The transition from high school to college is a big one. Meeting new friends, living on your own, and creating your own schedule are just some of the new, exciting challenges that await you.  

In the excitement of starting a new life on campus, academics can sometimes become a second priority.

However, adjusting to college coursework is often the biggest challenge of all. Even the best students may be surprised at how difficult college courses are. The subject matter is more complex. The workload is larger. And instructors’ standards are higher.

Mastering college-level courses requires a new level of independence, advocacy, engagement, and time management.

You can prepare yourself to succeed before you even get to campus. Identifying the skills you need, and building those skills into established habits, will help make your transition to college academics, and college life, easier, less stressful, and more successful.

Be engaged in your courses

College courses require your full attention and active participation.

And the more you engage with your teachers, teaching assistants, and classmates both in and out of the classroom, the easier it will be for you to succeed in that class.

The importance of active listening

Active listening is one of the most critical parts of engaging in a course, according to Gina Neugebauer, assistant director of Harvard Summer School’s Secondary School Program.

“Professors and teaching assistants can tell if you’re actively listening. They notice if you’re taking notes and making eye contact. They also notice if you’re distracted by your phone or computer,” notes Neugebauer.

Active listening means not checking your social media accounts or texting friends during class.

It also means really giving the instructor and your classmates your full attention.

It sounds easy in theory but it takes practice. It can be tough to not think about all the work you have or your next party. But the more you work on actively listening, the easier it will be to not get distracted and miss important information in class.

Different ways to actively participate

Beyond active listening, there are many ways to participate in a course. And you can tailor your level of engagement to your personality and comfort level.

“It’s all about gauging what you’re comfortable with,” says Neugebauer.

“You may not be the person who raises their hand all the time but you actively respond to online discussion posts, for example. You may not feel comfortable talking in front of hundreds of students in a large lecture hall but you take advantage of TA office hours and email the instructor with questions.”

But don’t be afraid to push yourself if you aren’t someone who usually speaks up in class.

It’s ok to start small. Work on raising your hand in small seminars or discussion sections. As you gain confidence, you’ll find it gets easier to answer questions and share your opinions.

Build independence and advocate for yourself

In college, you are responsible for your own success. You will need to advocate for yourself and know when—and how—to ask for help. That requires a level of independence that you may not have needed in high school.

The good news is that instructors and teaching assistants want to help you.

“Instructors, on the whole, enjoy hearing from you. And they’d rather hear from you right from the start, rather than have you struggle on your own for three weeks,” says Neugebauer.

If you have a question about an assignment, send your instructor an email. Are you upset about a grade you got on a recent test? Visit your instructor or TA during office hours to discuss what went wrong and how you can improve.

But remember, says Neugebauer, professors are busy and you are only one of many students.

“Your email should include your full name, what course you’re taking, and a brief description of your question or concern. And you cannot expect an answer at 2 a.m. because that’s when you’re studying. When you reach out to an instructor, give them 24-48 hours to respond.”

And remember, always be respectful and non-confrontational.

Don’t be afraid to seek help

If you have excelled in high school without extra help, you might be tempted to persevere on your own.

In college, Neugebauer points out, asking for help is the norm.

“Once you get into your undergraduate program, you’ll find that almost everyone has, at some point, asked a TA for extra tutoring, gone to a tutoring center, or a writing or math center for extra help. It’s part of the learning process of an undergraduate program,” Neugebauer says.

Colleges have a variety of support systems in place to help you succeed.

TA office hours are a great place to start if you find yourself struggling with a specific concept or assignment. Peer tutoring programs enable you to learn from students who have been through the course themselves. Academic coaches can help with more general study tips or exam-related stress.

The key is seeking out help proactively, before you get too far behind. As the courses become more difficult, catching up becomes increasingly difficult.

Build time management techniques

Balancing everything that comes with life on a college campus can be difficult for many incoming college students.

“The biggest challenge we see facing high school students who are trying to adapt to college life is overcommitment. Students want to engage in every activity, a full course load, and even sometimes a part-time job. They don’t schedule enough time for self-care, quiet time, doing laundry, and plenty of study time. All those things take time,” Neugebauer says.

Good study habits and time management are key to avoiding the stress that comes from getting overcommitted.

Neugebauer recommends getting into the habit of keeping an accurate and up-to-date calendar.

“The best thing I can recommend is a calendar, such as Google Calendar. Use it to schedule everything: your class, your lunch time, time at the gym. It may seem counterintuitive, but work on scheduling literally everything, even sleep.”

Be sure to include assignments, tests, and other deadlines, as well as office hours for your instructors, TAs, and academic coaches.

Use your calendar to block off dedicated study time. And once you schedule it, stick to it! Avoid the temptation to procrastinate or use that time to hang out, play video games, or scroll on your phone.

Your calendar should also include dedicated time for self-care.

Regular mealtimes, good exercise habits, and a full night’s sleep are not only critical for your physical and mental health. You’ll also be surprised at how much they contribute to your academic success.

Challenge yourself

Getting outside your comfort zone is a critical part of preparing yourself for the exciting challenges that await you in college.

“Being uncomfortable allows for growth. It means saying to yourself, ‘this is new. I want to try it. I want to see how it feels.’ This is all about adapting to a new environment but also examining yourself as a person,” says Neugebauer.

Taking on a new challenge—regardless of the ultimate outcome—builds resilience, mental toughness, and confidence, all of which you will need to succeed in your college courses.

But, warns Neugebauer, it’s also important to know your limitations.

“That uncomfortable feeling should be manageable. It should be a challenge but not so challenging that you feel panicked and wake up in cold sweats every night. It should be something that gets you a little nervous but also excited about what you’re involved in every day.”

However you decide to challenge yourself, it’s never too early to start if college is in your future. The sooner you start identifying and mastering the skills you need in college, the better prepared you’ll be to succeed right from day one.