The Six Social Skills Students Need in College and Beyond

When teens and young adults picture social settings, most of them envision physical spaces with their peers, online communication, or possibly family gatherings. Most don’t think about the social skills required for success in college, particularly when it comes to life beyond their peers. Yes, it will be important to participate in clubs, student events, and social groups, but what about the classroom?

Social skills refer to the abilities and competencies that enable individuals to effectively interact and communicate with others in various social situations. These skills encompass a wide range of behaviors, including verbal and nonverbal communication, listening, empathy, cooperation, conflict resolution, assertiveness, and emotional regulation.

Strong social skills enable individuals to build and maintain positive relationships, navigate social dynamics, collaborate effectively, and adapt to different social contexts. As a community college professor and an executive function coach, there are 6 skills I see students needing.

Here are the six social skills students need to succeed in college. (Shutterstock Gorodenkoff)

6 social skills students need to succeed

1. Initiating dialogue

For those who are introverts or who have social anxiety, starting a conversation can seem daunting. Talking to a professor might seem impossible! If you’re tempted to keep your headphones on or your nose in your phone until the last possible minute, think how you could use that time instead to talk to a classmate. Or (gasp!) speak to your instructor or teaching assistant.

Building this rapport is important to staying on task in class, finding study partners, and endearing yourself to the person who will be marking your assignments and writing your recommendation letters.

2. Engaging in discourse

After I allowed my class to brainstorm a topic recently, I called on a student to report back. He told me that he doesn’t like being put on the spot. I asked him to reframe his mindset and accept that I was inviting him into the discussion, not calling him out.

If you’re one that likes to chat, sit back and allow others space to interact. If you’re quiet, challenge yourself to speak up at least one class per week. Online class? Discussion forums are a perfect opportunity to engage with your classmates.

3. Persuading through presentations

Not all presentations are alike, but they all require social skills. You have to know how to read your audience, how to keep them engaged, and how to impress your professor. This comes from knowing social cues, adapting to your audience, and building on relationships.

Practice your speaking skills, your written skills, and your creative skills by recording yourself or demonstrating to friends and family. One presentation in my history class that I will always remember involved a discussion of the history of bison in America. The student made bison stew, recounted the history of ranching in his family, made a compelling slide deck, and involved the audience with a game. Lots of social skills employed there!

4. Crafting correspondence

When I receive an email with no subject line or greeting followed by all lowercase letters asking for an extension, I don’t feel very obliged. Emails might be a dying art, but you still have to know how to use them properly.

Consider the tone and clarity of your correspondence to professors. Are you being professional and courteous? Are you clearly identifying what your request is? I ask students to demonstrate to me that they have attempted to find the answer on their own (e.g. in the syllabus, in the textbook, or through a classmate) before coming to me with a question. All of these factors will help you get the answers you’re looking for.

5. Listening actively

I will let you in on a secret: We professors can tell who’s really listening and who is tuned out. I’m not talking about the occasional wander of the mind; I’m referring to attentive engagement versus not fully present.

Active listening means you are attempting to learn from whoever is teaching (whether that’s an instructor or a classmate). It also involves paying attention to verbal and nonverbal cues, asking questions for clarification, and demonstrating understanding during interactions.

Seek to learn through listening rather than simply preparing your side of the conversation. You don’t have to agree, but you can learn!

6. Navigating services

This last point addresses utilizing social skills beyond the classroom. There is a big learning curve when it comes to finding your way through the various bureaucratic and academic services you need at college. And that’s why you need to be brave enough to ask for help. As a new college student, I remember someone telling me that I needed to go to the Bursar’s office. I had no idea what or where that was.

I asked a friendly student for directions and the patient bursary staff to explain the process. Library services, tutoring, counseling, and a myriad of other services are there to help you, but you have to know how to access them.

All of these social skills are part of a quality education. And like the rest of college, it’s an opportunity for growth.

More Great Reading:

I Had a Miserable Freshman Year in College. How I Turned It Around

About Lauran Kerr-Heraly

Lauran Kerr-Heraly is an award-winning educator and author who has dedicated her career to empowering students and their parents to transform their lives through education. Lauran has worked in college readiness in American high schools, taught history in international and British schools in England, and is currently a professor and Innovation Fellow at Houston Community College. She developed her program Altering Course to empower parents to prepare their kids for college and beyond. Find her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter

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