Life Skills I Wish I Had Known
When you’re juggling rigorous high school courses, a social life, part-time work and extracurricular activities, it’s hard to imagine that life can be any more challenging. But what you might not realize is that the cocoon of home often comes with a safety net: parents who cook your meals and wash your clothes; teachers who keep you on task by offering steps for complex projects; and a schedule that no matter how full, is relatively predictable.
From time management to financial know-how to basics like healthy eating or finding a dentist, there are dozens of life skills that most students haven’t had to master. And while college offers a pleasant dose of freedom, it also comes with a dose of reality.
“Many students are not very adequately prepared to live on their own,” says Gareth Fowles, vice president for enrollment management at Lynn University (FL). “For 17 years, most parents have been taking care of their food, money and transportation, so when kids leave the unstructured environment of home and high school, they are often not sure how to navigate all the options.”
We want you to be ready, so we talked to current college students and university-life experts to sleuth out some of the life skills that will ease your transition to college, and practical advice for how to develop them now.
“I wish I had known how to schedule more effectively.”
“College involves planning by managing your living and studying so you can find a balance,” says Hayden Harker, a freshman at Gonzaga University (WA). “Unlike in high school, you are never really done with studying.”
High school students who are used to a predictable 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day can find it hard to navigate the varying schedule of college classes. “No one is standing outside the classroom door when students leave their Biology 101 classroom to remind them to read the next chapter, complete their online exercises or schedule review time before the next class rolls around,” says Kristen Renee Lindsay, assistant dean of student affairs for student success at the Owen Academic and Career Support Center at Heidelberg University (OH).
The Heidelberg career support center’s assistant director, Monica Durham, recommends that high school students begin using time management tools, such as planners, calendars and apps to manage their time. “In addition, creating to-do lists and prioritizing activities are good habits to begin forming at the high school level.” Don’t forget to add in exercise, sleep and social activities, in addition to your work and school commitments, to get a better sense of how much “free time” you actually have.
“I wish I had known more about finances.”
“I didn’t know how to write checks for bills, manage money in my account or make a useful budget,” says Jeremey Wetherbee, a sophomore at the University of Nevada, Reno, who adds that he was shocked by how much everything cost.
Budgeting can be challenging if you have never had to do it, agrees Chris Hall Lynch, director of parent and family programs at Florida Atlantic University. You can start now by making your own budget for items like movie tickets, a new outfit, your morning caffeine fix and gifts, to see how fast that money dwindles.
“Be realistic about wants and needs when writing down your expected expenses,” Lynch says. Then put the budget to the test and adjust it as needed. She advises sitting down with your parents to learn more about your bank account, including checking it often to make sure you are not overdrawn, which can lead to costly overdraft charges.
“I wish I had known how to manage stress.”
Millie Faber, a junior at Whitman College (WA), spent the first part of her freshman year feeling stressed, but leaned on some advice she learned in high school. “In high school remember that you shouldn’t spend so much of your effort striving to get into a top school that you miss out on what’s unique about high school. Just like in college, you can’t spend all your time worrying about the next step so you miss out on college life.”
Learning to manage your stress is a lesson that will pay dividends throughout your life. Find healthy ways to blow off steam, from exercise or yoga, to planning breaks during study time and rewarding yourself with some funny YouTube videos or a manicure.
“I wish I had known how to better organize huge assignments and papers.”
“In high school I was ‘smart’ because I knew what my teachers expected, but in college it took awhile to figure it out,” Harker recalls.
“Getting assigned a 10-page paper or five chapters to read at once can be really intimidating,” Lynch says, adding that just knowing where to start can sometimes be the most challenging part. In high school your teacher might give you smaller assignments, or ask for your research paper topic, then an outline, then a rough draft. But knowing how to divide up the work on your own is a valuable skill that will make college coursework easier.
She advises trying to break up your paper into parts on your own and inserting mini-goals in your planner. “If the reading assignment is 75 pages long, figure out how many pages you need to read each day to meet the deadline and schedule it in.”
“I wish I had known how to make better food choices.”
“Knowing how to eat healthy in the dining hall would definitely have helped me avoid packing on the freshmen 15,” says Jack Ritterbush, a freshman at the University of Missouri.
That well-rounded dinner your mom makes every night? College freshman are faced with a literal buffet of food at every meal in the college dining hall. And eating soft serve ice cream after every meal might seem tempting, but you’ll need to summon up some willpower.
Why not work with your parents to take over the kitchen one night a week, planning and cooking the meal? It’s also smart to keep a food diary (or use an app like MyFitnessPal) and track what you’re really eating so you can practice making healthy choices. You also could practice measuring out your food so you can start to visualize exactly what a portion size is. A half cup of ice cream, the standard serving, is much smaller than you might expect!
“I wish I had known how to do my laundry, maintain my car and find a dentist.”
“I chipped my tooth and had to find a dentist and set up my own appointment; and then my computer broke and I had to find an Apple Store and work with technicians,” Wetherbee says, recounting some early roadblocks. He successfully navigated each scenario, but found the prevalence of these inevitable annoyances of life eye opening.
The list is long of all the things that parents handle for kids. The best way to learn these skills? Just try! Says Fowles, “Look for ways to be more responsible on the weekend or summer by not expecting your parents to handle your schedule or jump in to fix every problem.”
So when your car breaks down, learn how to change a flat or at least call roadside assistance. Find out how to check which doctors are included in your insurance, and practice separating your whites from your neons and putting in the correct amount of detergent.
It can be scary (and exciting!) to anticipate being on your own at college. But the more you practice these life skills under your own roof, where you have a safety net in place, the easier you’ll find the transition to college when the time comes.