TRANSITIONING FROM HIGH SCHOOL TO COLLEGE. TIPS ON BECOMING INDEPENDENT . Greta Nielsen. Inverness, Hoffman Estates, Palatine, Schaumburg Psychotherapist Counselor

A young female college student between classes.

Tips on Becoming Independent

Greta Nielsen, MA, NCC, LCPC
Clinical Care Consultants’ Inverness Office Psychotherapist

Congratulations – You did it!  You’re out of high school and on your way to becoming an independent young adult.  Something that seemed so far off is now within reach.  Most likely this will be the first time in your life you’re able to have flexibility and independence in setting your own schedule.  This will also pose some of the biggest challenges that face new college students, the management of unstructured time.  Up through high school your time is structured and organized for you for roughly 8 hours of your day.  You can now schedule your classes to start at noon or ensure you have off every Friday.  Options can seem endless, but exercise caution when you’re planning your schedule and responsibilities.  Your free time will get filled with competing demands.  Most students will have work outside the classroom, as well as friend and family obligations.  It can be difficult to learn how to manage your time between all these expectations.

Be Resourceful

Buy a planner or become familiar with one on your phone/iPad/computer.  Make and print out a calendar.  Having a visual to look at can help you “see” when you have time to fit in your study time, your NetFlix fix, or lunch with friends.  Just remember the general expectation is 3 hours of studying for every credit hour you are taking.  Your planner is a great way to input all the information and deadlines for the entire semester from your course syllabus.  This way you can plan ahead for that big project or ensure enough time to study for that midterm.  There will be no surprises if you utilize your calendar effectively.

Keep A Regular Routine

In college there is far less monitoring of where you are and what you’re doing.  No one calls home anymore if you don’t show up to class.  Keeping to a regular routine and structure is very important in helping you avoid the pitfalls of procrastination and avoidance; which then leads to feeling overwhelmed and stressed out.  If you have a 3 hour block off between classes, try to utilize that time for studying at the library, not leaving campus to run errands as this will be a distraction and potentially prevent you from returning.

When you only have an hour off between classes, use this time to connect at the campus coffee shop with friends, or visit the tutoring center, or go and check in with your advisor.  The more consistent you make your days, the more productive you’ll feel.


Work on being aware of your needs vs wants, and how best to get these met.  Sometimes our needs and wants conflict so If you’re not a morning person do not schedule all 8am classes as you’ll challenge your ability to be successful.   There will be many temptations facing you; and most will be the ones that will take away from your ability to be successful in your studies.  Become aware of your energy levels throughout the day, as well as personal preferences as it relates to your ability to follow-through.  Plan your day around this.  Knowing when you’re most alert and able to focus will be key to scheduling your classes and homework time.

Use a Planner/Use Your Phones Apps

Make lists and cross them off when you’re done.  This gives people a great sense of accomplishment and helps to keep you on task with all the distractions around you.  It bears repeating:  use a planner.  Nothing helps us stay as organized; it becomes your memory so you don’t have to keep storing stuff in that already overloaded brain.  It helps you plan ahead and prioritize.  Scheduling your day to day activities is the best “medicine” for feeling overwhelmed and disorganized.  An external reference will help you keep on track and lower your anxiety levels.  Don’t forget to schedule in self-care, such as downtime and social opportunities.  Over time, you will get good at balancing what is required,  and what feels good/is fun.  Planners will become your best friend – if you allow them to.

Independence As A Commuter Student

Being in college but still living at home has advantages as well as disadvantages.  Sure, there’s the financial perk, the potential for home-cooked meals, sleeping in your own bed & having all the comforts of home.  Then there’s the desire for more independence yet having mom and/or dad breathing down your neck, checking where you are, who you’re with and what you’re doing.  They’re able to see how much you study, how much you’re home, how late you’re up.  You may feel envious of your peers who went away to college, or got to live on campus, as they are making their own decisions.  No parent to ground them or take away their video games when their grades suffer.

Just because your roommates are your parents (and possibly siblings) doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some freedom.  It’s important to have the discussion with your parents about your increased maturity and ways to reward your responsibility with increased freedom.  Talk to them about what you’d like to see change in ways of expectations:  curfew, friends over, financial responsibilities, chores, etc.  Ask how you can earn increased privileges based on your behavior and choices.

The student who wants no curfew and comes home quietly without waking anyone and gets up independently for their 8am class and is earning decent grades this might seem an appropriate privilege.  For the student who arrives home tripping over the furniture and waking the family cooking pasta at 3am and who needs their parent to wake them for their first course of which they’re failing is probably showing that they are not quite ready for that level of independence yet.   It’s up to you to prove you deserve what you request.

Balancing School, Social and Work

This can be a perilous tightrope walk.  School’s not always fun, however hanging out with friends is and working gives you the money to do the things you want and need.  All are important but it should never be all or nothing in any of those areas.  That leads to burnout; and nothing good comes from that.  Finding that balance, the in-between is what helps us feel fulfilled and content vs stressed and overwhelmed.  Some of this will be about time management.  Structure your day in ways that incorporates a variety of things.  Going to class, doing your homework, working out, meeting friends for dinner, and working your job may seem overwhelming to do in one day so it’s important to balance it through the week.

