Making a Smooth Transition from High School to College

3 min read
Transitioning to College

Samantha Curiale-Feinman, MS.Ed., TSHH, Director
Casey Schmalacker, Operations Manager


Change is not easy for many of us. We tend to like structure and routine because it is predictable and comfortable. Transitioning to new environments, routines, ways of life, etc., can make us feel uneasy and disoriented. Sometimes we see the need to transition coming down the road, like with the transition from high school to college, and other times it comes upon us rather unexpectedly (think the Coronavirus pandemic and the need to complete the school year in a virtual model). Since transitions have the potential to be challenging, let’s explore exactly why…

Brain and Changes

The brain processes information very similarly to a computer, where communication between the various parts of the brain occur almost instantaneously. Information that we know and understand is familiar and thus easier to process; whereas, novel information is less familiar and takes more time and energy to assimilate. As the nerve cells in the brain transmit messages regulating everything from decision making, to social behavior to movement, it can be difficult to quickly process large amounts of unfamiliar information, which can lead to potential confusion and anxiety. College is one of these transitions that can be disruptive to what students know.

Preparing for Fall Transitions

Although what college will look like in the fall is still very unknown (i.e., classes in person, online, or a blend of the two), the skills that are necessary to be prepared and successful in that environment are still the same. Putting the pandemic aside, college staff have historically reported that students many times are not prepared for the different level of support they receive in college as compared to high school, and this can set up for a shaky beginning. High school tends to provide a higher level of external supports to students as compared to college. High school students may be used to a very structured schedule, high levels of feedback from their teachers regarding process, and increased levels of parental involvement. College requires students to transition from a system where they are used to being given supports and feedback to one where they are required to initiate, self-advocate, and seek help as necessary. Essentially, students need to be prepared to be in the driver’s seat for college.

To be successful in the transition to college, the environment requires students to be prepared for a higher level of independence, self-regulation, and decision-making ability. In order to transfer the ownership of responsibility from parents and teachers to the students themselves, such skill areas should be considered:

1. Executive functioning:

Executive functioning includes skills such as time management, scheduling, organization, prioritizing, and multitasking. Prior to leaving for college, students should be able to get themselves up in the morning by using an alarm clock. They should learn how to leave themselves enough time to get to appointments, taking into account responsibilities such as showering, eating, and the amount of time it takes to travel to the appointment. Students should learn to use a planner to organize responsibilities, as well as follow and refer back to the planner on a daily basis to keep up with appointments, coursework deadlines, and other responsibilities.

2. Self-monitoring and self-advocacy:

Students should have a solid understanding of what supports are available to them on campus and how to access supports when needed. Students need to understand that professors may not seek them out when their assignments are late or missing; therefore, they need to proactively check in with their professors throughout the semester to make sure that they are on track with their work and in good academic standing in each of their courses.

3. Social engagement:

Students can practice identifying social cues, as well as how to respond appropriately in a variety of social situations with professors and peers. For those students living on campus, they should also investigate the different housing options, as well as be prepared for the pros and cons that come along with living with a roommate.

Sometimes the services that colleges have available may not be enough to help assist the student in the transition from high school to college. It is important to also identify outside programs, agencies, and other resources that may be helpful in supporting the students on the road to college success. With the right balance of proactive skill development and transition support, students can acquire the coping skills necessary to successfully transition to college and beyond.

Casey Schmalacker

Casey Schmalacker, Vice President at New Frontiers, is a seasoned leader in marketing, sales, and business development. With a dual degree in Government and Law and Economics from Lafayette College, he has spent the past 10 years coaching students, adults, and organizations to improve executive functions, soft skills, and workplace performance. Casey’s approach is rooted in strategic development and a passion for personalized coaching, emphasizing a culture of continuous improvement.

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