The Surprising College-level Skills Students Have Learned From the Pandemic

Andrea Malkin Brenner, PhD, Linda Fleming McGhee, JD, PsyD, and Kathryn Essig, MEd

The hardships of the pandemic have offered newly-minted high school graduates a jump-start on some of the competencies they will need to thrive in college. Some of these unexpected strengths include planning daily schedules; managing long-distance relationships; honing passions and skills; practicing safety for public health; and understanding that “adulting” means using resources. Our article explores how these new skills might lead students to be more adaptable and better prepared for the adult expectations of college than the cohorts who preceded them.


 

There are countless tales of hardship that high schoolers endured due to the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in March 2020. These stories chronicle the illnesses of family members, the financial setbacks after a parent’s job loss, the cancellation of school activities, and continued virtual classroom learning. Students who began their first year of college in the fall of 2020 or 2021 may still feel as though they started college behind the students of previous years. Many of their colleges accepted students’ days and summer orientations were switched from in-person to online. Ultimately, many students began their college classes in a virtual format or experienced limited engagement opportunities on “open” campuses.


Given the shared losses and non-normative campus experiences of the college graduating classes of 2024 and 2025, it’s easy to overlook the ways in which those students developed critical college skills not traditionally taught in high school. Their move from a daily high school schedule to quarantining at home was a dramatic first transition, just as the move from home to their new campus has been. The hardships of the pandemic offered these students a jump-start on the competencies they will need to thrive in college. The organizational, academic, social, and emotional skills that students have learned from these challenging years will prove highly useful as they maneuver college during an uncertain time. In fact, these groups of first- and second-year college students might be more adaptable and better prepared for the adult expectations of college – and perhaps life thereafter – than the cohorts who preceded them.


Loss of external structure introduced teens to the importance of keeping a daily schedule, crucial in college

High school students have traditionally had very little say over their schedules: they follow a bus schedule, a bell schedule, and a schedule for after-school activities and part-time jobs. Their homework time is often fixed around practices, work shifts, and rehearsals. After COVID-19 necessitated distance learning, high school students around the country experienced something akin to a college student’s freeform schedule. After-school activities were canceled, as were social gatherings and many internships and jobs. Distanced learning often meant fewer hours of instruction time than students had in their traditional classrooms. Students were left to plan their own days, many for the first time. Without much preparation, high school students had to independently organize their time between schoolwork, responsibilities to family and friends, and self-care. Just as in college, many students struggle and those better prepared, thrived.


In addition, during the lockdown, many families found it necessary to set ground rules for limiting disturbances while family members were working, attending school, participating in meetings and webinars, cooking, and sleeping in the same household. These conversations and negotiations served as practice for college, where students benefit by knowing how to have respectful conversations with roommates and housemates about resting, learning, and social time in shared spaces.


Forced separation from peers prepared new college students to maintain long-distance relationships

In a traditional high school pre-COVID, teens would see peers five or more days a week. They would fist-bump and hug as they passed their friends in the halls, sit with them in classes, gather for lunch, and share rides home following after-school activities. Although teens also communicated digitally during the school year, they were accustomed to the physicality of their peer relationships. When the lockdown required teens to stay at home, their social worlds changed dramatically. Seeing peers in their high school building, dropping by a friend’s house, meeting at the mall or a restaurant, or attending a party, were all put on hold. Technology, which before was a way for high school students to converse between in-person interactions, immediately shifted to the primary mode of communication among peers. As they did with many other areas of their lives, teens adapted to their new normal.


Young adults took to Zoom and even started talking on the phone. The informality of meeting up or running into friends was replaced by the detailed organization necessary for virtual interaction. Planning for communication even entered the extended family sphere; teens continue to arrange video conference meetings with their grandparents and extended family. They learned to make the extra effort to reach out to friends who offered them strength and support. And just like that, students learned how to maintain and nurture distanced relationships, a skill they will continue to need living away from home.


Reduced options for activities led teens to hone personal passions and practice needed skills for college and beyond

High school students did not necessarily begin social distancing at home with a strong commitment to developing their skills. In fact, many spent months beginning in March 2020 playing video games and binge-watching TV. Yet as time stretched on, many students began to find a better balance in their schedules. Spending more time alone allowed students to genuinely assess or hone their passions and to take charge of their learning plans. Some rediscovered their passion for reading or researching things of interest to them. Others learned entirely new skills, from musical instruments and coding language, to cooking -- skills that may contribute to students’ career paths or simply enrich their lives. Many teens who lived through a quarantine in their family home or in a dorm room engaged in true independent learning.


