Life Skills Every Teen Needs to Know Before Leaving for College
It’s amazing what they don’t teach kids in high school.
And while some esteemed Ivy-League institutions offer courses on happiness, for instance, there isn’t much direct instruction in the kind of life skills that really make a difference as a young adult — managing money, for instance, or building healthy relationships.
So it’s up to parents to instill a few good values and be the primary instructor in the School of Life.
Here are more than a dozen things any college-bound teen should know.
How to… Whip Up Some Eggs
Eggs are one of nature’s most perfect foods — and they’re fairly cheap, to boot, making them perfect for a college diet.
Even the most remedial home cook should know how to boil them (simmered 12 minutes in boiled water, per Good Housekeeping), scramble them (slow and low, with plenty of butter), or fry them to their liking. Extra credit if they can also poach and make a jammy 6.5-minute egg for restaurant-esque ramen (the other workhorse of collegiate diet).
The point is, with some rather basic cooking skills — boiling water, using a saute pan, salting to taste — a person can master the most important meal of the day, and go from there.
Better yet, send your kid to college with a copy of Twelve Recipes. Bay Area chef Cal Peternell wrote it for his own son as he set off for college. Does a college freshman need to know how to make a béchamel? No. Will it make their life immensely better if they do? Yes.
How to… Protect Your Digital Rep
Chances are your child is already leaps and bounds ahead of you in all things social media. And depending on their schooling, they may have even heard some expert speak about cyberbullying or the lingering effects of a person’s vast digital footprint.
But college, and also the application period just before it, is definitely the time for self-incriminating selfies and Twitter rants to go on lockdown.
Per Kaplan Test Prep, nearly 1 in 10 admissions offers say they’ve revoked a student’s offer because of something they found on social media, and recently 10 Harvard-bound students had their acceptance letters rescinded over obscene Facebook posts.
This all comes into even sharper relief later, when students are out for internships or jobs. For a lot of prospective employers, social media and other public channels are fair game.
How to… Value a Dollar
To truly understand what a daily coffee habit or yet another meal out means for the bottom line, a teen should use cold, hard cash.
The tangibility is key — from the feeling of literally being flush with a wad of cash to the mortifying time it takes to count out correct change.
One useful system is to pull out a set amount in cash on the same day each week, and make it last the entire seven days.
Or, as one NerdWallet article suggests, go big: Give a teen hundreds of dollars at once, meant to last six or 12 months, and let them sort out basic financial lessons, such as wants versus needs, foregoing little things to purchase something big or the pain of being broke when you’ve overspent.
How to… Build Your Credit
Good credit is built slowly and steadily over months and years — and bad credit can take hold with a few irresponsible choices in a matter of days or weeks. It’s incredibly easy for young people to start off on the wrong foot— and that has later implications for their growing independence, like renting an apartment or qualifying for a car loan.
The aptly named CARD Act — Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009 — makes it a lot harder for those over 18, but under 21, to get credit as well. (For good reason, though.)
A smart first step for a college student might be to get a secured credit card, or to become an authorized user on a parent’s credit card. Those who can prove an income might also qualify on their own.
Then it’s about paying off the card balance every month, on time, every time — and keeping balances relatively low, around 30 percent of available credit. The key here is the everyday habits, which have a big impact over time.
How to… Be on Time
Being on time is a choice. Being on time is a habit. And being on time is pretty crucial in the business world, something most college students aspire to be a part of in a few short years.
As anyone who’s been part of the business world knows, being on time is also a challenge. Really, it’s about effective time management, which is the core skill any young person needs.
Effective time management can be broken down into a few key habits, as laid out here:
- Don’t hit snooze
- Streamline your morning routine
- End tasks on time
- Identify and fix patterns that make you run behind
- Ignore “just one more thing” syndrome
- Know when you do your best work
And one can always embrace this famous motto: “5 minutes early is on time. On time is late. Late is unacceptable.”
How to… Make Your Bed
It’s such a small thing, making the bed. And perhaps it’s moot if, in a dorm room, your teen’s corner is the only one with tucked corners and fluffed pillows. But a whole slew of research shows that a small effort, first thing in the morning, can reap much larger rewards.
Back in 2014, U.S. Navy Adm. William H. McRaven spoke to the graduating class at the University of Texas, Austin, where he also went to school, about the power of making your bed.
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can't do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.
If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.
Making your bed each day is also one of the most common happiness resolutions, says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, Happier at Home and Better than Before. “Your bed is a symbol of you. There's something about having your bed feel orderly that makes your life feel that way.”
How to… Tip Like a Grown-Up
Being an adult at a restaurant, in a hotel or at the airport means, among other things, understanding how to tip.
