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Student Life

Top Tips for Successful Students and the Families That Support Them

Jennifer Sullivan


Here are my top tips for students and family members!

Successful Students:

1. Ask for Help

This sounds simple, but some students find it very difficult. This is because asking for help requires students to do two things: 1) acknowledge that they need help and 2) have the courage to ask for it.

In college, if students don’t say anything about a problem, staff and professors will assume they have everything under control. If students are having trouble with anything (academics, roommates, mental health, etc.), they (not their parents) need to speak up. Students who are introverted or anxious may be daunted by the prospect of approaching their professor. Practicing or role-playing this kind of interaction can help them build confidence.

2. Find the Best Place to Do Their Homework

Where did your student do homework in high school — on their bed, at a desk, at the dining room table? Encourage them to reflect on their previous study habits, and then think about their ideal college study environment. Campuses have many different types of spaces for students to work, hang out and socialize. Your student should try a few spots to find one that makes them feel relaxed and productive.

3. Write Down Usernames and Passwords

New college students receive a school email address and username. Most colleges also require new students to set up an account in an online learning management system (LMS) for viewing grades and submitting assignments. Remembering all their usernames and passwords can be tough! Ideally, students find an organizational system they like before arriving on campus, but it’s not too late. There are great phone apps that store and organize this important info.

4. Get to Know the Health and Counseling Center

Your student’s physical and emotional health is as important as their academic success! Every college and university has health and mental health services available on campus. Even if your student doesn’t need this care right away, chances are good that soon they, a roommate or friend will get sick or may need some support or a listening ear.

Encourage your student to explore services on the college’s website and locate the health care building, its hours of operation and how to make an appointment. Some offices accept walk-in appointments while others schedule appointments in advance online.

For Families:

1. Remember: College is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Developing college-level academic, social, emotional and executive functioning skills takes time. During the early weeks and months of college, your student will rely heavily on the academic and social skills they developed in high school.

For some lucky students, this works just fine. Others are surprised to learn that their high school skills aren’t helping them meet the rigors of college. This is completely normal! Successful students recognize which high school skills work and which don’t. Trust the process and settle in for the marathon. The student who enters college will not be the same person who graduates. Walk alongside them and support them.

2. Expect Them to Make Mistakes

Expectations shape our attitudes and reactions. If we expect perfection, we will often (always?) be disappointed. If we expect some bumps in the road we won’t be surprised to hit a pothole. College students must learn how to balance academic demands, friendships, nutrition, exercise, mental health, money management and more — without a parent around to help. Oversleeping an occasional class or ordering too many GrubHub deliveries in the first semester is common. They’re figuring it out — just like you did at their age.

3. Avoid the Worst-Case-Scenario Mental Minefield

It will happen eventually — you get a text from your student with bad news. Or maybe it’s a letter in the mail addressed to your student with midterm grades, or a social media post that sends up your parental red flag. Have you ever gone down this dangerous road? “They got a D! What if they fail the class? What if they fail all their classes?”

We parents tend to obsess over bad news. It’s important to take care of yourself. Avoid the “what if” thoughts by doing something joyful and distracting: turn on uplifting music, offer to walk a neighbor’s dog if you don’t have one of your own, spend 30 minutes writing a letter (or nice comments on social media), meet a friend (and don’t talk about your kids!).

4. Celebrate Their Homecomings

Students love coming home because it’s where they can leave the pressures of school behind and just be themselves. However, parents may see school breaks as a chance to get stuff done (go to the dentist, get a haircut, visit Grandma!). Try not to overdo it. There are sure to be serious things to discuss (grades, their budget), but start by making them feel special when they come home — and loved. There’s nothing they’ll appreciate more.

Your child leaving for college affects your life as well. Allow yourself to feel your feelings. Treat yourself with patience and compassion. There’s no rush to “have it all together” immediately. If you feel like texting your student to say “I love you,” do it! They may need to read those words as much as you need to send them.

Jennifer Sullivan, M.S., has over 18 years experience in both higher education and K-12 schools as an academic advisor, adjunct faculty, learning specialist and former Director of Parent Programming on a college campus. Currently she is the founder of Fast Forward College Coaching and is a private executive functioning coach supporting college students with learning disabilities, autism, ADHD and anxiety and offers virtual college readiness workshops for high school seniors.

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