Practicing safety for public health has prepared teens to begin prioritizing self- and community-care needed in college

Teenagers usually start to take care of themselves in a more serious way when they enter college. With a global pandemic as a backdrop, students experienced more daily stressors and many needed to devote more attention to their own mental health. Students also began to think not only about their own self-care but also about the care of family members and of the broader society.


With fewer scheduled commitments and much less travel time, many students identified priorities for their own wellness, including seeking mental health support and sleep. In the best of times, teenagers report feeling more stress than adults. Those stressors have increased throughout the pandemic. While some teens have strained under these additional burdens, many have managed to delicately balance their needs with the needs of their families. A sign of strength that many young adults have shown is the ability to talk through problems related to mental health and stress with family and friends. A number of students have also benefited from therapists and counselors as they attended widely-advertised online support to navigate stress-related problems and conflicts. Young adults have managed to wade through the upsetting and constantly-changing COVID information and “vaccine wars.” Many learned to make sacrifices necessary to protect themselves and their families, friends, and community. As a cohort, these young adults have shown developmentally-advanced maturity, compassion, and empathy by keeping up social distancing, mask-wearing, testing, and following COVID protocol on their campuses.


Extended time in discussions with family has prepared college students to problem-solve both on their own and with trusted adults on campus

Typically, learning how to problem-solve is a skill developed slowly over time, beginning in childhood. Closely related to self-advocacy is the ability to work through problems and, with the help of an adult mentor, decide upon a course of action. While in high school, teenagers often test out these skills and push towards independence from parental interference. However, the extraordinary events surrounding a global pandemic led young adults to reassess this independence-first approach. Instead, many have learned to hone their decision-making skills and lean into collaborations with those they trust.


These students have faced difficult decisions about everything from how and where they would complete homework, to their comfort with the safety protocols of available jobs, and if and how they would visit friends. They had to make significant and often difficult decisions about the manner in which they would attend college during this challenging time. The dilemmas that teens have faced during the pandemic have led them to reach out for support from those they trust. What these students have realized is that gaining input from their “team” has been quite useful as they navigate some of these complex decisions.


And this is the same pattern of “adulting” that will require seeking out help from knowledgeable professionals including professors, counselors, and academic advisors in college, not simply learning through trial and error. One of the benefits of polishing nascent problem-solving and collaborative skills during the last years of high school and the first years of college is that it pays big dividends throughout the college journey, post-graduation, and on through adulthood.

 

Andrea Malkin Brenner, PhD is a college transition educator and author who speaks frequently with high school students and parents on the challenges related to college transitions. She draws on her 25 years of experience as a college professor, as the creator and director of American University’s first-year experience program, and as the faculty director of the college’s University College program. ​Andrea is the creator of the Talking College™ Card Deck, the original card deck of discussion prompts for college-bound students and their parents, and co-author of How to College: What to Know Before You Go (and When You’re There), a leading guide for college-bound high school students. See AMBrenner.com for more information.



Linda McGhee, JD, PsyD is a clinical psychologist, attorney and nationally recognized mental health expert and speaker. She has been featured in the Washington Post, New York Times, Huffington Post, and Grown and Flown. Linda hosts “Good Mental Health” on Radio One which raises awareness around mental health. She is a mental health expert for the Steve Fund, an organization devoted to mental health for college students of color, and is a regular contributor to the Son Rise Project, an Oprah Winfrey Network podcast that supports families of black teenagers and young adults with mental illness. Dr. McGhee has recently provided for Washingtonian magazine commentary on the intersection of racial trauma, COVID-19, and the mass protests. She currently serves as the President of the Maryland Psychological Association.



Kathryn Essig, MEd is the Founder and President of Essig Education Group. An expert in ADHD and Executive Function, she has helped thousands of clients develop the skills needed for school and life success. She has been featured in Attention Magazine, Arlington Magazine, Momzette, and Washingtonian. In addition to her coaching, Kathryn is a curriculum specialist. She has consulted with several schools in the DMV, incorporating executive function into their curriculum. Beginning with the Essential Study Skills course that she authored over a decade ago, Essig Education Group now offers executive function training to students in grades 7-12 and college. They also offer Appropriate Parent Support courses to K-12 parents. With ever-increasing numbers of people identifying vulnerability in executive function, Kathryn focuses her methodologies on the intersection of executive function, resilience, and learned independence.


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