Nine Keys to College Success: What the Research Shows

For years, college has felt like an endpoint, the focus of so much of our kids’ energies. But it turns out to be just the beginning.

Parents and high school teachers try to prepare teens for college, but what factors help create college success? We have reviewed years of research and present nine findings on how freshmen can succeed in college.

Research shows how teens can be successful in college.

1. Stick to Your Definition of Success in College

Students who did best in college were not motivated by outside factors like jobs or grades but rather by a genuine desire to learn.

Intrinsically motivated by their sense of purpose, they were not demoralized by failure nor overly impressed with conventional notions of success.

These movers and shakers didn’t achieve success by making success their goal. For them, it was a byproduct of following their intellectual curiosity, solving practical problems, and taking risks to learn and grow.

2. Take One Small Class, Every Semester

According to Professor Richard Light of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, students who took one small class, defined as less than 16 students, had a higher level of engagement and worked harder.

Another study showed that students who took a small freshman seminar (thus had an early experience in a small class setting) were less likely to drop out of school.

Students who choose at least one small course each semester have, on average, a significantly better overall experience than those who do not. [They] are noticeably more engaged, by their rating, than students who take only larger classes…Either small classes demand more time, or students choose to invest more.

3. Engage With Faculty Early and Often

Every study seemed to confirm that students who engaged with faculty in venues outside the classroom had better educational outcomes. The studies concluded that more contact with faculty was always better for most students.

Informal student-faculty interaction activities — being a guest in a professor’s home, working on a research project with a faculty member, talking with instructors outside of class, and serving on faculty committees — positively correlate with student learning and development.

Columbia University
Research studies show ways that students can have success in college.

4. Don’t Just Look to Get Requirements Completed

It is tempting freshman year to look at the graduation requirements list and try to knock off a substantial portion of their freshman year. Professor Light suggests being careful with this strategy because when the sophomore year begins, these students have little idea of what subject matter genuinely interests them.

When talking with freshmen, I stress this point especially heavily. I urge them not to choose a series of extensive, introductory courses during freshmen year.

5. This is Not High School, Work in Groups

In many high schools, individual work is stressed, but this is not high school. Students who seek out study groups and connect with their peers over academic content have greater academic success and satisfaction during their four years.

Not only do students who work in small study groups outside of class commit more time to their coursework, feel more challenged by their work, and express a much higher level of personal interest in it — they are also much less likely to hesitate to seek help.

The critical point is that the relationships are not merely social. They are organized to accomplish some work — a substantive exploration that students describe as “stretching” themselves. And almost without exception, students who feel they have not yet found themselves or fully hit their stride report that they have not developed such relationships.

6. If it is an Option, Live on Campus Freshman Year

Every school is different; not all students are offered on-campus housing their first year or any year. But multiple studies showed that living in freshman housing increased social engagement.

Students living on campus were more likely to be members of study groups and get involved in extracurricular activities, both markers for success.

…living on campus had a direct, positive effect on learning outcomes, and educational aspirations had the most significant indirect effects on learning and intellectual development. Living on campus had the most critical total effect (i.e., the combination of direct and indirect effects) on learning outcomes of any institutional characteristic.

7. Select the Right Friends

Students should think carefully about choosing their friends because no influence seems as forceful as peer group pressure.

According to one study, a student’s peer group was “’the single most potent source of influence,’ affecting virtually every aspect of development — cognitive, affective, psychological, and behavioral.”

Peer interactions are significant for social integration because students are more likely to stay in school when they feel comfortable and connected to other students with similar interests and aspirations….In addition, institutions with higher levels of student social interaction also have higher levels of student educational aspirations.

8. Parents Still Matter, and Our Kids Need Our Encouragement

Our influence appears very relevant, even as our kids move on in their lives. College can be a daunting and far more challenging experience than high school, requiring much more self-direction than high school.

Some students stumble in their first year and can become demoralized. Research shows they are aided by a reminder that their parents’ confidence in them is undimmed and support them unreservedly.

Aspirations and family support foreshadow student success….On balance, students perform better and are more likely to succeed when their families affirm their students’ choices and encourage them to stay the course; this is especially important for underserved populations.

9. The Effects of Success in College Linger Long After Graduation

Gallup-Purdue University study of college graduates showed that a few simple things increase the odds of turning a successful college experience into satisfying work life.

Every freshman should know that the positive effects of constructive relationships with professors, meaningful work experience, extracurricular activities, and in-depth academic work can last a lifetime.

If graduates recalled having a professor who cared about them as a person, excited them about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams, their odds of being engaged at work more than doubled, as did their odds of thriving in all aspects of their well-being.

And if graduates had an internship or job in college where they were able to apply what they were learning in the classroom, were actively involved in extracurricular activities and organizations, and worked on projects that took a semester or more to complete, their odds of being engaged at work doubled as well.

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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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