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The Ultimate College-Skills Crash Course

Advanced Parenting Series - Part Two

Nothing says “college” quite like a cram session.

With a hypercompetitive college application process, many high schoolers–and their parents–can get preoccupied with getting into college, overlooking the practical know-how that will help students thrive during college and beyond.

Cartoon boys with junk all around them

Whether you have a few weeks or a couple of years before your to-be freshman arrives on campus, use this cheat sheet to prepare your teen for acing college life. All-nighters not required.

Intro to Personal Finances

Why it Matters

We all know to spend less than we earn. But that equation gets tricky in college, with part-time jobs and unpaid internships. Not helping: as tuition increases far outpace inflation, the average student graduates with nearly $30,000 in debt, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. Add that up, and financial savvy is crucial.

Skill Building

Cartoon piggy bank

Institute personal-finance summer school. Encourage (or nag, bribe, etc.) your teen to check out the free personal-finance courses developed by the Marriott School at, or together review topics like budgeting, credit, and debt.

Let's Talk

Set expectations. Make it clear whether or not you as parents will contribute to college expenses, and if so, how much. Help your teen determine what he or she will need to do to cover whatever you don’t pay, including submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), applying for scholarships, and getting a job. Possible discussion points:

  • How much is saved in a college savings plan?
  • If parents help with college costs, will they cover a certain percentage of overall expenses or for only specific costs (like tuition, housing, or plane tickets home)?
  • What expectations, if any, are attached to any parental contributions (like maintaining a minimum GPA or having a part-time job)?
Study Notes

A 2013 study found that the more money parents provide for college, the lower the grades their children earn—and the lowest grades were earned by students whose parents essentially wrote blank checks for college expenses. However, the negative impact on grades was mitigated by parents who set clear expectations about grades—and parental support made students more likely to graduate.


Visit for a plain-English breakdown of the FAFSA and financial aid.

Theories of Academic Achievement

Why it Matters

College offers much more autonomy than high school, and even fastidious students may falter at using their free time wisely. Pass on to your teen these smart approaches to make the most of campus classes and clubs.

Expert Tips

Study less. No, that’s not heresy—it’s efficiency. Cal Newport, author of How to Become a Straight-A Student and How to Win at College, says most people subscribe to the idea that [work accomplished] = [time spent studying]. A more accurate formula, though, is [work accomplished] = [time spent studying] x [intensity of focus]. Your student will be better off with two hours of focused study than with four hours of switching between textbooks and text messages.

Don’t delay. The all-nighter is a vaunted element of the college mythos, but scrambling to finish a project the week (or night!) before it’s due is not ideal. Newport suggests that as soon as students are assigned a long-term project, they do something that day toward its completion. It could be simply scribbling an outline or doing some cursory online research—just doing something, says Newport, has “a near-miraculous effect on reducing the tendency to delay.”

Study Notes

Though clubs are classified as extracurricular, they’re anything but expendable. Studies have linked club involvement with a host of benefits: involved students are better leaders, develop more mature relationships, and are better able to plan their careers.

Clubs are especially important for Marriott School students, who choose a major or emphasis when applying and begin their junior year with emphasis rather than core classes.

“Involvement in student professional clubs is becoming an indispensable part of a Marriott School education,” Marriott School dean Lee Perry says. “Clubs help students make informed choices about their major, prepare them to work on teams in their classes, and provide essential professional development.”

Learn more about Marriott School clubs at

Applied Culinary Arts

Why it Matters

You can’t study on an empty stomach. But eating a balanced diet tends to require money and food—both scarce resources for college students. Picking the right dining options, along with learning a few kitchen skills, can go a long way in getting students to eat more than ramen.

Let's Talk

Dine right. When it’s time to send your teen off to college, use this guide to find the meal plan that fits best (BYU’s options are at

Cartoon microwave with pizza in it

  • Big Eater: If your student has a voracious appetite and prefers hot, hearty dishes, an unlimited cafeteria plan is likely the best option. It may have a higher price overall but typically offers the best per-meal deal.
  • Simple Snacker: Is your student content with cereal for breakfast and PB&J for lunch? If the cafeteria plan allows students to pack brown-bag lunches, it may still be a good option. If not, consider a plan that replaces or supplements cafeteria food with an allowance that can be used to grab food at a convenience store or elsewhere on campus. You may need to rent or buy a mini fridge for the dorm.
  • Social Butterfly: Whether your student is naturally drawn to crowds or could benefit from some nudging toward social interaction, cafeteria dining is a staple of the freshman-year social diet.
  • Library Loyalist: If your student will spend hours at the library or at work, choose a plan that covers dining options near those spots, especially if they’re located some distance from the cafeteria. Consider supplementing a lower-limit plan with funds for occasional trips to the grocery store.
  • Budget Master: Look at the lower-cost plans, then discuss how your student might adapt to make one of them work. If meal-plan pricing is out of reach, call the school’s dining services department to ask about meal-assistance programs.
Study Notes

The famed “freshman fifteen”? It’s not really a thing. The average weight gain for first-years is only 2.4 pounds for women and 3.4 pounds for men, according to a 2011 study. Ten percent of freshmen gained fifteen pounds or more, but 25 percent reported losing weight that year.

