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How to Tell if Your Student is Ready for University or College

It’s not all about academics. Listen to your spidey-sense when you feel they might need more time.

Not everyone is ready for college or university right after graduation.  Statistics Canada’s Youth in Transitions Survey says that 24% of Canadians take time off and that rose to 33% in 2021 according to Brainstorm Strategy Group.  This jump should come as no surprise when we factor in 2+ years of COVID-19 impacted education and reduced “normal” socialization for teens. 

Just because students have the grades to get into university or college, doesn’t mean they shouldgo right way.  Sometimes its as clear as students telling you that they aren’t ready or teachers or parents noticing signs that heading off to school right away might not be the best choice.

Even with tell-tale signs that taking a pause might be the right thing to do, families and students feel pressure to push through and not ‘fall behind’.  Ignoring signs of mental and emotional immaturity or distress, burnout, lack of direction or financial stress can prove to be harmful to a young person’s future.  But how can you tell?

The key is to distinguish between academic ability and ‘readiness,’ Students can have the grades but post-secondary is made up of more than just taking tests.  It is often the non-academic skills that are a better predictor of success.

Assessing for academic readiness: This is often the only metric used – the faulty logic that if their grades are good enough and they get accepted, therefore they are ready.  Educators and parents should also be evaluating on the following categories of readiness.

Assessing for emotional readiness: Emotional self-regulation (the ability to control your reaction to strong emotions so that you don’t hurt yourself or others) is a key competency of successful transitions to adulthood. We all experience strong emotions, especially during our teenage years but how we handle them is a helpful indicator of emotional readiness for next steps.  Think about how they dealt with a heartbreak or failing their driver’s test. Did they manage their emotions well?  How much support did adults in their lives need to provide in these situations?

Assessing for social readiness: Moving into an environment where they are the youngest and usually the most inexperienced, students will be presented with lots of new experiences and opportunities – both positive and negative.  Does your student reliably know right from wrong and can they stand up to peer pressure?  Can they assess risky situations and make the right choice?  Do you trust them and do they trust themselves to make the right decisions? If they make the wrong decision and end up in trouble, do they find appropriate help and support?  Moving on will mean splitting up from their high school network, are they able to make new friends? 

Assessing for financial readiness: College and university are not cheap.  It’s also a time when many students have to be responsible for their own money for the first time.  Is your student responsible with their money? Can they make (and stick to) a budget?  Do you trust them to prioritize spending on the right things (like food over a new pair of jeans)? Do they understand what student debt is and approximately how long it will take to pay off? Are they prepared to get a part time job during school and work over the summer to be able to pay for school and living expenses? Are their parents ready for the financial investment it takes to support a young person through their studies? 

Assessing for life skills: Living with their parents and having access to a family routine that functions like clockwork is helpful while in high school but with increased independence, fluctuating class schedules and potentially moving out, how will they survive without that family support?  Ask yourself these questions: Do they need to be reminded to eat healthy? To go to bed and get enough sleep? Can they do their own laundry and cook their own food? Can they make their own doctor’s appointments? Schedule meetings with professionals? 

Time management is another key life skill – can they show up on time, do they allocate enough time to appropriate activities or are you enforcing this? Being on your own for the majority of the day, having 3 hours between classes, will they make good use of that time?

Assessing for ownership: Being a post-secondary student is expensive and time consuming and is a stepping stone for future success.  If they aren’t ready, if they aren’t going to take it seriously, if they aren’t invested in their education, they could be wasting their time and money.  Here are some reflective questions: Who did most of the research for different schools and programs, parents or student? Who filled out the applications? Who scheduled the campus tours?  How committed and excited were they about the programs they chose? Are they doing it only because it is what is expected of them?

Next Steps

So what happens if your educator intuition says they aren’t ready? What if your student is saying they don’t feel ready?  Don’t panic.  Taking purposeful time off can be a good thing.  This time can be spent getting ready, developing skills, finding direction and reducing student debt.

This time is often referred to as a gap year – an intentional period of time spent away from formal education for a young person to get “real world” experience and understand who they are outside of a classroom. Students often work, travel, volunteer, take care of their mental and physical health and set themselves up for success in their next steps.

While most families don’t have experience with the gap year pathway, there is support out there.  The Canadian Gap Year Association is a non-profit organization set up to uniquely support families navigate this gap time.  They provide resources for making sure the gap year is not wasted and answer questions from educators and families across the country.  If you want to learn more about the gap year pathway so you can better inform your students, CanGap offers free professional development throughout the year (www.cangap.ca/pd).  They also offer Information Sessions for Families (www.cangap.ca/events) and tons of downloadable resources.  As a non-profit, they are a trusted source of information that educators can use for themselves or for referring families to.