My College:
High School

Help Your High School Student Prep for College Success

Vicki Nelson


The college admission process can be exhausting. Your high school student works hard scouring websites, visiting schools, writing essays, completing applications and then, finally, making decisions.

But students don’t do the work alone. The process is exhausting for families, too!

Once your student is accepted, you celebrate, calculate costs, apply for the loans, and buy the dorm room furnishings.
At last you can sit back, catch your breath, and cross your fingers that your student will be successful in college.

Here’s the catch.

Success doesn’t just happen to the lucky students. Success takes work and preparation that begins long before your student enters college.

Start When and Where You Can

It’s never too early to begin to prepare your teen for success in college — and it’s never too late. The skills develop slowly. They’re embedded in your actions and your conversations with your student.

Start with whatever situation presents itself and let the conversation come naturally. Most of these subjects will develop naturally if you watch for opportunities. Take your time. Keep it casual.

Here are nine ideas to get you started. These come from my years of working with college students and watching many of those who struggle face these stumbling blocks. Building your student’s “readiness muscles” in these areas will help them thrive.

Of course, nothing is foolproof. Being prepared for college isn’t a guarantee that there won’t be tough times — and failures. You’ll prepare your student for those, too.

Help your student get ready to succeed!

1. Identify concerns and anticipate challenges

Most of us don’t like to dwell on the things that worry or scare us. But being able to identify and give a name to our fears is the first step toward facing and conquering them. This takes practice.

Help your student identify their worries and give them a name. Help them look down the road and think about what they expect college will be like. Ask them to anticipate the challenges they think they will face.

Then help your student identify the skills and strengths that they already have that will help them face the challenges they may encounter. Your student (and you) may be surprised at the strengths they already possess. They’ll also have time to reinforce weaker skills before they need them.

Being armed with the ability to identify and address your worries is empowering.

2. Talk about stress and how to cope with it

As wonderful as the college experience can be, it comes with stress.

Talk to your student about what causes them stress and help them create a plan to deal with it. Students who anticipate some stress, recognize it as a normal part of life, and have a plan to address it will be better able to cope with it.

Remind your student, too, that even with a plan, some students may need help dealing with their stress. Most campuses provide resources that can help.

3. Address financial literacy

Financial literacy involves the ability to manage personal finances and to have the knowledge to make competent financial choices. Most students want to learn more about managing their money — and they want to learn about it from their parents.

Help your student understand that many small, daily decisions can affect their overall financial picture. Help them create a budget, think carefully about how they will use a credit card, anticipate realistic living expenses, know how to track their spending, and know how to check (and build) their credit score.

4. Practice good time-management

Your student will spend less time in college classes and will be expected to do more work outside of the classroom than in high school. But what feels like an abundance of unstructured “free” time is actually just “unscheduled” time that your student must manage.

Talk to your student about keeping a planner for assignments and exams, but also about breaking bigger assignments into more manageable tasks. Talk about keeping track of other responsibilities such as appointments, meetings and commitments.

If you are the family “keeper of the calendar” at home, turn some of that responsibility over to your high school student. Let them get used to tracking their own work schedule, dentist/doctor appointments, and other activities.

5. Practice self-management

It’s one thing to plan a schedule and another thing to stick to it. Many of us are very good at time management...on paper. Sticking to the plan can be tricky.

Help your student anticipate potential distractions and talk about how to cope with those distractions to make sure their work gets done.

Self-management also includes taking control of other aspects of life such as monitoring your own health and eating habits and managing self-care, laundry, finances, etc. Practicing these skills before college will help sharpen them.

6. Get comfortable with technology

Okay, this one sounds silly. We all know that today’s teenagers have grown up with technology and spend much of their time in front of a screen. But although we assume this “tech” generation is completely tech savvy, their knowledge in some important areas may be limited.

Make sure your student is comfortable with online research (beyond Google), appropriate email communication, using software programs such as Word or Pages, producing and manipulating an Excel file, and attaching a file to an email. These are all skills that they will need in their college classes.

7. Think about what living away will be like

Your soon-to-be college student may be looking forward to being away, but they may also be at least a little worried about leaving family.

Remind your student that these feelings are normal. Encourage them to identify and validate their feelings. Talk about ways of coping with these feelings and talk about how you’ll stay in touch. And don’t forget to share some of your feelings about what it may be like for you when they leave as well.

8. Create goals and action plans

Establishing some meaningful and attainable goals is essential to success. It’s hard to measure progress and stay motivated if you don’t know where you’re going.

Encourage your teen to choose a couple of specific goals that matter to them — anything from “get an A in my statistics class” to “run a 10K race.” THEN, help them think about the key steps needed to get to that goal.

It takes practice to break larger goals into manageable steps. High school is the perfect time to help your student find some short-term goals and plan the specific action steps that will lead to that goal.

9. Ask for help

Most college students are thrilled with their new independence. But one of the things many students need to learn is that being independent doesn’t mean that you have to do everything by yourself.

Advocating for what you need and asking for the right kind of help from the right person is a skill that takes practice. Help your high school student get better at identifying those times when they need assistance and work to identify the person or people who can help.

Talk to them about why asking for help is important. Role-play how to ask and let them practice doing it. Share the times you’ve needed to ask for help. Talk about the importance of taking advantage of all of the resources available to support their success.

This Is Just a Start

Covering even a few of these topics will give your student a head start on college success. Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to work on these throughout the high school years and your student will build the confidence needed for the steps ahead.

Find more advice in my e-book, 60 Practical Tips for Using the High School Years to Prepare for College Success.
Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She has also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, in 2009 to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.

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