Transitioning from High School to College: A Guide for Parents and Teachers

August 25, 2017

When it comes to their college-bound high school students, the primary focus for parents and teachers is academics. A rigorous curriculum, good grades, and high SAT scores are crucial for college admissions success. Yet lost in this quest for top marks is attention paid to the non-academic challenges faced by teenagers transitioning between high school and college.

44191692 - views of historic brooklyn bridge in new york city.In this article, we’ll explore some of the most common non-academic challenges that teenagers experience during the transition to college. Then we’ll dive into what parents and teachers can do to help during this complicated and often frustrating time.

The Challenges

Every student’s non-academic challenges are unique, yet there are a few common threads that tie together the vast majority of college-bound high school students:

  • Living away from loved ones and old friends
  • Different expectations from teachers/professors
  • No oversight/support from a parental figure
  • Exposure to new beliefs and ideas
  • Taking personal responsibility for one’s actions

For some students, these challenges result in negative consequences. For example, a student who grows up in an authoritarian home may abuse the freedom college life provides. He or she may take up negative habits and neglect schoolwork, a combination that often leads to dropping out.

The goal of supporting students throughout the transition is to make sure that they meet challenges like these in a constructive and successful way.

What Parents Can Do

Parents, even those who did not attend college, can help prepare their children for this important transition. In this section, we’ll explore what parents can do throughout their child’s time in high school.

Freshman Year

The experience of transitioning from middle school to high school mirrors the transition between high school and college. The new school is much bigger. Classes are more challenging. Finally, there are many new faces. Take advantage of this opportunity to teach your child many important life skills.

  • Help your child with curriculum mapping. When choosing freshman-year courses, be your child’s advisor, but not their boss. For example, discuss their grades from 8th grade as you both study the list of possible freshman year courses.
  • Promote your child’s extracurricular interests. High school is a time of experimentation. Your child may like one activity freshman year but loathe it the next. Make sure he or she knows evolving preferences are fine.
  • Encourage your child to expand his or her circle of friends. The beginning of high school, like the beginning of college, is a time when your child will meet new people. Give him or her a gentle nudge to start new friendships.

Sophomore Year

Sophomore year is the perfect time to begin promoting autonomy and personal accountability in your child:

  • Promote leadership roles. During the school year, your child may want to try a leadership role within an extracurricular activity. While leadership roles always look good on college application, they also teach students much about responsibility to something greater than themselves.
  • Encourage your child to have a summer job between sophomore and junior year. Not only will he or she learn many valuable life skills, but the job can also act as a source of money to help pay for college.

Junior Year

For many high school students and their families, junior year is the beginning of the college search. With many college fairs, tours, and letters of interest, it is easy for your child to feel overwhelmed.

  • Discuss finances with your child. Many families struggle with how to pay for college. The worst thing you can do is not be honest about what your family contribute to your child’s college education. Have this discussion early on so that your child can start researching scholarship, grant, and/or loan opportunities.
  • Use breaks from school for college tours. College tours can act as a good bonding experience between parents and their college-bound children. In addition, you will have the opportunity to ask questions that your child may not have considered.
  • Have your child go on an overnight college tour. Staying in a dorm and shadowing a college student can open your child’s eyes to whether a particular college is a good fit.
  • Keep at that summer job. Another summer job between junior and senior year will further hone your child’s life skills and add to the college fund.

Senior Year

Senior year is a hectic time for students and their families. Even if your child gets into his or her top choice college, there is still much to do.

  • Invest in organization tools. Whether an app for your child’s smartphone or a paper calendar, assist your child in keeping track of the many important deadlines in the fall semester.
  • Anticipate rejection. Though some students get into their top-choice college, just as many do not. As a result, a rejection letter can cause genuine heartbreak. If this should happen to your child, be there for emotional support.
  • After high school graduation, help your child create a ‘college readiness’ checklist. This list includes trips to pick up essential supplies and completing last minute necessities such as vaccines. Though there is much to do, organizing everything should help your child feel less stress as college move-in day approaches.


Copy of dreamschooldoorWhat Teachers Can Do

It is the first responsibility of every high school teacher to help students succeed academically. Despite these good intentions, many teachers forget that their students require help transitioning between high school and college. Below are some simple strategies that all high school teachers can employ.

Teachers of Underclassmen

  • Use teaching strategies that promote autonomy and personal responsibility. From checklists to personal reflections, there are many ways teachers can instill these two skills that every student (on the college path or not) will need later in life. For example, flipped classrooms closely mirror the format of many college courses. Take the first quarter to introduce the concept so that your students can adapt. Applying it for the rest of the year, the majority your students will gain the skills necessary to become autonomous learners throughout high school and college.

Teachers of Upperclassmen

  • Teach students how to share their ideas in an open setting. Through Socratic seminars, you can encourage reserved or shy students to share their ideas, something their college professors will ask them to do in seminar courses.
  • Have your grading system reflect what students will experience in college. In college, a student’s grade in a course comes down to a handful of high-stakes tests and/or papers. Employ a similar strategy in your classroom, giving your summative assessments the greatest (e.g. 85-90%) weight of all graded items. Students will still have some wiggle room when it comes to their grades, but you will be giving them a preview to what their college professors will expect. Note: Be sure to gain approval from your principal before changing your grading system.

Final Thoughts

For parents and teachers, the prospect of transitioning to college might seem somewhat difficult. But for teenagers, with their limited life experience, transitioning to college might seem like climbing Mt. Everest. That’s why it is important for parents and teachers to become college transition sherpas. Show your child or student the way, and he or she will surely succeed.

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