Mental Health 101

Why it Matters

Depression and anxiety are increasingly common; according to the American College Health Association, more than one-third of college students in 2014 reported feeling so depressed they found it difficult to function. But students have many options to get help—talk to your teen about these resources, and encourage him or her to seek assistance when it’s needed.

Expert Tips

Learn to fail successfully. The mission of BYU is “to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life.” In a 2015 devotional address titled “Successfully Failing,” BYU president Kevin J Worthen pointed out that “we tend to focus too much on the word perfection and not enough on the word quest”—but “failure is an inevitable part of the quest.” Read President Worthen’s talk at Discuss his suggestions for how to deal with failure, and consider sharing with your teen an experience when you learned through failure.

Let's Talk

Prevent suicide. The suicide rate among American young adults has tripled since the 1950s, with suicide claiming the lives of more than one thousand college students each year. Talk with your teen about suicide, perhaps framing it as how they might help a friend in need. Here are possible discussion points:

  • Review warning signs of suicide—find a list and prevention guide at
  • Help is available 24-7 by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or 911, or chatting online at
  • Asking for help is a sign of courage and strength, not weakness.
  • Students can also seek help from their RA and the university’s counseling services (for BYU, visit
  • For an LDS perspective, read together Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s talk “Like a Broken Vessel,” emphasizing the importance of seeking needed medical help.
Skill Building

Start meditating. One way to foster mental health is with meditation—studies have shown it can improve well-being, reduce psychological distress, and increase both immune functioning and information processing speed. Encourage your teen to try out an app that offers guided meditations, like Stop, Breathe & Think (free, for iOS and Android), or browse other stress-management resources at

Physical Education

Why It Matters

Numerous studies connect exercise and a balanced diet with improved cognitive performance, so a healthy lifestyle should be a no-brainer for college students. But staying fit in college requires a little more effort than showing up for high school PE class, so make sure your student is prepared to fit in fitness and tackle trickier tasks like navigating health insurance.

Study Notes

Even if your teen is averse to the gym, there is still a way he or she can get a leg up on midterms: according to a 2014 study, a single twenty-minute session of leg lifts helped improve memory in the short term, even for people who didn’t exercise regularly.

Cartoon woman stretching

Skill Building

Decode doctor’s orders. Task your teen with navigating a doctor’s visit from start to finish, with these steps as a guide:

  • Review the basics of your insurance plan, particularly the co-pays for office visits and prescriptions.
  • Use your insurance plan’s website to find an in-network provider and call to schedule an appointment.
  • Remember that physicians are not mind readers and that you’re responsible to speak up about your health. Write down any questions or concerns in a notepad, and bring it to the appointment.
  • Arrive on time and bring your insurance card.
  • Take note of any instructions you receive, and ask questions if you don’t understand.
  • When your bill arrives in the mail, review it carefully—medical billing errors are common. Visit to learn how to spot red flags and dispute a bill.
  • Pay your bill promptly—late payments can hurt your credit score.
Expert Tips

Tame medical files. Help your teen locate and create a (physical, not just digital) file folder including

  • Vaccination records (childhood and adulthood)
  • Medical test results
  • A list of drugs taken regularly
  • A list of allergies
  • A list of healthcare providers and their contact info
  • The family’s health history
  • An emergency contact

“Keep [medical files] forever,” advises The Real Simple Guide to Real Life. “Your medical history affects how a doctor might treat you for an ailment decades later.”


Visit for a guide to understanding HIPAA and FERPA, the laws that outline who can access a student’s medical and academic records.

Studies in Modern Housekeeping

Why It Matters

College is about more than the “life of the mind”—young scholars also face real-life concerns like having clean underwear and a habitable room.

