early as possible. This means, parents, that WE step back. An example from Beth: “Rather than commiserate with your high school student when they complain about a teacher or a class or a test or a grade, suggest they do something about it. Encourage them to develop a positive relationship with the teacher by seeking extra help; teach them to try to understand where the teacher is coming from.” 


I appreciated Beth’s reminder that supporting our kids doesn’t mean taking their “side” against a teacher with whom they have an issue. Talking to my youngest son, a high school senior, I try not to say things like, “You’re right, it’s completely unfair that your physics teacher did that.” I still do, unfortunately, sometimes say things like that, but mostly I aim to remind him of his options: ask questions if expectations for an upcoming assignment aren’t clear, go to the teacher’s weekly tutoring session to talk over how he did on a quiz or paper, etc. 


What results from these experiences? 


Your student realizes they can get through an uncomfortable situation and make positive change happen on their own. They get to know, and maybe even enjoy, a teacher more. The teacher in turn knows and enjoys your student. My friend Liza’s daughters learned the value of nurturing relationships with teachers in high school: “They made the effort to chat informally, write notes and even buy thank-you gifts for favorite teachers. They found this made school more enjoyable and it meant they never lacked for academic and emotional support from adults outside the family as well as great sources of references for college, jobs, etc.”


When we step back, we gain an entirely different perspective. We can focus not only on our students’ grades but on their growth — their ability to build relationships and become active learners. Better academic performance, and a more authentic self-esteem, will flow.

Other Essential Habits

Here are the runners-up — all very important as well. And again, please don’t feel overwhelmed by this list. You and your student can be working on these habits all through high school (and beyond).


#2: Get organized and cultivate key study habits.


Almost anything is possible when we’re organized. Students transitioning to the heavier workload of high school often flounder at first. Creating good organizational habits in high school is a great way to prepare for college. It is also very important during high school that your student begin to understand themselves as a learner. What are their strengths and weaknesses? What works well for them? In what areas do they typically need the most support? How will they get that support?




  1. Develop a system. Whether it’s a paper or digital planner/calendar or an old-fashioned whiteboard, your student needs to settle on a reliable way to keep track of due dates for assignments, projects and exams. (Planners and calendars make good holiday gifts.)
  2. Tackle the time management challenge. You can help your student learn how to break larger assignments into smaller, more manageable pieces. You can also help them look at their days and weeks in terms of opportunity blocks for getting work done. The planner will help them keep track of the big picture so they know when they need to plan ahead for upcoming busy seasons (the weeks before and during a theatrical performance, for example, or on game days if your student is an athlete).
  3. Jump on it right away instead of procrastinating. In high school, Liza’s daughters learned the value of starting and trying to complete assignments as close as possible to the time when they were given out — almost regardless of due date — and have continued to stick to that policy in college. They escape deadline stress and avoid all-nighters. 
  4. Learn how to find/create distraction-free study environments. In high school you may be able to help by having rules about phones and other screens, but your student needs to develop self-discipline. It’s a good idea to get used to studying someplace other than your bedroom because in college, a shared bedroom in a freshman residence hall may not be the best place to get work done.
  5. Recognize the value of study breaks. We are all sharper and more effective when we recognize when we need to take a break from studying or homework and practice some good outlets for stress (that can be replicated at college) — Annette’s younger daughter Paula takes 45 minutes and goes for run. Her older daughter Nancy bakes cookies or takes a shower as a "refresher." At the start of high school, Kathleen’s son Quinn (who has since graduated from Colgate University) had a nightly routine that involved making his list of homework for the night, working at his desk, and allowing himself a brief break for gaming after each box is checked, i.e. each subject was completed.
  6. Lisa’s tip is for students to form informal study groups with other students who are at the same level or are more advanced to work on assignments and prep for exams. Her daughter Sophia (currently a sophomore at the University of Chicago) “would often study with friends, one of whom was quite brilliant and who worked extremely hard, and this propelled her along as well. They had fun and studied.”
  7. Learning to speed read and/or pick out the most important parts of texts is a useful skill in high school and an essential one in college. Some students can teach themselves to do this as their reading load gets heavier but others may benefit from tutoring in this area.


On that note, professional help is sometimes needed: Marlene hired an organizational tutor for her son last year after a rough start to sophomore year “to teach him skills we did not know he didn’t possess. Until the work got harder it did not matter.”


#3: Strive for work-life balance.


This relates to #2, and #1 and #4 for that matter. Up until high school, you have probably made many of the choices relating to how your student spends their time but during the high school years, your student should begin to own this. It is their life, after all. These are the years when they may realize that a certain activity no longer thrills them; or they want to de-intensify an extracurricular commitment in order to have more time for academics.


Some things will fall off their plate, but other interests will deepen.


In high school, your student should learn how to:

  • evaluate what extracurricular activities are most important (sports, volunteering, etc.) and think about how the HS student could continue those activities in college, e.g. Nancy is a volunteer peer mentor teaching health-related topics in under-resourced high schools in Boston this year.  Paula is planning to volunteer at a therapeutic riding center near most schools she is considering.  Students who played sports in HS may consider continuing to play at the "club" level for social bonding and exercise in college.  Students who enjoyed instrumental music may find a casual group to play with at college. etc.
  • Understand the role real friendship/connection plays in having a healthy and happy life. Liza’s older daughter actually stopped social media entirely (!) for several years in high school and instead sought out a group of close friends who stayed fairly constant through high school and beyond. “Both my girls have seen the stress-reducing value of a few good friends that you can truly relax and be yourself with over shallow popularity and having to constantly put on a fake front in real life or online.”


#4: Prepare for independent living, learn to manage self-care.


Many students relish doing things for themselves; others must be dragged kicking and screaming into adult territory. But go they must. Everyone’s life will be happier when they have the confidence to do the following by themselves:


  1. Laundry. And it’s not that simple: how much do you put in the washer at one time? What temperature water should you use? What can and can’t go in the dryer?
  2. Meal preparation. Pick one night a week where they plan and prepare dinner for the family.
  3. Get comfortable talking about their mental health with a relative, friend, counselor or therapist so that in college they will not hesitate to visit the mental health center even if just to vent.
  4. Stay on a sleep/wake schedule as best as possible, even if you have to occasionally take naps. This is a big one for parents to step away from (yes, I am still the back-up alarm for my high school senior!) but they really do need to figure this out on their own. This means determining their own bedtime as well. Katherine observes, “I won't be there to enforce healthy sleep habits at college, so I might as well hand those things to him now.” This means her son, a high school junior, doesn’t always get an optimal amount of sleep (she thinks he averages 6.5 hours a night) and he’s had some close calls getting out the door to school in the morning. 
  5. Eat three meals and keep fruit or other filling/healthy foods in your fridge. 
    Make an exercise plan and stick with it: 3 times a week, a mix of weights, aerobic, classes, etc. Start a habit you can carry to college — all campuses have recreational facilities. 
  6. Get a water bottle for your backpack and use it all day. 
  7. Try to keep weight of backpack manageable. 
  8. Volunteer at school or in town. Pick and participate in non-academic activities that will bring you joy, not for your college application/resumé. 
  9. Older high school students: Make doctor and dentist appointments, and take themselves to those appointments without you (if it’s just a regular teeth cleaning, for example).
  10. Be open to making new friends at school, work, etc. Sarah says, “Understand that many people on your new campus will be different from you. Embrace and enjoy that. Be curious and accepting.” 


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Diane Schwemm is the former Senior Editor and Content Manager at CollegiateParent and the mom of three young adult children in their twenties. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, and loves books, gardening, hiking, and most of all spending time with her new grandson.
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