What’s confounding is that, like so many social trends, tipping is different in different places — you’d absolutely tip 20 percent or more in a New York City sit-down restaurant, but more like 15 percent someplace less urban.
As general rules, The Emily Post Institute suggests the following:
- 15-20% for a sit-down restaurant, typically on the pre-tax amount.
- 10% for staff at a buffet or where there is counter-service
- $1-$2 per drink for bartenders, or 15-20% of the tab
- $2+ for valet
- 15-20% for taxi drivers
- 15-20% for personal services, like nails or haircuts
- $1-$2 per bag for anyone helping you with your luggage
- $2-$5 per night for hotel housekeeping
- As preferred for your local barista
Still, there are exceptions. Some restaurateurs have forgone tipping altogether in favor of higher, all-inclusive menu prices. Point-of-sale payment programs and the myriad sharing economy apps on our phones often suggest tips that push higher than what Ms. Post outlines.
When in doubt, ask (discreetly). No one will begrudge a college student for tipping on the lower end of acceptable, but a sense of generosity, and the overall understanding that tips serve a purpose, are what often make up for low base pay in service economy jobs with few if any benefits.
How to…Write a Thank You Note
While it may seem old-fashioned, showing gratitude never goes out of style. A thank you note doesn’t have to mean pen, paper and a stamp, necessarily — although that can’t hurt, and is actually the preferred method by some notable people in power.
Even a thoughtful email or text, sent in a timely manner, to show someone that their efforts or kindness are recognized is a habit everyone can and should cultivate.
And while thanking a T.A. might not have a direct effect on grade, later on in life, when one makes the rounds for internships and entry-level jobs, a well-crafted thank you can be just the thing that gives him or her an edge over the competition.
Of course, not everyone agrees. But if not for the sake of politeness, or upholding the social contract, then make them do it for themselves — expressing gratitude improves physical and psychological health, helps improve sleep and reduces stress, says science.
How to… Get (and Give) Consent
In the era of #metoo, the issue of consent — what it is, how to ask for it, how to give it — is headline news. But this life skill isn’t exactly learned in a single health class or as an addendum to “the sex talk.” In fact, many adults still struggle themselves, because talking about sex is still somehow more terrifying than having it.
Consent isn’t just about avoiding sexual assault. What’s known as "enthusiastic consent" is actually about communication, connection and pleasure. If you need a little help getting the conversation started, Teen Vogue has a fairly comprehensive guide, written in a voice young adults don’t mind hearing.
How to… Apologize — and Mean It
Part of growing up is shedding the veneer of invincibility and finding our own humility. We are not always right. We screw up. It’s okay. We apologize.
And an apology, done right, can actually help build relationships that the original offense was in jeopardy of ruining.
It’s the “done right” that matters. A simple “I’m sorry” typically doesn’t cut it, and “I’m sorry you feel that way” is almost worse.
A true apology involves acknowledging what happened, offering an explanation (not an excuse), addressing the other person’s feelings and finding a way forward.
How to… Read the Fine Print
And those precious few minutes we saved by going straight to the dotted line can come back to bite you in the end. It happens to adults, it happens to seniors and it happens to those on the brink of adulting themselves, too.
Before another social media giant hands over your personal data, and that of your friends, and profits off it, know what you’re agreeing to when you click “accept.”
How to… Embrace 10,000 Hour Rule
There have been plenty of articles debunking Malcolm Gladwell’s conceit that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. But still, the lesson is there, and it’s worth learning.
To be great at anything takes enormous amounts of persistence, over time. It takes what’s commonly referred to as grit. One of the key messages of Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is that talent, alone, doesn’t cut it.
Perhaps a better way to think of it is another Gladwell quote: “Achievement is talent plus preparation.”
The hard work of college and the drudgery of someone’s early career is the preparation, and students need to know how to embrace it and put it into context.
How to… Practice Self-Care
College can be a time of excess — late nights, poor diet, irregular schedules. Building a practice of self-care can help mitigate all that.
Self-care is about taking the time and energy to do something that helps you refuel and recharge. Maybe it’s figuring out when and how often to exercise. Maybe it’s meditation. Maybe it’s getting a full night’s sleep. Maybe it’s committing to eating well.
As one student told Her Campus, self-care can include regular mental health check-ins, putting screens away and positive self-talk. Whatever it is that helps someone quiet their demons and get in touch with their inner calm, they need to identify it — and then do it, on the regular.
How to… Vote — and Why
You don’t have to agree on politics to agree that participating in the democratic process is a good thing. Chances are, your child will be of age right as, or shortly after, they leave for college.
They need to know why local elections matter, and how to find out about local, state and national candidates.
Young people have the potential to be the largest voting block in the 2018 election — but that doesn’t matter if they don’t register and show up at the polls.