How to Decide if You’re Ready for College

For many American students, pursuing a college degree is the next step after graduating high school. But not all who start end up finishing.

About 1 in 4 students who entered college in the fall of 2020 did not return to any U.S. college the next fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and those numbers were similar pre-pandemic.

The adjustment from high school to college can be difficult. Before students make that transition, and potentially start accumulating debt, they should consider whether they’re academically and emotionally ready for the change.

“Adolescents can gauge if they’re emotionally ready for college by taking an honest look at their self-management habits, including how they respond to stress, how they manage multiple deadlines in a given week and how they seek help when struggling,” Lindsey Giller, a clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute, wrote in an email.

Assessing Your Self-Discipline

Deciding whether you’re ready for college often comes down to having “an awareness of how disciplined you are and how much structure you need,” says Andrew Belasco, chief executive officer of College Transitions, a college admissions consulting company.

For some students, college is the first time they will be living away from home. Without the structures of high school and family, the responsibility to attend class, complete school work and meet deadlines falls on their shoulders.

While many adolescents welcome this newfound freedom, it can be anxiety-producing for those who feel insecure in their ability to manage stress on their own, Giller says. This is particularly true when students come from homes where they feel like their behavior is “micromanaged” by their parents or guardians, she says.

Students must be able to prioritize tasks and develop study strategies on their own, says Monica Jones, college and career readiness coach at Frederick Douglass High School in Lexington, Kentucky.

“If they don’t have those essential skills, they’re not going to have the maturity that they need to have to be successful in college,” she says.

Part of the college experience is the social aspect, and creating social boundaries is a crucial skill for college success, experts say.

“I think college, for a lot of kids, is going to be the first time that they have temptations like, ‘Do I miss class when everyone is doing something else and I want to join them?'” says Colleen Paparella, founder of DC College Counseling. “‘Do I want to go out tonight even though I have an 8 a.m. class tomorrow?'”

Students who might struggle with this should decide what type of school is best for them, Paparella says. Smaller schools with smaller class sizes will allow for more intimate settings and accountability. Bigger schools with large lecture classes make it easier to miss and not feel that accountability, she says.

Habits of a College-Ready Student

In general, Giller says, the more independent a student is leading up to college, the more prepared they will likely feel once they get there and they deal with those stressors and other emotions.

A student’s health habits can also play a major role in signaling whether they’re ready for college, Giller says.

“Adolescents who already practice healthy habits to care for their physical and mental health by getting adequate sleep, balanced eating and getting exercise are more likely to employ these strategies in their new environments,” Giller says. “These practices can help keep stress manageable and prevent future episodes of depression and anxiety from occurring.”

Giller says parents can help prepare their students by giving them more independence in the years leading up to college.

“This also means when faced with a problem, allowing teens to problem-solve rather than having the parent swoop in to ‘fix’ the situation for them,” she says.

What if I’m Not Ready Right Now?

Some students experience burnout by the end of their high school career, Belasco says. When deciding if they’re ready for college, students should reflect on why they’re going — if it’s externally or internally motivated.

“The students that really do well in college, whether they’re super high-achieving or not, are ones that really have come to terms with why they’re learning, why they’re pursuing some of the things they’re doing,” he says. “Yes, they’re doing it in part for the degree and in part for the grade, but there has to be something else there.”

If students don’t know that answer and want to take time to figure it out, they have a variety of options, like joining the military, attending a trade school or taking a gap year. During a gap year, students can travel, work, or volunteer and figure out what they want to study when they do eventually go to college.

“It gives them a chance to be independent, chart their own path and not feel like they’re on a path that everyone else is setting for them,” says Mandee Heller Adler, founder of International College Counselors. “They have the opportunity to take some time to figure out who they are versus who everyone else wants them to be.”

While a gap year can be a good option for students who have the means to do it, one risk, Belasco says, is that some students will have difficulty returning to “the structure and setting of academia.” Just like figuring out why a student is going to college, students should determine why they’re taking a gap year, he says.

If students are considering a gap year, they should go through the college application process during high school as if they’re planning to enroll right away, Heller Adler says. Completing a college application with the help of school counselors and teachers during high school is much easier than doing it later, she says.

If accepted, students can then defer enrollment.

“I believe colleges would prefer a kid who doesn’t come if they’re not totally ready than one who comes and has issues,” she says.

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