Expert Tips

Keep cleaning simple. Just about all anyone needs for cleaning is baking soda and vinegar—it’s almost scandalous that they’re versatile, eco-friendly, and cheap all at once. In How to Sew a Button: And Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew, Erin Bried suggests these uses:

Cartoon laundry detergent

  • Clean countertops: Sprinkle some baking soda on a damp cloth and scrub, then rinse with a clean, damp cloth.
  • Clean the sink: Mix a squirt of liquid soap, one-quarter cup baking soda, and a splash of vinegar to form a paste. Apply it to the sink; scrub and rinse.
  • Clean the toilet: Pour one cup vinegar into the bowl, and let stand for at least five minutes. Scrub with a brush, then flush.
  • De-crust pots and pans: Sprinkle some baking soda on the gunk. Fill pan with hot water and let soak overnight, then scrape off (easily!) in the morning.
  • Disinfect: Put vinegar in a spray bottle and spritz anything germy: doorknobs, phones, sinks, toilet seats.
  • Shine: Mix one part vinegar with one part water in a spray bottle. Squirt on windows or mirrors, then wipe clean.
  • Whiten whites: Add one-quarter cup vinegar to your whites during the final rinse.

Write down this list of uses on an index card, tape it to a spray bottle, and toss it in a gift bag along with a bottle of vinegar and a box of baking soda for a graduation gift.

Let's Talk

Teach Laundromat etiquette. Even if your teen is a laundry maven, sharing a machine with strangers may be something new, so discuss the unspoken rules: Most important, thou shalt remove thy clothes as promptly as possible. Thou shalt wait a reasonable amount of time—between ten and thirty minutes, depending on how busy the laundry room is—before taking someone else’s clothes out of a machine that’s finished running. And if thou dost take out the clothes, thou shalt move them to a clean spot.

Study Notes

A 2014 study showed that skills in sewing, hemming, button repair, and basic laundry care are fading, with millennials reporting fewer of those skills than baby boomers. For individuals, that means having to shell out cash for tailoring services or new clothes; for the world, it means landfills packed with significantly more clothing waste. Fortunately, there are perfectly modern solutions to this trend: tutorials on YouTube, cleaning hacks on Pinterest, and free patterns on sewing blogs.

Basic Roommate Maintenance and Care

Why It Matters

Everyone wants to win at roommate roulette; living with roommates is, after all, a central part of the college experience. But it’s not just about the luck of the draw—students who head to college understanding what it means to be a good roommate will likely find their pairing pleasing no matter who shares their space.

Let's Talk
Cartoon enemies

Apply the “Uncomfortable Rule.” Even if your child has bunked with siblings, dorm life will be a new frontier. When it comes to handling conflict, siblings are often quick to speak up whenever they feel slighted. But new roommates tend to have the opposite problem; they’re afraid of making waves, so if something bothers them, they avoid discussing it—and resentment builds. The key is to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, writes Harlan Cohen in The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College.

Cohen encourages college students to institute an “Uncomfortable Rule” early on with their roommates. Here’s how your teen could start the conversation with their roommate: “Obviously I want us to get along while we live here. I heard about this idea called the ‘Uncomfortable Rule.’ If I do something that makes you uncomfortable, or you do something that makes me uncomfortable, the person who is bothered has to bring up the issue within forty-eight hours or never bring it up again. That way it’s easier to just talk about it and not let it become a huge problem. Sound good?”

Expert Tips

Don’t interfere. If your student calls with roommate woes, listen and advise—but don’t interfere. If a conflict is really roiling the relationship, encourage your student to seek help from the RA or campus counseling services (at BYU, visit

Set expectations. “Roommates are not automatic friends,” writes Cohen. “Friendship is a bonus. Living with someone is about saving money and making college life affordable.” If a roommate turns out to be nice but not a kindred spirit, encourage your student to be open-minded and patient as they get to know people through classes, clubs, service, and other activities.

How to Teach Your Kid Anything

Life skills are usually best acquired through, well, life. But as Julie Lythcott-Haims shows in her book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, this isn’t happening with many of today’s young people. When Lythcott-Haims served as dean of freshmen at Stanford, the students she met struggled to make choices about their lives and to cope with even minor setbacks. The culprit, she suggests, is a culture of overprotective parenting. But the solution is surprisingly concise:

  • First we do it for you,
  • then we do it with you,
  • then we watch you do it,
  • then you do it completely independently.

“This philosophy and strategy neatly sums up not only the intrinsic purpose of parenting but the practical path toward independence for all kids,” writes Lythcott-Haims, noting that applying it can be hard—but worthwhile. The German writer Goethe wrote: “There are two things children should get from their parents: roots and wings.” Lythcott-Haims muses, “It’s time to start examining what it means to give our kids wings.”


Written by Holly Munson
Illustrations by Scotty Reifsnyder

About the Author
Holly Munson is a freelance writer and editor. She graduated from BYU with a degree in journalism and lives in Philadelphia with her family.

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