Essential Skills Your Teen Needs for College

Just because your teen is on track to graduate high school doesn’t mean they’re ready for college. To truly prepare them to leave the nest, they’ll need essential skills that go beyond notetaking, studying, and test-taking techniques. 

If you’ve got a kid who’s planning to attend college, consider teaching (or reviewing) these four basic topics sooner rather than later. Not only are they essential skills that your teen will need for college, but they’re also incredibly beneficial while they’re still in high school.


Like most parents, you may have had to step in to assist your teen when there was an issue at school that felt “too big” for them to handle alone. Or perhaps your child tried to self-advocate to no avail, requiring parental involvement. While the bullies of grade school may not be an issue on college campuses, they may be times in which your young adult needs to ask a professor for an extension on a project, fight an unfair consequence, or simply ask for a basic need (think housing or meal plan) to be met when it’s not. 

In order to succeed in life without the help of Mom or Dad, your teen will need to master self-advocacy. From finding a tutor and clearly communicating their own wants, needs, and rights, to making decisions and taking responsibility for those choices, speaking up will require them to use their own voice. Help ensure they’ve found it while they’re still teachable—and living under your roof.

“It’s important to start early,” says Cognitive Psychologist Dr. Amy Moore. “We can’t wait for the last minute to go through everything our teens should know before they leave our house. We have to stop being a helicopter parent and we have to stop early. If we’re doing everything for our kid, if we’re managing every aspect of their life, if we’re keeping them from falling down, then they are never going to learn how to stand on their own.”

Life skills teens need for college

Does your high schooler know how to iron? Can they replace the windshield wiper on a car or put air in the tires? Get a stain out of carpeting? Load a dishwasher? There are some very necessary tasks—no longer taught in most high schools—that your student should learn. Remember, even freshmen (who typically aren’t allowed to bring a vehicle to college) may benefit from certain knowledge when riding home for Thanksgiving break in a friend’s car or (dare we say!) a rental vehicle over Spring Break. Need a few more examples of basic life skills for your pre-college checklist?

“We need to teach our kids how to do laundry, so when they get to college they don’t end up with pink socks because they washed white socks with a red shirt,” says Dr. Moore. “We also need to teach kids how to care for their car; how frequently to get their oil changed and how to change a tire. Also, we need to teach them basic home care. How do you clean the toilet? They’re going to run into some conflict with their roommate if they’re not keeping their half of the space or bathroom clean. Also, phone skills, such as how to answer the phone when they’re applying for a job. We also need to teach them to manage money. How much things cost, how much they should save, how to go to the bank or use a debit card—those are things they’re going to need to do when they’re on their own.” 

Planning, organizing and time management

Parents are often the main schedulers in a student’s life, updating the family calendar with everything from sports practices and music lessons to art shows and dental appointments—and making sure everyone gets out the door on time. But once your graduate leaves for college, they’ll be serving as their own taskmaster for everything: making homework a priority, getting to class on time, managing deadlines for term papers and projects, ensuring they don’t miss the professor’s limited office hours when they have questions, or scheduling their work-study job around their basketball practice. 

If your teen isn’t already stepping up to the plate in terms of planning, organizing, and managing their own time, it’s not too late. Give them some practical advice on how you do it. From prioritizing and breaking bigger chunks into smaller tasks, to organizing digital files and using online planning software or apps, pass along your best tips and beloved tools until they can determine which of their own they’ll use at college.

Self-care and dealing with emergencies

College often creates the perfect storm of stress, depression, sleep deprivation, and contagious illnesses, leaving many students to fend for themselves for the first time. Teaching self-care habits—such as emotional regulation, sleep hygiene, nutrition, regular exercise, and hand washing—starts at home long before they venture out on their own. The same is true with making and maintaining appointments for mental and physical health, whether it’s weekly therapy visits, annual vaccines, or regular dental cleanings and check-ups.

And perhaps most important of all, teens need to know what to do in a medical or dental emergency. “We’re so used to calling the doctor when our kids need an urgent-care visit, but they need to learn how to do that themselves,” says Dr. Moore. “One thing we need to teach them is how to choose a doctor or urgent-care center that takes your insurance. And, if they get a medication prescribed, how to choose a pharmacy nearby that also takes their insurance.”

Teach these essential skills to your teen now to help them feel better prepared to be living away from home. Not only will they have more confidence in their ability to “adult” when necessary, but you’ll have greater peace of mind knowing that you’ve boosted their essential life skills before sending them out on their first big journey into adulthood. 

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