College 101: Level Up Executive Function Skills on the Move Up to College

Last updated Mar 23, 2023 


High school was always easy for Alexis. She got A’s in most classes and her teachers loved her. Sure, she forgot to do her homework a few times, didn’t do so well on a test once or twice because she waited to study until the last minute, but most of the time she was able to balance her academic responsibilities with volleyball, her part-time job at the movie theater, and going out with friends. Alexis got into her dream college and was looking forward to her freshman year. 

At first, college was everything Alexis hoped it would be: she could sleep in most days, didn’t have to follow a lot of rules, and really liked her classes. Unfortunately, by the time it reached midterms, Alexis realized she was in over her head. 

She stumbled out of bed (late) onto a slice of pizza left over from the impromptu movie night with her friend from down the hall. As she pulled on her last clean pair of jeans and went to start putting her things in her bag, she realized she hadn’t printed out her essay due in her first class and hadn’t finished her flashcards for her Biology test the next day. “It’s okay,” she reassured herself. “I’ll figure it out like I always do. I have plenty of time.” Not quite. The essay was printed. The test was passed. Alexis even managed to do a load of laundry. But she’d hardly slept and barely made it to the end of the week without collapsing in tears. 

Alexis couldn’t help but wonder how this happened. Was this normal? How did her college dream become her college nightmare? 

High School vs. College

The transition from high school to college can be rough if you’re so focused on getting in that you don’t realize what it takes to actually succeed once you get there. Help your future self by getting to know the major differences between high school and college.

  • Most learning takes place in class.
  • Most learning takes place outside of class.
  • You have a set schedule every day.
  • You have a different schedule most days.
  • More daily homework assignments, tests, and quizzes.
  • Expected to learn independently with bigger assignments and exams carrying more weight.
  • Less reading and writing assignments.
  • More reading and writing assignments.
  • Teachers offer ways to make up work or pull up bad grades (e.g. extra credit, retake exams, extensions).
  • Fewer second chances.
  • Rules for attendance.
  • No set attendance rules, but there are consequences for not showing up (e.g. fall behind, participation grade).
  • Teachers are more easily accessible if you have questions.
  • Professors have limited office hours.
  • Counselors (with input from you and parents) handle course selection and registration.
  • You have to make appointments with your advisor to choose classes and then register for them by yourself.
  • Adults handle most of the financial stuff (e.g. pay for food, clothes, insurance, etc.).
  • Expected to manage your own finances.
  • Adults help with self-care, including cooking meals, doing laundry, and scheduling doctors’ appointments.
  • You are responsible for your own self-care.
  • Your social life is structured around rules and school hours.
  • You have more freedom, which also means you’re responsible for managing your academic and social life.

Bottom line? You have more freedom, but you also have more work to do and less of a support system to help you do it. Without the regular rules and structure of school and living at home, it’s much easier for a few bad choices or miscalculations to snowball into a full blown crisis.

What exactly are executive function skills?

If the realization that college is not high school 2.0 scares you a little bit (maybe a lot), that’s okay. Now that you know, you can start getting ready, and one of the best ways to do that is to understand and improve your executive functioning, which is basically a more complicated way of describing taking care of business with you as the boss.

For some, good executive functioning means being organized. For others, it means being responsible. It’s doing things like planning, prioritizing, and persisting in pursuit of goals. That sounds a lot like what an executive of a company would do or what “adulting” is, right? Absolutely. Except no one becomes a boss or an adult automatically. You have to work at it, and before college is the perfect time to start. 

What To Do Next

If you follow the College 101 series over the next two months, you’ll get tips on some of the most important executive function skills for college, including how to monitor yourself and get help, how to manage your time and stay focused, how to use strategies to succeed in and out of class, and how to organize your stuff. 

As you follow along, keep a journal to record your thoughts and participate in some helpful exercises, like these!

  • Check it out: See how your Executive Function skills measure up with this short questionnaire
  • Write it Down: (Option 1) Imagine you’re about to graduate from college. Write a list of questions to your future self about the college experience and what it took to succeed. (Option 2) Interview someone in your life who’s been to college to find out what the transition was like and what they wish they’d known.

For more help, get an A+ Executive Function Coach or take the complementary Mindprint assessment when you sign up for test prep tutoring.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Directors Susan Ware and Joelle Faucette can be reached at 215-886-9188.


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