transitioning to college

Making the Transition to College: Characteristics and Skills That Are Critical to Success

April 8, 2022

Kids go to college to continue their education. Sure, that’s true. But the actual reality of going to college involves so much more than academics. As students engage in college research and begin to formulate an idea of what they are looking for in a school, they should also check in with themselves to ensure that they are ready – beyond academic preparation – for this enormous transition. For students with learning differences, this is even more true.

Characteristics critical to success

As we begin to reflect on students’ preparedness for living independently of their parents for the first time in their lives, we should take a moment to assess the personal qualities, characteristics and skills that are critical to post-secondary success. Once a student begins college, the responsibility of communicating with the school, meeting requirements and deadlines and ensuring that they get the help they need falls entirely on the shoulders of the student. How can we expect students to shift from the team-based approach of high school learning where parents and teachers drive communication, to a student-centered approach where students are suddenly responsible for every aspect of their lives? 

We must begin preparing students for transition early on by helping them internalize critical skills and demonstrate the characteristics that will ensure their ability to succeed in college. This includes a careful assessment of the student’s personal characteristics. Any areas that need refining should be targeted during the high school years in order to make sure that the student has obtained the requisite level of independence for post-secondary education. The fewer novel skills students have to learn when they get to college, the better. There are enough things to learn and adapt to once they leave home. Taking away some of the burden prior can make all the difference for a successful transition.


One of the fundamental characteristics necessary for success is that of self-awareness. In order for a student to take responsibility for their own learning, they need to understand their learning profile, their diagnoses and how these aspects impact their functioning academically, socially and with activities of daily living. Additionally, they need to enter college knowing their rights and responsibilities as a student with a learning disability. They should know which accommodations would be helpful to them and why. Importantly, they need to be able to independently identify and apply strategies to support learning. In terms of their daily lives, they need to know if they benefit from structure or exercise, how much rest they need and which teaching modalities and classroom structures work best for their learning profile. 


Students have to have strong self-advocacy skills when they enter a post-secondary setting, which further illustrates the importance of a well developed self-awareness. Because students will become their own advocate in college, and their parents obsolete, they have to be able to identify when they need help or to seek clarification. They also need to know who to ask, as well as determine the means to get the help they need. College representatives won’t contact parents if students start falling behind, and formal meetings and updates are generally not provided. Additionally, students are responsible for requesting accommodations, which requires them to be able to discuss their learning profile and need for the requested accommodations. In order to do this, they have to initiate a request, feel comfortable disclosing their disability to the school, and subsequently provide each professor with the accommodation letter in which the approved accommodations are outlined. 

Motivation and Resilience

Furthermore, students have to be intrinsically motivated. They have to want to go to college and to continue learning. This can sometimes be a tall order for students who have struggled with learning through their K-12 experience. They will experience difficulty with their studies and their ability to balance their personal lives and academics if their motivation to continue their education is linked to their parent’s desire or an inclination to follow their peers. Motivation is strengthened further by resilience. Resilient students are able to bounce back from setbacks and not let challenges deter them. They can view difficult situations as opportunities to learn and to apply lessons learned on future obstacles.


It is important for students to demonstrate strong self-regulation skills as they make the transition to college. They have to be able to manage their feelings and employ strategies to stay calm. They have to manage difficult feelings effectively and are expected to control their impulses. Self-regulation can also mean ensuring that they are getting proper sleep hygiene, balanced nutrition, regular exercise and performing self-care.


Not everything goes according to plan. Students need to have the ability to solve problems for themselves through self-awareness, self-advocacy as well as the ability to think flexibly, creatively and critically. Problem solving requires that the student is aware of the different campus departments and understands what each one of them do. They need to know which adults can support them in righting the path when unexpected things happen. Problem-solving is required many times a day during a  college student’s life – from issues that range from micro problems to major inconveniences. 


Metacognition is the process of thinking about your own thinking through active self-reflection. Students need to possess strong metacognitive skills in order to help them reflect on their own learning and experiences. It is employed in order to communicate, problem solve, and make decisions. Metacognition helps to identify and apply appropriate learning strategies aligned with the task at hand, to seek clarification, self-reflect, disrupt old patterns and think flexibly and critically.


Self-determination is a person’s ability to set appropriate goals and expectations for themselves based on their understanding of their own needs, interests, and abilities. This helps students to make choices and plans that will enable them to reach their goals. Self-determined students take action in pursuit of their goals and are able to either change course or make adjustments in order to achieve them. Additionally, they are able to function more independently as they are actively thinking about what they are doing and why. They have a vision for the future and make decisions that will help them get there. 

Time Management

Finally a word about time management. This skill can not be underestimated when it comes to students independently managing their lives in college. Students need to be able to effectively manage their time with consideration for their academic, social, self-care, and transportation needs. One major difference between high school and college is that college students spend much less time in the classroom compared to high school students. As a result, students are responsible for learning a significant amount of content through assignments that are done outside of class. This requires them to have the ability to independently structure and manage free time in order to balance their ability to complete lengthy assignments, engage in social life, find time to exercise, and attend to other needs. It also makes it necessary for students to manage their responsibilities independently including handing assignments in and arriving to class on time, accurately judging how long tasks will take them, and making and keeping appointments.  

Students who develop and internalize these characteristics can experience a smoother and more successful transition to college.  Identifying and strengthening these characteristics can reduce unexpected situations and empower students to become active participants in their education. Preparing for this important shift through raising awareness of how things will change once they have made the transition to college life as well as thoughtful, targeted skill development will further help to ensure success.

If you would like to learn more about preparing students for the transition to college, assessing a student’s non-academic skills, applying for accommodations, and identifying colleges with support, Grapevine Educational Consulting can help. Please contact us today for a free consultation.

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Stephanie Mitchell, Author

Stephanie Mitchell is an Independent Educational Consultant and owner of Grapevine Educational Consulting. Her specialty lies in aiding students with learning differences in finding appropriate post-secondary options through a comprehensive and individualized process. Stephanie holds a Bachelor’s in Art History from St. Olaf College and a Master’s in Italian Renaissance Art History from Syracuse University.

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