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Teaching Life Skills to the Students in Your Practice

“Adulting” Means Finding and Using Resources.

Here’s what we know: the majority of U.S. colleges expect new students to arrive on campus prepared with basic college-level life skills. These include daily organizational planning, professional communication, self-advocacy, the ability to recognize when they need help, and the ability to find support resources.

Here’s what else we know: the majority of U.S. high school curricula do not include life skills courses, and high school graduates are often unprepared to “adult” when they transition to college life.

A View From the Inside: Too Little, Too Late

I’ve spent 25 years working on a college campus, both as a professor and as a university administrator. I’ve taught and mentored thousands of first-year students over the years. Along with my faculty and staff colleagues, I have seen the pressures new students face when they arrive on campus ill-equipped for college-level decisions and competencies. 

Recognizing this deficit among their incoming students, colleges and universities have responded by suggesting or even mandating first-year experience courses or transition programs for their incoming students. These courses cover a host of topics, from wellness to academic integrity, and cross-cultural communication to alcohol and drug education. Unfortunately, introducing new students to “adulting” life skills while they are simultaneously learning to live with a roommate, adjusting to college-level academic expectations, and balancing all their new freedoms, sets many new students up to fail. These crucial life skills need to be taught well before students arrive on campus.

More Than A College Counselor: The Unique Position of the IEC

It is widely understood that IECs provide invaluable professional expertise to students as they navigate the complex process of college exploration, application, and selection. Through the lens of the high school student, Independent Educational Consultants are often the adults to listen to at this time of transition; they can deliver professional expertise and thoughtful advice in a personal, conversational format. They don’t lecture like teachers or preach eye-roll-inducing lessons like parents. In fact, IECs serve as both educators and mentors, teaching lessons that range from honing organizational habits, to trusting independent decision-making, to fostering skills of resilience. 

Of course, IECs cannot be solely responsible for preparing college-bound students with the life skills they will need to thrive in their first semester on campus. Student-facing books about the transition from high school to college, first-year transition webinars, and college summer boot camps can help prepare rising freshmen for the experience ahead. Parents can and should also be a part of their children’s journey: making time for important pre-college discussions and filling gaps in knowledge through cooking lessons, money management tutorials, discussions about health insurance, and sharing expectations about college move-in day.

Defining and Reframing “Adulting”

As adults, we know that seeking help when we need it and relying on others more knowledgeable than ourselves is a strength, not a weakness. However, if you ask a high school or new college student to define what it means to be an adult, they will most likely tell you it means doing things on their own, without relying on others or asking for help. It is hardly surprising, then, that our first-year college students often do not admit when they need academic support and fail to take advantage of the valuable academic resources offered on their campus (and included in their tuition).

IECs can play an important role in helping their high school students reframe the definition of “adulting” to include seeking out and using support resources on campus during their first semester of college. They can encourage college-bound students to conduct an online search for the academic support resources available at the colleges they are interested in attending. IECs can normalize the expectation that academic resources are available to all students and explain the benefit of using them as they tackle college-level learning. Some of the campus academic support resources that IECs can prepare their students to access include:

  • College librarians, who bring extensive experience in accessing online scholarly works spanning many academic areas for students conducting research and writing papers. 
  • Professors and teaching assistants, the first line of support for students enrolled in their classes. They are required to hold weekly office hours and will provide one-on-one guidance to students about class material and assignments.
  • Tutors selected by academic departments and academic support offices. They include undergraduate peers, graduate students, faculty, and members of the larger community with expertise in a particular area. 
  • Academic advisors, who offer assistance in more than just planning course schedules; they hone in on students’ passions, help them fulfill curriculum requirements, arrange for high school credit transfers, and even work with faculty members on a student’s behalf.
  • Disability support counselors, dedicated to providing students who have documented disabilities with the reasonable accommodations they need to grant equal access to education, include adaptive technology and excused absences for disability-related leave.
  • Student athlete support staff, who provide life skills coaching, academic tutoring, and time management workshops. 
  • IT support staff, who provide students with technology support regarding course web portals, university email accounts, payroll and student fee portals, printing resources, WiFi networks, and library research accounts.
  • Writing Center staff, the unsung heroes of the student paper, who offer extensive one-on-one support for students writing papers, organization, draft writing, and proofreading.

The essential life skills of adulting don’t arrive with a college acceptance letter. These are skills that must be taught—ideally, before students arrive on campus—and as trusted mentors and advisors, IECs can partner with parents in teaching these skills. One such skill is the ability to seek help from campus resources. There are excellent resources available, but these support systems won’t find students. Campus resources can only help if students walk through the door to their professor’s office hours, to the campus library, or to the Writing Center. It’s our job to explain to students that adulting doesn’t mean doing it all alone, and nudge them over the threshold.


Andrea Malkin Brenner, PhD is a College Transition Educator and author who speaks frequently with high school students and their parents on the challenges related to college transitions, including a specific focus on students with mental health challenges and learning differences. She draws on her 25 years of experience (most of them at American University in Washington, DC) as a college sociology professor, as the creator and director of the university’s first-year experience program, and as the faculty director of the University College program. Dr. Brenner has received multiple awards for her teaching and program design. 

Dr. Brenner is co-author of How to College: What to Know Before You Go (and When You’re There) (Macmillan, St. Martin’s, 2019). She is the creator of the Talking College™ Card Deck, the original card deck of discussion prompts for college-bound students and their parents, which will be published and available for purchase in September, 2021. You can access Dr. Brenner’s upcoming workshops through her website: www.AMBrenner.com

Contact Andrea through her website and mention The Seed newsletter for a discounted price on her book, How to College: What to Know Before You Go (and When You’re There) for yourself or your students. ($10.50 per book including tax and shipping anywhere in the U.S).


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