5 Ways to Prepare your Teen for a College-Level Workload

Get Your Teen into College Series

Getting your teen accepted to college is only half the battle. Once there, a rigorous workload awaits. A surprising number of students arrive on campus wholly unprepared for the sheer volume of reading, problem solving, writing, and studying that defines college-level academics. This lack of preparation can lead to excessive stress and erratic grades. Fortunately, this fate can be avoided if parents intercede early in their child's student career -- during high school, or even earlier -- to help instill study habits that will later prove indispensable at college.

Below are five simple tips, each adapted from my extensive research and writing on the topic of doing well at college, to help you achieve this goal:

Tip #1: Insist on a Daily Homework Plan

When your teen arrives home after school, ask him about the homework he has due the next day. Before letting him wander off, insist that he sketch a simple schedule for the afternoon and evening. The schedule should indicate during which hours he will be working, and what he will be working on. All other time is free for him to relax.

By taking a moment each day to survey how much work needs to be done and how much time is available, your teen will avoid the panicked late night study sessions that plague most procrastination-inclined youth. He will also enjoy the distinct reduction in stress that follows from having a plan -- letting him get more relaxation out of his free time. This habit of scheduling work will prove crucial for gracefully juggling the increased schoolwork demands that await him at college.

Tip #2: Set Aside an Isolated Study Chamber

Designate a quiet corner in your house as the only location in which school work is accomplished. Make sure this location is separated from active, highly trafficked areas like the kitchen or TV room.

By setting aside an isolated area, used only for studying, you are helping your teen separate work and relaxation.

This promotes increased focus during work periods, which will, in turn, produce better results and require less time. This habit will prove essential at college, where escaping from noisy dorms and crowded study lounges to really focus on work is a trait shared by many high-scoring undergrads.

Tip #3: Unplug the Computer from the Internet before Paper Writing

When your teen sets aside time to work on a paper, make sure that you first unplug the cable that connects the computer to the Internet -- making it impossible to go online. If your teen needs the Internet for research, make her separate the research process from the writing process. Unplug the computer before she moves on to the latter.

Many students develop the bad habit, early on, of working on the computer with several instant messenger and e-mail conversations being conducted simultaneously. Needless to say, this behavior severely reduces the quality of the work being done and increases the time (and stress) required to finish.

By making Internet access impossible, you are forcing your child to focus on only the paper until it's finished. As with Tip #2, this ability to separate work from play is crucial at college where numerous online distractions await the susceptible student. Once she discovers how much easier paper writing becomes when it is done in one focused burst, she may never return to her old, inefficient multi-tasking ways again.

Tip #4: Post an Academic Calendar

Hang a large monthly calendar in a public place in your house. For example, on the refrigerator. Clearly mark the calendar with all of your teen's major paper and project deadlines and exam dates.

This calendar provides your teen a quick daily review of the landscape of deadlines looming in his future. This prevents the dreaded "due date creep," where a student is shocked to discover that he has two papers and a test to prepare for the next day. It also encourages a more considered approach to work on big projects; including spreading out the work over several days and getting started early enough to finish without the need for a late night. Once this habit is ingrained, your teen will be prepared for gracefully scheduling the many long term assignments that populate college syllabi.

Tip #5: Set Expectations for Responsible Study Habits

Integrate responsible study habits into your expectations for your teen's school performance. Make it clear that you are not impressed by late-night work pushes, or similar day-before heroics - even if they do produce good grades. Instead, communicate with your teen that you expect work to be scheduled in advance and tackled with concentration.

The most consistent difference between happy, stress-free, academically successful undergraduates and those who are stressed out and overwhelmed, is the former's ability to see school work as a strategic challenge. They focus on identifying and employing organization and study techniques to simplify their lives. The latter type of student tend to just make it up as they go along - hoping that they survive the term, one panicked assignment at a time. Building a strong association between good habits and school work, early on, will later pay significant dividends in the outcome of your teen's college career.

Cal Newport is a writer who specializes in college success advice. He is the author, most recently, of How to Become a Straight-A Student (Random House, 2007). He is also the author of How to Win at College (Random House, 2005), which was recently selected by the New York Public Library as the only college advice guide to make the "Books for the Teen Age 2006" list. More information at Cal Newport's website.

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