When we hear college roommate stories, they’re often about strangers becoming besties—ordering pizza and staying up late swapping secrets or cramming for a test. Sometimes those relationships blossom into lifelong friendships—being in one another’s weddings, vacationing together. That’s lovely when it happens. But the reality for many, if not most, freshmen can be quite different when they arrive on campus.
For example, my friend’s son Nolan was delighted to meet his new roommate, a teen who shared his passion for collecting sneakers and attending rap concerts. But his anticipation quickly turned to dismay when he realized that his roommate thought it was perfectly fine to have his high school friends over until the early hours of the morning—playing that rap music at top volume.
Another friend’s daughter was similarly taken aback when one of her roommates plugged in a Juul pod as they set up their room and proceeded to vape in the room. “This is not something she had envisioned about living with another person,” my friend confided. Then there was the roommate who hit her snooze alarm repeatedly, beginning at 6 a.m., before finally getting up around 8:30 a.m. Every day. Yikes.
In all of these cases, the students had to learn how to navigate the tricky social dynamics of living with another person and advocating for their own needs. That type of social awareness may not be top of mind for parents as they look at their kid and wonder, “Are you ready for college?”
What to Consider and How to Prepare
While academic readiness is often the focus of college preparation for high school students, it is just one of many factors parents should consider in assessing whether their students are ready to launch. Because while they might be well-equipped to handle the schoolwork, there’s no AP class on how to live with other people or acclimate to a completely new environment.
Billie Dunn, vice president for student affairs at Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, is well acquainted with this scenario. Many things have changed and evolved during her 18 years in this post; the advent of social media has impacted how students relate to one another, for example. What haven’t changed are the core areas that parents need to keep in mind when gauging their student’s social and emotional readiness for college.
Based on her experience, here are some of the factors Dunn would love parents to take into consideration as they assess their high school student’s readiness—along with suggestions for how to bolster their skills while they are still under your roof:
1. Are they adept at navigating peer relationships?
“Of course; that’s all they do,” you might snort. For kids who have changed schools a lot, meeting people might indeed be second nature. But many teens have lived in one town their whole lives, where they have gone to school with essentially the same students throughout high school. When my son graduated, for example, my social media was flooded with pictures of friend groups in caps and gowns beside photos of the same kids in kindergarten soccer uniforms. While social ties ebbed and flowed over the years, a high percentage had been schoolmates for 13 years.
Another common situation is that their friends are their fellow teammates or club members. “If their time has been highly structured, they may have always had a ready-made group and not had opportunities to meet a wide variety of peers,” says Dunn.
Parents can help teens gain confidence in creating their own ties by encouraging them to try a new activity where they will be navigating peer groups on their own. If they’ve always been in band, maybe they could try drama this summer, or they could go on a mission trip with a local nonprofit group rather than return to the camp they always attend.
2. Can they advocate for themselves?
We’re all familiar with the term “helicopter” or even “snowplow” parents, who swoop into any situation and take over, rather than let their kids navigate an unfamiliar or tough situation on their own. In fact, college professors report a tremendous increase in parents calling them to inquire about grades, says Marie Kueny, a licensed school counselor in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “Many parents are so supportive of their children that they are actually preventing them from advocating for themselves.”
Student success in college will hinge on them knowing how to reach out and seek advice from their professors or resident advisor. To prepare for this shift, Kueny recommends that parents encourage teens to approach teachers in high school about a grade or a missing assignment or to tell their coach why they are missing a practice. Do they have to cancel on a babysitting job? They need to be the one to make that call. Help them role play the conversation if they’re not sure what to say.
3. Can they be a good roommate?
Hands raised if you’ve ever just shut the door on your teen’s room so you don’t have to see the mess. (My hand’s up!) But in college they’ll likely be sharing a room—possibly for the first time in their lives—and no one wants to live with an inconsiderate slob.
Think about the expectations you have of your child at home, Dunn says. Do they have to make their bed, pick up their clothes and clutter, and ask permission before borrowing things? Even if they have their own room, you can still help them practice setting realistic expectations for living with someone else. For example, if your son or daughter assumes they get the first shower or control of the gaming system since they’re the oldest, have them negotiate with a sibling to find agreeable compromises. If they don’t have a sibling, look for opportunities to help them negotiate fairly with a close friend. Does one of them always get to decide what to do, or do they take turns, for example?
4. Can they handle social pressures?
College students are faced with a smorgasbord of temptations they’ve likely never had before—or couldn’t get away with when they lived at home—from excessive partying to blowing off class to go to the mall. “Being able to avoid negative peer pressure is a skill that can save a lot of headaches and heartaches,” says Kueny. “Teens who are willing to separate from the pack to go down their own path are more likely to succeed.”
She recommends that parents and teens watch a few movies together that depict the negative consequences of bad choices, or those that feature people who stood strong and made good decisions while friends went the other way. “Debrief after, asking your teen what they would have done in those situations.” You can also point out positive dialogue or role play what they might say.
5. Do they know how to find answers?
It’s a maddening paradox: Teens have a smartphone with all the information in the world at their fingertips, and yet they are quick to ask parents very simple questions about what time the drugstore closes or how long to bake cookies.
In college they’ll need to fend for themselves, and that includes a host of tasks, such as knowing how to find a good price for their textbooks, how to deposit a check, mail a package, fill a prescription, or make an appointment when they’re sick.
“Teens don’t know what they don’t know,” Dunn points out. Get them used to navigating everyday situations by themselves—whether it’s getting supplies for their science project or making an appointment to get their haircut. She recommends that parents log everything they do for their teen in a week: “Take inventory and ask yourself if your child could do these things without your help. If not, start delegating and working with them to master them.”
6. Can they recognize mental health needs?
It’s no secret that anxiety and depression are skyrocketing among teens. While you can’t anticipate every potential problem that might crop up when they are at school, you can set them on the road to healthy self-care.
“Parents should keep communication open with their teens by asking what they are enjoying and what’s hard for them; this can make a teen more likely to discuss potential mental health concerns when they arise,” says Kueny. “Help them learn to identify underlying factors that might be causing stress. Talk with them about symptoms they should watch for and situations where they might feel overwhelmed.” Then, identify possible coping behaviors, like meditation or yoga, deep breathing, going for a walk or run, doing a crossword puzzle, or calling a friend.
She also recommends that parents model their own healthy self-care and encourage it in their children. That includes getting adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise, as well as setting priorities and seeking support when needed. A teen who develops healthy habits while living at home is more likely to continue them in college.
7. Do they take on responsibilities without needing reminders?
The key indicator that your high schooler will be able to adapt to college is how they manage their current life; you want to feel confident they can succeed without constant adult interference.
Kueny points out that specifics can vary among teens, but could include elements such as consistently handling proper hygiene, holding down a part-time job, getting ready on time in the morning on their own, and knowing when and how to ask for help.
Says Kueny, “When you look at your child and think to yourself, ‘Wow, my teen is really making thoughtful decisions lately,’ that is a good sign they are ready.”