College Readiness: How to Know if Your Teen is Prepared

I sent three kids off to college with barely a thought about whether they were ready. When I saw what were clearly some red flags in high school – missed homework assignments, poor time management – I chose to ignore those problems rationalizing to myself that there is a lot of growth that goes on between age 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 entire life stories in those applications, surely the college admissions committee would know if they were up to the task.

College readiness in teens: 9 questions parents need to ask themselves

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

[More about the significance of being 18 here.]

The information that students send to colleges says a great deal about their academic readiness while still living at home surrounded by their 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.

Overall admissions committees don’t have a great track record. In the US just over 58% of freshmen returned to the same college for a second year. A great many freshmen complete applications which suggests that they are ready for something which clearly they are not.

As parents, it is all too easy to lose sight of our goals. 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 not what we want, rather thriving in college is our goal. Attaining that goal means beginning college when our teen is ready, not when their classmates are. On The New York Times MotherlodeLisa Damour, PhD , a psychologist in private practice, a clinical instructor at Case Western Reserve University, the director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls and author of the forthcoming, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood makes an impassioned 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 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 the normal stumbles and troubles of a teen and the deeper problems that may preclude success in college? Are there are real, tough questions parents can ask themselves when trying to figure out 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 that their student is not quite 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, one of the most prominent educational placement consultants in the country and the author of many college guides, cautions that parents should be concerned when they find themselves dragging their teen through the college process. When parents are managing their kid’s college application and hauling along their passive or even resistant teen, they need to reflect on whether their student will thrive in college the following year.

Julia Routbort, Ph.D. Associate Dean of Students at Skidmore College, encourages parents to begin the college discussion with their high school freshman and sophomore not by asking which college interests them, but if college interests them. By the time the actual college admissions process begins teens need to feel that the next step in their education is their own decision.

2. Can your teen cope with the “hard” feelings in life?

The emotional life of a teen is filled with turmoil. In high school and college, kids often deal with academic, social or romantic setbacks. They will have times of triumph and exuberance as well as doubt and disappointment. All of this is normal, and even desirable as a way 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 an exam do they go for a run or a beer? When a love interest rebuffs them do they soothe themselves with music or drugs? When they are suffering 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 parents help at all? Students who struggle to deal independently and effectively with “hard’ feelings in high school may feel overwhelmed in the college environment.

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

In a recent 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, travel arrangements, advocating with professors or other authority figures and managing money.

4. Can your teen manage his time?

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

The maturity required to do this depends, in part, on the development of a teen’s brain but students who repeatedly show in high school that they 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 student about academic and other responsibilities may fail to realize that their teen cannot manage them on their own.

[More about the developing brain in teens and college students here.]

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

When our kids live at home it is all too easy to tell them when they need to see a doctor or suggest to them that they seek extra help from a teacher. Once they are in college they will need to decide for themselves when to seek psychological services or tutoring. Teens who have not learned to both assess their own problems and then seek appropriate help may falter when faced with inevitable problems.

Dr. Routbort emphasizes that freshmen need to have shown in high school that they can both learn and rebound from their failures and that they do not fall apart when they have setbacks. She notes that it is important that students going to college can recognize when they are in some sort of trouble (academic, emotional or other), asses the severity of their problems and that they are capable of reaching out for help on campus.

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

Teens make mistakes. Their good judgment is still developing and their impulse control is a work in progress. 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 judgment, that 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.

Teens are capable of changing much faster than adults, Dr. Damour notes, so if you find yourself threatening your teen “do that again and you are not going away next year” don’t despair. Many teens are shaken at this thought and both learn and change their behavior. Concern, however, might arise when parents make such a threat 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 at camp, away on a trip or in the workplace they are able to manage their behavior, this is a very encouraging sign for their move away.

8. Can your teen assess risk?

College is a time of increased risky behavior. Teens and young adults need to constantly assess the risks of their actions. When your teen is making a decision involving sex, drugs or alcohol can they think through the implications of their actions? Dr. Damour suggests that teens who are showing the kind of maturity that is required for college have moved away from asking themselves, “What are the chances I could get caught?” to the important question, “What could go wrong if I do this?”

9. College is an (expensive) gift 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 kids arrive as freshmen almost as a default. College was expected and at no point was there ever a question about their attending. The difficulty in this is that the decision, and thus the outcome, belongs to a student’s parents and not to 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 get themselves ready. He finds parents are often concerned about at gap year, fearing that their child will not end up matriculating to college. In his experience this has not been the case. After a year working in the real world, most teens are eager and far more ready to go to college.

Related:

Dear Parent of Newly Admitted College Freshman

College Dorm Shopping: 50 Questions to Answer First 

Our favorite posts for parents of college-bound teens and existing college students 

About Grown and Flown

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

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