Look at your schedule and see what days are less committed.  Maybe Tuesday and Thursday you’re in class from 10-4 but Monday and Wednesday you only have class 12-2.  Which day would be the better day to fit in a work out or time with friends, or a shift at your job?  If you picked Monday and Wednesday congratulate yourself, you just aced your first test!  Basically don’t try to do everything every day.   Break it up, allowing yourself some down time as well as time to accomplish the tasks required of you as a student.

Asserting Yourself & Self-Advocacy

This is hard for most adults, let alone a new student at a new school.  Yet, it’s imperative to work on these skills to be successful no matter what you’re studying or why you’re enrolled.  If you can remember, through the years the hand holding at school slowly loosened its grip. From elementary where they’d make parents sign your homework & have parent teacher conferences to high school where students had to sign up for their own classes and teachers gave you incompletes for not handing homework in.  These were all steps to get you to learn how to manage your own life and make decisions independently of your parents.

Now that you are becoming independent from your parents, and enjoying it, it is of great importance to be your self’s best advocate. Remember this – you are now paying for your classes and all those buildings you’re meeting in, and all those fees go towards services that you have at your disposal to use.  Would you get a raw hamburger from McDonalds and eat it or would you go back to the counter and tell them you need a new one?  This is basically what you need to do for yourself in your classes.

If you don’t understand what is being taught, go to your teacher.  If their teaching method just doesn’t work for you then you can request a tutor, or talk with another professor who other students in a similar class like.  Look up Rate My Professor at your college and this will give you a good idea of professors with effective teaching styles and who are relatable to the student population.  Don’t ever let someone coerce you into thinking the problem is all you.  Just like the hamburger, you paid for something you wanted and when you don’t get it then you find a way to resolve the problem.

Your job is to go to class, do your homework and study for the tests.  Their job is to teach you new material in ways you can understand and learn.  Teachers and administration can be intimidating, but most faculty say that they want to help students be successful.  They feel good if their students are doing well; that means they’re a good teacher.  They are not mind readers though so if you don’t let them know you need help or are struggling then they may assume you don’t care or are slacking due to lack of interest.  If you want your hamburger cooked – ask for it and make sure you get it that way!

Get Involved

Involvement in your school community is one of the biggest predictors of success.  If you’re invested in where you are, you are more likely to be motivated to stay there and do well.  There are numerous ways to get involved on a college campus.  You can peruse your college website, typically under Student Services, and explore the various opportunities and organizations that your campus provides.  Visit the various student service & organization fairs held typically at the beginning of each semester and see what appeals to you.

Now’s the time to try something new.  You are out of that high school box you were either placed in, or placed yourself in and now you can choose any opportunity you want.  There are endless opportunities for volunteering, helping the teacher, finding a campus job, or joining a club or intramural sport.  Utilize the resources available to you:  sign up for their Facebook group and follow their twitter feed, or Instagram posts for up to date announcements and timely information.

What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up? 

Although this is not imperative to know as you begin your college journey, studies do show that students who take the time to find their career goals are more motivated, have better academic success and are more likely to graduate and achieve more success and happiness in their jobs.  So, to begin figuring this out start by visiting the Career Development Center on campus.  They will help assess your interests, values, personality and skills and then you can identify what is most important to you and then begin to research majors and careers that fit you best.

Take part in any of the programs and workshops offered through your campus career center.  These services provide anything from interest and skill testing to resume building to internship and research fairs to mock job interview assistance.  Use your class choices as ways to ’try-on’ certain interests.  You’ll have to take common core classes, but you can choose to pick general electives that arouse your curiosity.  Choose something that you think: “that would be cool to learn about”.

Take advantage of career search websites that match your interests, values and skills. These provide information about career choices/college majors to help you narrow down careers that are the best fits for your needs and goals.  Some good websites are:  Occupational Information Network (O*NET), Occupational Handbook, or  These sites can provide information on everything you’d want to know about a career such as, salary, type of schooling needed, what a typical day looks like, work environment, etc.

Set up informational interviews to talk to people who do the job you’re interested in.  If you like fashion, talk to the store manager at your favorite store.  If you like healthcare, talk to your doctor, etc. Job shadowing is a great way to see how a job looks as well.  Most people and occupations allow for this experience so reach out to those in careers you think you’d enjoy or be good in and they’ll walk you through their day.  You can also search for ways to get involved in your field of interest through volunteer opportunities, part-time jobs or internships.

The Importance of “Me Time”

Lastly, make sure to incorporate some “me” time, something that is just for you.  Maybe it’s just listening to your favorite music on the way to/from school. making your favorite beverage to take with to school, or doing a meditation or relaxation app between your activities to reset and ground yourself before tackling the next thing on your agenda.

I hope you are able to enjoy all that college has to offer and find ways to work toward the person you aim to be.  As difficulties arise please remember this is to be expected, it’s a lot of trial and error as you learn what works and what doesn’t.  Should life begin to feel too overwhelming, or you feel more lost than found, please consider contacting me; or a counselor at your campus, to help you navigate the most exciting but nerve-racking time of your life.  I have worked for over 25 years with clients to help them be successful at all stages of life.  Click here for more information:



Greta Nielsen, MA, LCPC, NCC, MBSR-T
Clinical Care Consultants
1642 Colonial Parkway
Inverness, IL 60067

Across the street from Harper Community College



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Counselors Who Really Care
3325 Arlington Heights Rd., Ste 400B
Arlington Heights, IL 60004

1642 Colonial Parkway
Inverness, IL 60067
(847) 749-0514


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