There’s more to succeeding in college than just scoring well on tests. Thriving on campus requires developing a few critical life skills before college.
Some of these skills are practical—like knowing how to do basic housework.
Others are “soft skills” like knowing how to effectively manage your time, communicate well, manage stress, and cope with failure when it happens.
In this blog, we’ll look at a few life skills for college students that are fundamental to success on campus. Some of these skills may surprise you.
What Basic Life Skills Do You Need to Succeed in College?
College campuses are the first time many of us experience living independently in a relatively unstructured environment.
It’s up to us alone to wake up, get to class, eat nutritious meals, and manage every other aspect of our day without the sometimes annoying input (or useful suggestions) of parents and teachers.
Navigating this freedom for the first time can feel liberating but can also be tricky.
“I look at it as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” says Samantha Gordon, assistant director of the Pre-College Program at Harvard Summer School. “If you’re not meeting your basic food, shelter, health and wellness needs, then you’re not going to be able to function.”
Food and Shelter
At the most practical level, by the time you arrive on campus, you should have learned all the basic skills necessary to live life on your own.
These are the housekeeping skills that your parents may have nagged you about that you tried to ignore—taking care of personal hygiene, doing your laundry, making the bed, cooking a meal, and cleaning up after yourself.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to navigate conversations between roommates because one isn’t showering or washing their clothes and it smells,” says Gordon, who has seven years of residential life experience and has lived with more than 2,500 college freshmen over the years.
Basic housekeeping and hygiene are important. So is knowing how to make—and stick to—a budget.
To make your money stretch each month, you may have to prioritize purchases. That could mean skipping that restaurant meal in favor of eating in the cafeteria or turning to a local freecycle group instead of buying something on Amazon.
Self-regulation skills also fall under the category of self-care.
They are critical because they contribute to your physical and emotional well-being.
Self-care involves great feats of endurance (like resisting the urge to play another hour of Elden Ring at 3 a.m.) and engaging in activities that support a healthy mind and body.
Setting a sleep schedule and sticking to it, taking medications as prescribed, and staying on top of doctor and dentist appointments are a few examples of self-care skills.
So is recognizing when you’re stressed and knowing when it’s time to take a break. Regular exercise, good nutrition, meditation, or an hour spent tossing a frisbee on the quad with friends, are all possible ways to deal with stress.
Gordon says that many new students come from competitive environments where they have learned to try to do everything perfectly. But in a more rigorous academic setting, perfectionism doesn’t always work.
Students need to “figure out coping mechanisms, manage that perfectionism, and learn how to deal with failure and mistakes,” says Gordon.
The “Soft Skills” You’ll Need to be Independent at College
Soft skills are less about practicalities and more about knowing how to manage your time and interact with others.
Students with these skills have learned to be tolerant, curious, open, think critically, problem-solve, and prioritize what’s important.
Especially important, notes Gordon, is developing a sense of cultural awareness. For the first time, you may be living with a roommate from a different culture, race, ethnicity, or socio-economic background, who may think and act differently from what you are used to back home.
“Cultural competency is definitely a huge part of college, especially if you come from a homogenous town,” she says. “That’s where listening and not judging somebody else’s culture but really trying to understand it, is really important.”
Other important soft skills include:
- Time Management. You’re going to have multiple classes, assignments, deadlines, and social commitments. Juggling them all requires setting goals, planning, and recognizing that perhaps another TikTok video is not going to help you prepare for that biology lab.
- Communication. On any given day in college, you’ll interact with professors, advisors, teaching assistants, staff, and students. Unfortunately, in our technological age, many students have forgotten appropriate ways to socialize.
- Conflict Management. You’ll need to dust-off your social skills and give others the benefit of the doubt when a conflict arises.
Use “I am” statements that focus on how you feel rather than make accusations.
“Assume grace, assume goodwill,” says Gordon.
Tips for Getting Organized
By now, it’s obvious that you’ll be balancing a lot of new experiences and expectations.
How do you handle them all? Here are a few strategies:
Create a Study Routine Right From the Start
When a semester begins, use a course calendar to write down important dates which will become the key to organizing your entire semester.
Part of your routine, says Gordon, should include choosing a place to study. Dorm rooms can be distracting so many students opt to reserve a desk at the library.
Plan Activities Based on When an Assignment is Due
Your written list of important dates will structure your month, week, and day.
It’s important to be realistic about the time you’ll need to study, cautions Gordon. You’ll need to find an organizational method—whether it is a physical planner, the school calendar, or spreadsheet—that works for you.
Set Goals and Eliminate Time Wasters
If you’re prone to spending hours scrolling through Instagram, Gordon recommends using apps that will help you eliminate such distractions.
“There’s tons of apps you can add on to your browser that will literally limit you to opening a tab or opening only certain websites,” she says.
She also recommends investing in timers that will let you know when it’s time to take a break after a certain amount of focused study time.
You need to dedicate time to studying.
“But realistically,” says Gordon, “you need some time to just veg out and watch Netflix. That’s where the reward system comes in. So, you do an hour of reading, then watch a half hour of a TV show that you’ve been wanting to watch, then go back to studying.”
Studies show people perform much better when focused on one task at a time. To help focus, turn off your phone and resolve to finish your task before you pick it up again.
Take Good Notes
Gordon recommends using apps like OneNote or Evernote to help keep your class outlines and notes organized. Remember to revisit your notes later in the day to re-organize, refine, and check out any reading the professor may have referenced.
If you’re having trouble with roommates, classes, or coping with campus life in general, there are places you can go for help.
The first option, says Gordon, is to confer with peers to “compare what’s happening on the ground.”
A next stop might be speaking with a resident director or proctor who can direct you to myriad campus resources. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by classwork, for example, the academic resource center, an academic advisor, tutor, or instructor can help.
“Going to your faculty or teaching assistants directly is how you can build some of your best faculty relationships,” Gordon says.
Finally, if you’re feeling down or struggling with mental health issues, you can turn to the campus counseling center. Most college campuses offer students short-term, long-term, and emergency counseling services.
Although some students may be reluctant to bring up issues with a parent or guardian, they can be an important emotional resource too. After all, they may have been through the same experience themselves!
When Should Parents Step In?
It takes time to adjust to college life, but parents can help.
“If you notice that your student is struggling, the first thing to do is to listen,” counsels Gordon.
“Remember that the student is not you and their journey is a separate journey. It will be different from your own. And that’s okay. A lot of times we’ll have alumni parents who want their child to have a similar experience to them, but their child is different,” she says.
Some Parting Words of Advice
If you’re a new student, Gordon says you’ll have a far better college experience if you “put yourself out there.”
Stay open. Introduce yourself to classmates. And if you find it difficult to make friends, let your residential assistant know. They can help.
Reaching out to others may feel risky when you first arrive on campus, but you’ll find it’s worth the reward.