4 Questions to Start College on the Right Foot

It’s that time of year again—fall is getting closer, college freshman are getting excited (and nervous), and every home goods store is filled with families buying plastic storage containers and mini fridges. Starting college is exciting, and it can be a source of worry for many students and their parents.

As an educational therapist, I help students with learning differences develop strategies to succeed in college. As this year’s cohort prepares to head off, I wanted to share my top four questions I ask students to think about as they enter college.

  1. How will you track your assignments? 

    In college, the grades that count are papers, tests, and projects. Professors rarely ask students to turn in their outlines or make time for peer editing. If students don’t use their planners to break down long-term assignments, they are going to suffer. Heading into college, students should be able to describe which time management tool they will use to accomplish this necessary feat. Whether they’re using an electronic or paper calendar, they should be prepared to enter due dates and start planning as soon as they get their syllabi.

  2. When will you get your work done?

    When you ask high school students when they do their homework, they will often reply that they do most of their work in school during a free period or late at night just before bed. For college students, finding time to work is entirely different. There is no such thing as a dedicated study hall, unless students plan one themselves. Deciding to do homework late at night is a terrible idea, as that is often peak social time and an irresistible distraction. A new college student should identify at least 20 hours a week for being productive. What’s more, I strongly encourage my students to avoid working in their dorm rooms where they may be more distracted (not to mention dorm rooms are often a bit depressing). They should consider working in a group or finding the perfect spot in the library.

  3. What will you do when you get stuck?

    College, when done properly, is hard. The subjects college students face should force them to stretch their thinking in new and unexpected ways. So, unavoidably, they are going to get stuck. Whether they’re struggling with a new way of approaching calculus or an arcane school of literary theory, college students need to have a plan in place. Many schools offer free tutoring, which can be very effective. Even better, why not go and talk to the professor directly? Too often students do not take advantage of office hours, which is a major missed opportunity to get help and to form a relationship with their teacher.

  4. Who will you turn to for help?

    Many students see college as a time to prove their independence. They aren’t wrong, but I would argue that independence does not mean solitude. Too often students who struggle will isolate themselves, only compounding the problems they face. Students need to be aware of the various supports that the college has to offer, from academic help to mental health and substance abuse counseling and safety from harassment. There are challenges associated with going to college, but no one should have to face them alone.

College is an entirely new educational setting in many ways. Professors have higher expectations of their students’ abilities and level of independence. Many of the structures and supports students took for granted are gone. Unstructured time increases along with both workload and social life, creating both opportunities and risks. By asking these questions before students enter college, they will be better prepared to tackle the challenges they face and to make the most of their college career.


  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director