College Readiness: How to Know if Your Teen Is Prepared

I sent three kids to college without fully thinking about whether they were ready. When I saw some red flags in high school — missed homework assignments and poor time management — I chose to ignore those problems, rationalizing that there is a lot of growth between ages 17 and 18, and these issues would work themselves out.

I reasoned that if my kids were accepted to a college, they must be ready. They seemed to recount their life stories in those applications; indeed, the college admissions committee would know if they were up to the task.

college student riding a bike
Not all high school students are ready for college. (Twenty20 @maginnis)


Time works magic, but not that much magic. All of the college/teen experts I consulted made the same point: the signs of a lack of college readiness are almost always evident in high school. Few students develop problems freshman year without exhibiting any symptoms in high school.

How do you know if your teen is ready for college?

Students’ information to colleges says a great deal about their academic readiness while still living at home surrounded by supportive families, friends, and high school teachers, but it does not reveal much more. Emotionally ready? Mature enough? Psychologically prepared? How do you know if your kid is ready for college? Applications do not answer these questions.

It is all too easy to lose sight of our goals as parents. As we watch our kids go through high school with their class, we envision them starting college, or the next step in their lives, with their cohort.

But going to college is only part of what we want. Thriving in college is our goal. Attaining that goal means beginning college when our teen is ready, not when their classmates are.

Lisa Damour, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice, Podcaster at Ask Lisa, and author of two New York Times bestsellers, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, makes a passionate case for not confusing college admissions with college readiness and says that when college students wind up in her office because of a disastrous first semester in college, in most cases, “They spent their senior year of high school and usually several years before that hinting, if not skywriting, that they weren’t ready to go to college.”

How can parents distinguish between a teen’s usual stumbles and troubles and the deeper problems that may preclude success in college?

Are there objective, challenging questions parents can ask themselves when determining if their high school junior or senior will be prepared to start college with his class? And finally, what, if anything, can parents do when they recognize their student is not ready for college?

Here are some suggestions of where to start to assess the college readiness of your teen:

1. Who Is Applying to College?

Howard Greene was one of the most prominent educational consultants in the country. He cautioned that parents should be concerned when dragging their teens through college. When parents manage their kids’ college applications and haul along their passive or even resistant teens, they must reflect on whether their students will thrive in college the following year.

Julia Routbort, Ph.D., Associate Dean of Student Affairs for Health and Wellness at Skidmore College, encourages parents to begin the college discussion with their first and second-year high school students not by asking which college interests them but if college interests them. By the time the college admissions process begins, teens must feel that the next step in their education is their own decision.

2. Can your teen cope with life’s “hard” feelings?

The emotional life of a teen is filled with turmoil. Kids often deal with academic, social, or romantic setbacks in high school and college. They will have times of triumph and exuberance and doubt and disappointment. This is normal and even desirable to prepare them for adult life.

A close look at how their teens deal with these challenging moments sheds some light on their readiness for life on their own, explains Dr. Damour. When they perform poorly on exams, do they go for a run or a beer? Do they soothe themselves with music or drugs when a love interest rebuffs them?

When they suffer from doubt, do they call their parents looking for a compassionate listener or someone to swoop down and solve their problems?

Can they handle their problems without their parent’s help at all? Students who struggle to deal independently and effectively with ‘hard’ feelings in high school may feel overwhelmed in college.

3. Can your teen take full responsibility for self-care?

Self-care is one of the basic requirements for life in college. This skill set covers a wide range of issues from sleep to eating to exercise to self-control, and Dr. Damour suggests that parents evaluate how able their teen is to manage each of these things independently.

High school teens who still need to be reminded to go to bed, who have no sense of their body’s nutritional needs, or who find it hard to exercise self-control in the presence of drugs, alcohol, or distractions may struggle when they are on their own.

In a Wall Street Journal article, Anne Marie Albano, director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders in New York, asserts that self-care for freshmen also includes being able to make their own doctors appointments, make travel arrangements, advocating with professors or other authority figures and managing money.

4. Can your teen manage their time?

While, in theory, high school kids should be given more and more control over their time and learn to manage it effectively, in reality, their lives are still highly structured. Once teens enter college, with more free time and flexibility around their activities, scheduling their time becomes a new, unwieldy responsibility for some.

The maturity required to do this depends, in part, on developing a teen’s brain. Still, students who repeatedly appear in high school and struggle to get work in on time or manage the competing demands of multiple classes and longer-term assignments may find college very challenging.

Parents who constantly intervene with reminders for their high school students about academic and other responsibilities may fail to realize that their teens cannot manage them independently.

5. Does your teen know when and how to seek help?

When our kids live at home, it is easy to tell them when they need to see a doctor or suggest they seek extra help from a teacher. Once in college, they must decide when to seek psychological services or tutoring.

Teens who have not learned to assess their problems and seek appropriate help may falter when faced with inevitable problems.

Dr. Routbort emphasizes that freshmen must have shown in high school that they can learn and rebound from their failures and not fall apart when they have setbacks.

She notes that it is essential that students going to college can recognize when they are in trouble (academic, emotional, or other) and assess the severity of their problems. They can reach out for help on campus.

6. Can your teen take responsibility for and learn from poor decisions?

Teens make mistakes. Their good judgment is still developing, and their impulse control is progressing.

Dr. Damour suggests that one of the signs of a teen who is ready to leave home is not that she doesn’t make mistakes or show an occasional lapse of judgment, which is too high of a bar for most teens to clear, but rather that when misbehavior or misjudgment is uncovered, the teen owns up to their responsibility and alters their future behavior.

Dr. Damour notes that teens can change much faster than adults, so if you threaten your teen, “Do that again, and you are not going away next year,” don’t despair. This thought shakes many teens and they learn and change their behavior. However, concerns might arise when parents threaten, and their teen’s behavior remains unchanged.

7. Has your teen shown that they can manage themselves in a setting without their family?

Not every teen has the opportunity to spend time away from their family. But if your teen has shown that they can manage their behavior at camp, away on a trip, or in the workplace, this is a very encouraging sign for their move out.

8. Can your teen assess risk?

College is a time of increased risky behavior. Teens and young adults need to assess the risks of their actions constantly. When your teen is making a decision, can they consider the implications of their actions?

Dr. Damour suggests that teens showing the maturity required for college have moved away from asking themselves, “What are the chances I could get caught?” to the critical question, “What could go wrong if I do this?”

9. College is an (expensive) experience like none other. Will your teen take advantage of what it has to offer? Is it truly their decision to go?

Dr. Routbort finds that some teens arrive as freshmen almost as a default. College was expected and there was never a question about their attendance. The difficulty is that the decision, and thus the outcome, belongs to a student’s parents, not the student himself.

While gap years are still not the norm in the US, many experts suggest that a year away from studies after high school can have a remarkable maturing effect on a teen. Dr. Routbort believes from her experience working with college students that an “autonomous gap year,” in other words, a year in which the student makes plans and then carries out those plans and looks after themselves, leads to a qualitatively better college experience.

Greene points out that most colleges will allow students to defer admission for a year and take time to prepare themselves. He finds parents are often concerned about a gap year, fearing their child will not matriculate to college. In his experience, this has not been the case. After a year of working in the real world, most teens are eager and far more ready to go to college.

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About Lisa Endlich Heffernan

Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan is the co-founder of Grown and Flown, the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author.
She started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and is co-author of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

Read more posts by Lisa

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