Starting College Successfully – tips for parents

student group

Sunday Dreads on a Wednesday?

Last Thursday was the first day back at College after a long summer holiday working on my business. Like many educators approaching the start of term, I had a sleepless night, full of racing thoughts about things not done, liberty lost and exciting ideas for the new year. In an effort to download it all, I grabbed my notebook and frantically scribbled down everything that was on my mind.

It got me thinking though: if the anticipation is this intense for me, what must it be like for a student starting college, full of trepidation about this new stage with its exhilarating freedoms and terrifying responsibilities, let alone the all-important social aspects of being in a new environment filled with thousands of teenagers?

How can we help young people to make sense of this transition period so that they can navigate it effectively? What follows are my tips for surviving three key aspects of the enrolment period. If there’s a 16-year-old in your life, pass it on.

Decisions, decisions

This might sound obvious, but do they actually want to go to college? Lots of families assume that this is the logical next step after GCSEs but there are lots of alternatives. See what’s available in your area that will make your young person happy.

Having established that college is the right option, next comes subject choice. This can be tricky to get right, partly as there are so many influences from friends, family and a variety of experts. I’ve got just one main piece of advice here: DO WHAT YOU LOVE! If their heart’s set on a specific career, follow advice about required subjects (and if they hate those subjects they should probably rethink the career choice) but if not, don’t worry about which subjects go together, whether they ‘look good’ for university or whether you’ll be able to help them with their homework. The most successful students are those who are happy and engaged with their subjects. Many careers and university courses have no specific subject requirements, so it makes sense to focus on enjoyment. Similarly, most colleges will let students change subjects during the first few weeks, so make sure they are using this time to really check that they’ve made their best choice.

Get off your phone!

As I walk around campus, I am struck by the number of students sitting in silence, heads bent over their smartphones. Some are the very same who will ask for help weeks later because they haven’t made friends. At college, students aren’t supervised 100% of the time and, unlike school, there are no strict rules about mobile phone use. This means that students need to step up and take responsibility for how (and if) they are interacting with others. Teachers will facilitate group and partner work in class, but most students also have a large amount of non-contact time to kill. Starting from enrolment day, encourage your young person to make eye contact with those around them, smile, even start a dialogue (they may need to practise some of these at home). Conversational nuggets like the weather, which subjects they’re doing, which school they went to, how they’re feeling (gasp!) about college will all help things flow. Remember that most people huddled over their phones are just trying to pretend they’re not alone (we’ve all done it) – we’re grateful when someone initiates a conversation because it means we don’t have to!

Sorted for systems and stuff

For some young people, college is the first time they have had to take responsibility for organising themselves. They may never have had to buy stationery, write down homework or plan how to spend their time, but research shows that those with well-developed systems are likely to perform better than those who don’t. They will need a lot of help with this at first, and college tutorials will be part of the picture, but this is where support at home can make a real difference. Make sure your young person starts college with a folder for organising their notes, with dividers for each subject or topic. They’ll also need paper and at least two pens that they can locate at all times; many students also enjoy embellishing their notes with coloured highlighters. Talk about how they will record their homework: do they want a diary or a mobile app, or would they prefer to use an online study planner? It doesn’t matter what they choose as long as they are happy with it and will use it every day. Once they have their college timetable, it’s time to work out what to do with all those gaps! Most courses at Level 3 require students to spend at least as much time on independent study as they do in the classroom, so get them to write down where they will fit it all in. Don’t worry, it will still add up to fewer hours than a typical full-time job, so there’s plenty of time left for hobbies, socialising and part-time employment.

Putting it all together

If your 16-year-old is on the best possible programme for them, is organised and engaged and makes an effort to be sociable, college is likely to be the best two years of their life so far. They might not manage it all at once, but part of the battle is helping them understand just what is required to get there. I’d love to hear how they’re doing.

Does your young person need a bit of extra help to settle in at college? Email me at or call me on 07714 195018 to find out how my life coaching programme for teens could be just what’s needed.

4 thoughts on “Starting College Successfully – tips for parents

  • Loving these tips Lucy – valuable for starting a new school as well as beginning college. Especially like the tip about getting off your phone, and isn’t that the truth that we’ve all used our phones as a virtual buddy at some point.

    • Lucy

      Yes, I’ve noticed that schools have started banning mobile phone use completely, in an effort to get their students talking to each other! Verbal communication skills are so important as they progress through life.

    • Lucy

      Thanks Gill, yes, we probably all need that advice about phones. It’s amazing how they’ve become such an indispensable part of our lives!

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