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by Scott Lutostanski 
Galin Education Director of Academic Consulting

High school success does not always translate to college success. In fact, high school may be a breeze, and yet sometimes when a student goes to college, it becomes a slog. Let’s examine the differences between high school and college and how executive functioning plays a role.

Day to day life in college is incredibly different from high school. This is obvious. First, the insulated design of each day completely disintegrates. The majority of student work is done outside of class, teachers rarely check in on students’ progress, class is no longer mandatory, each week has immense amounts of unstructured free time, and most assignments and tests are much more spread out. Second, study skills and note taking begin to take center stage. Third, there are many more distractions, social and otherwise. Fourth, there are added responsibilities that students need to oversee such as getting food, doing laundry, and cleaning their living space. And fifth, students don’t have parents or anyone else routinely checking in on them or providing them with consistent feedback. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it does include some of the most pressing differences.

Executive functions are put on center stage when a student heads off to college. Due to the removal of structure and support, students become much more responsible for taking ownership of their organization, planning, time management, initiation, and self-evaluation. These are skills that may not be fully developed in high school because a student was never challenged enough. Or, quite simply, the task at hand (college courses) puts too much demand on a student’s skills, and they are unable to keep up.

Often times, I see students after their first semester or their first year of college and they have struggled despite coasting in high school. An A/B student may have dropped down to a B/C student, or even bigger dropoffs. This is common with high-achieving students because they have been able to get through high school without using, practicing, or developing executive functioning skills. Most of the time it’s not the major, the size of the school, or the content of the classes that cause this sudden dip from high school to college. It has to do with executive functioning.

It is imperative that students are able to hone in on and grow their ability to manage a day, week, month, or semester’s worth of assignments, learning how to complete work efficiently and accurately. And maybe most importantly, learn how to delay gratification and be able to put off the distractors (hanging out, playing video games, watching tv, parties, etc.) to be able to accomplish a long-term goal. When it comes to executive functioning, students need to be educated and understand their areas of struggle. Consistent focus, practice, and feedback of the executive function skills can drastically change the level of success a student has in college. The earlier these skills are developed, the more success students will find in later levels of education and career.

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