How to Set Your Students up for Success in College


I have been a college instructor for more than 20 years, if you count my graduate student days, and I certainly do. In the past couple of decades, I have learned a lot about how to set my students up for success, and as a mom of a high school junior and freshman, I have started applying these tips at home. I thought you might want to, too.

First of all, let me just say that college does not have to be the natural step your student takes after high school. I know it seems like college admission is the cherry on top of the competi-mommy sundae, but lots of kids want jobs out of high school that don’t require a 4-year (or a 2-year, for that matter) college degree. As parents, we have got to resist the urge to buy into the myth that college is the be all/ end all for every kid.

At the same time, I do think lots of kids- even those who want to pursue technical careers, law enforcement careers, first responder careers, careers in the armed services, etc., can and do benefit from a liberal arts education. I also think that kind of education can be attainable for every kid, but there are a few tips and tricks for both kids and parents that make college feel even more do-able.

College is different from high school in some important ways

  1. Scheduling freedom/flexibility: In high school, you have to go to school every single day, all day. In college, you get to pick and choose what days and what time of day you’ll have classes. Typically, you take a few classes that meet on Monday/Wednesday/Friday and a couple that meet on Tuesday/Thursday. Some students like to have all of their classes 3 days a week and use the other 2 days to study. Some students thrived on a high school schedule and enjoy having classes spread out all day, and other students realize that morning classes? Are definitely not for them. The point is that your student will get to customize their schedules like they never have before. With this freedom, though, comes the expectation that students are doing lots of work outside of class. You may only meet your class 3 days a week, but you are expected to do work the other days to come prepared for class. This catches students by surprise their first semester, so they should go into college knowing that they need to work about as long outside of class as they are expected to be in the classroom. FOR EVERY CLASS.
  2. Lack of accountability: In high school, teachers checked in with students every day and assigned homework, so students could practice key concepts before they were assessed. This might not happen in college. Instead, instructors expect students will do work outside class to stay caught up and on track to finish major projects. It’s not unusual to walk into a class in September and see that nothing is due until, say, November. At first, students might think this means they have a couple of months before they have to do any work, but they’ll soon find out they were supposed to be working every day. It’s just that no one is going to be checking up on them until the exam/paper/quiz, etc. This can be a rude awakening for students who have spent all of October slacking off.
  3. Office hours: In high school, students probably got in the habit of seeking help from their teachers only if they were struggling with a concept or needed extra support. In college, not only will students be more likely to struggle with some concepts, even if they never did in high school, but there is an expectation that everyone should visit their instructors in office hours to check in on assignments. This can be a tough pill to swallow. Students will feel insecure about needing help, but they shouldn’t. College work is hard, and college professors are subject matter experts. It’s really cool that students get a chance to work one to one with experts, and you should encourage your students to visit their teachers in office hours. This is a great way for your student to introduce themselves to someone who only sees them as one of hundreds of faces in a lecture hall, and it’s a great way for students to deepen their understanding of subject matter.

Besides making sure your student understands these differences before college, there are a couple of things you can do to help them be successful students. First, when your student complains about assignments or tests or material they don’t understand, ask them 2 questions: Have you gone to office hours yet? And, have you asked a librarian for help? Second, resist the urge to intervene on your student’s behalf. Instead, direct them back to the professor, instructor, or teaching assistant, and help them brainstorm other places—the library, the writing center, a campus tutoring hub—they can go for help. Do not under any circumstances ever no matter what call their college teachers. You roll your eyes, BUT IT HAPPENS, friends. (Teachers can’t share any information with you anyway because of federal privacy guidelines– yes even if you are paying the bill– so get in the habit of butting out now by silencing electronic grade book notification from your kid’s high school—everyone will be happier for it).

What else would you add? How are you helping your kids be successful scholars?

Sarah Jedd
Sarah Jedd has a Ph.D. in communication arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches and studies the rhetoric of Planned Parenthood. Sarah has 5 (F I V E) children: teens Harry and Jack, elementary schoolers Cooper and Dorothy, and sweet baby Minnie, born in August 2020. Sarah blogs about being a mom of many at and overshares on IG as @sarahjedd. Sarah, her husband, and their kids live in Verona with the world's laziest dog.


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