How to Help a Teenager Be College-Ready

I met recently with a 17 year-old student whose parents were still setting “lights-out” curfews and providing morning wake-up services. “She can’t manage her sleep needs,” they lamented. “Not ‘can’t,’” I said; “Won’t is more likely, because she really doesn’t have to.” A change of family policy, several mornings of parental nail-biting, and a few demerits later, their daughter was managing her sleep-wake needs just fine.

Academics

By junior year, we want to see students taking ownership of their academic careers. This shows up not necessarily in grades, but in academic initiative — schedule planning and management, and learning when and how to seek help. Specifically, we want to see college-bound students mapping the connection between their current academic performance and future life plans.

They need to know how to pay attention in class, take notes, do their homework and turn it in on time, study for tests. They should have been learning this all along, of course, but some kids manage to slip by without mastering academic routines.

If your college-bound junior or senior still requires external accountability for school work, your child may be telling you he’s not ready for academic independence. Many parents focus too intently on grades themselves, rather than the process by which those grades are attained. If you still feel like the homework police at the end of 11th grade, it’s time to retire. A C-student who can manage his own academic life has a better chance of succeeding in college than an A- or B-student who depends on parental oversight.

I’m reminded of one former client whose genius-level I.Q. and intellectual acrobatics both excited and teased his high school teachers, even as he frustrated them with a lack of academic discipline. The adults in his life shepherded him through a demanding high school curriculum, ultimately landing him in a top-flight university. Obscured by the dazzle of his prodigious intellect was a crucial missing ingredient — ownership of his academics — and sadly, he failed out of college after two semesters.

This young man and I worked together in therapy for a year. At my direction, he took courses at a community college that required him to master the mechanics of breaking down a syllabus, keeping a calendar and managing follow-through. His parents cooperated by staying out of the process. The following September, he was successfully back in university — this time in command of his academic life.

Administrative Tasks

The third signal of readiness involves mundane life tasks — maintaining a calendar, meeting deadlines, filling out forms. Parents supervise these matters throughout childhood and adolescence, but college students must manage them on their own.

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