College Readiness: Eight Skills Students Need for Success

A number of years ago, I found myself involved in three different conversations with parents who eagerly shared their high school seniors’ college plans. In each case, the student had significant struggles with academic achievement. The students’ plans all included living in a campus dorm at an expensive college or university out of state.  Despite their low GPAs, they were all accepted by these schools. Each time, I was concerned about their college readiness. My internal thoughts were along the lines of “This is a really bad idea. You are throwing away money. Your son or daughter isn’t ready for that yet.” I didn’t voice these concerns, though, because I didn’t want to be a killjoy. After all, maybe these students would rise the occasion and do very well. Sadly, all three dropped out by Christmas, but they are still expected to pay off their student loans. They were discouraged, and their parents were disappointed. 

In March I attended a presentation by Deb Roth, Dean of Student Success for Hesston College in Hesston, Kansas. She outlined the following ten skills necessary for student success in college. I find her advice, based on her wealth of experience supporting college students, relevant and true, and it’s never too early to start practicing these skills. Middle and high school are the perfect training grounds.  

1. Self-Advocacy

College-ready students understand how they learn best, what their disabilities are if they have any, and how to communicate their needs with those who can help. All students, whether they have disabilities or not, should be able to ask for help when needed. This requires confidence and motivation to seek out professors during their office hours, to visit the disability services office, or to request at tutor. Those with learning disabilities must understand the accommodations they require for success and have the ability to articulate these learning needs with their professors and/or disability services. 

2. Ability to Work Independently

Successful students can focus and make progress on their assignments without someone there to keep them on track. This doesn’t mean they can’t seek out tutors as needed–that’s part of self-advocacy. But when no one is present to help, these students are still able to accomplish those things they really are capable of doing independently. College readiness means they know what their assignments are, what they need to do to complete them, and when they are due. They work diligently on their own, as much as possible, to complete the work on time.

3. Equipped with Necessary Technology

Successful students bring with them the technology they need to be successful, and they know how to manage and use the technology. Students with dyslexia may need an app that will read text out loud to them or a speech-to-text app for writing. They may need a familiarity with Khan Academy for online math tutorials. An iPad that they can easily carry to class or a Livescribe Smart Pen for taking notes may be required. It’s not enough that they possess this technology, however; they also need to know how to use it. 

4. Competent in Self-Care

These students know how to manage their own medications and take them as directed. They  go to bed early enough to function well the next day and know the difference between “I’m sick” and “I don’t feel well.” College readiness means they understand that responsible adults get up and go to class or to work, even when they don’t feel 100%. They’re tired, they have a headache or a mild cold, their knee hurts, they have a broken heart–but they still show up. 

5. Basic Writing Ability

Successful students come to college able to write a 2-page paper independently with a thesis, 3 sources, and a Works Cited page. They will be expected to write longer papers in college, of course, but if they can write a 2-page paper using 3 sources and cite those sources correctly, then they can build on that skill. They can do the same with a 5-page paper and 6 sources or a 10-page paper and 8 sources. A friend or tutor may be needed for proofreading and editing, but the student should be able to write a first draft without help. 

6. Experience Using a Planner

I’ve found that many high school students rely on their memory alone to keep track of homework. Some students are quite good at this and manage to do well without a planner or another management system. After all, their teachers give frequent reminders, and their parents keep track of their assignments on the online grade book. No problem–until they get to college and lose those supports they’ve learned to count on in lieu of using a planner. College professors give syllabi listing the course work and due dates for the entire semester on the first day of class. They don’t give reminders, and they often won’t accept late papers. Parents can no longer check for assignments online without the student’s signed permission. For college readiness, keeping track of assignments and due dates independently is vital. 

7. Knows How to Study for a Test

These successful college students know test-taking strategies and how best to prepare for the type of test they will take. Even without a study guide, they know how to prepare. They may even go so far as to make their own study guide. College-ready students know how to focus and pull out key information from the text, memorize important terms, understand critical concepts, anticipate questions, make flash cards, write an outline of notes, quiz themselves or have a friend quiz them.  

8. Sets Realistic Career Goals

These students have explored different careers and understand what it takes to succeed in that career. They have the self-awareness necessary to know which careers are realistic options for them. Sometimes the best thing a loving family member can do is suggest an alternate career path if the career goal is unrealistic. This may sound harsh, but wasting four years of school (and the expense of those four years), only to be unable to get a job in their field, is even more harsh. The competition in some fields is so fierce that the student will already need to be amazing to even consider entering that race. Perhaps the student has physical, cognitive, or social difficulties that will limit his/her career choices. A student with a serious speech impediment, for example, probably should look for a career in which the ability to communicate verbally is not critical to success in that field. 


In more recent years, I’ve decided to speak up when I don’t think a student is ready for a four-year, out-of-state college experience yet. This doesn’t mean I don’t think they should go to college at all. Instead, I suggest part-time community college–only if college is something the student wants–and part-time work while living at home for at least a year. The following year, she can try taking more classes if she was successful the first year. It may take a little longer to graduate with a four-year degree, but really, that’s OK. 

To learn more, check out On Your Own: A College Readiness Guide for Teens With ADHD/LD

What advice do you have for high school students thinking about college in their future?

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