By Patti Schabinger, MEd, IECA (IL)

While attending my youngest son’s freshmen summer welcome session, I sat with other eagerly attentive parents and students as the dean asked what we considered the most important skill necessary for success in college. Some listeners may have thought academic preparation would trump the list; however, when the speaker announced time management, heads subsequently nodded in silent agreement.

The highly structured life of a typical high school student involves a full schedule of classes and extracurricular activities with little flexibility in their all-too-busy lives. A big change occurs when those young adults suddenly have freedom to decide when to eat, sleep, study, and socialize. Making the transition to the unstructured schedule on campus may overwhelm even the best students as they adjust to the wealth of offerings and the desire to participate in as many activities as can be squeezed into one day. Students may forget to eat regular meals and to get an adequate amount of sleep. Temptations abound to divert attention from studying, such as sporting events, fraternity parties, organized clubs, concerts on the quad, social media exchanges, and impromptu conversations.

Executive Functions for College Success

The efficient use of time—key to managing activities, classes, and friendships—helps students fully engage in college opportunities. But time management is just one skill college that students need. Executive functions are the central control processes located in the frontal lobe of the brain that coordinate and manage time as well as the ability to set goals, self-regulate, and think critically. How well students plan, prioritize, initiate, and complete tasks throughout the day reflects their ability to use their executive functions. Strong executive functions enhance the ability to balance options and make healthy choices and form the necessary foundation for academic success. Some conditions, such as ADHD or learning disabilities, may affect working memory and compromise other processes that involve the capacity to sustain attention, organize, persevere, problem solve, and think flexibly. Because the developing brain doesn’t mature until age 25 or later, decision making tends to be more impulsive for teens and young adults. The good news is that executive function skills can be taught to aid the early maturation of these essential abilities.

Balance the 24 hours in a day. Let’s face it—a college student would most likely claim there just isn’t enough time in one day to do all the studying and fun happenings on campus. Even before move-in day ends, volunteers inundate dorms to inform, recruit, and introduce a plethora of get-to-know-you activities to freshmen and returning students. Soon, many young adults forgo adequate sleep and a healthy diet to maintain their new lifestyle, which features exhausted days and active nights. But sleep is imperative for mental clarity, focus, memory, and health. Make sure students understand that 8–10 hours of rest (ideally) would refresh their bodies and promote critical thinking. Planning their schedules to accommodate a mix of studying and other activities during waking hours will increase a positive mood and academic outcomes. College students should specifically think about and plan for balancing the following components of their lives:

• Classes and studying

• Extracurricular activities

• Sleep

• Exercise

• Friends

• Family connections

• Spiritual needs and relaxation techniques

• Finances, budget, and part-time work if applicable

• Healthy lifestyle and diet.

Plan, prioritize, preview, and prevent procrastination. Planning when, what, and where to study fosters efficient use of time. Previewing a chapter or future tasks allows for a wider perspective of the teacher’s goals and the most important concepts to be learned. Writing down all the assignments from multiple classes helps students determine which tasks should be completed first, and phone apps and calendars can assist with planning. Some students may delay initiating a job that involves long-term planning, harder material, confusing information, or tedious reading, but when they reflect on why getting starting is difficult, solutions will arise, many involving small changes that can make a difference in an outcome.

Set goals and action plans. Breaking down assignments promotes confidence that a task can be accomplished and encourages initiation. Setting SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound) goals encourages students to think about what they want beyond a letter grade and naturally leads into action plans to obtain the goals. For example, “I want to do better in English,” does not offer a specific plan or time. A SMART goal might be “I will get an 85% or above on my math test in the next month,” or “I will make five new friends the first semester and call or see them at least once a week.” After SMART goals are written for each class and other areas of interest, students can formulate an action plan by breaking down the tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. Once started, students are more likely to keep working. A positive mood and reduced stress often result.

Manage time—get it done. Students rarely think about how much time they spend on mundane activities or with friends—watching movies or looking at social media may waste precious hours. Estimating how much time various tasks take and keeping track of time throughout the day help students see how much time is taken up completing various activities. After planning tasks, students should think about how much time they feel is needed to complete each one. Today, most young adults use their phone or computer for their main source of telling time, so a visual timer, such as the Time Timer app, enables students to see time disappear. Using an analog instead of a digital clock also makes the passage of time visible. Creating a reasonable schedule after having thought specifically about how much time is available helps college students work efficiently and enjoy their social activities too.

Use all the Senses. The most effective way to study is to use multiple modalities—including visual, auditory, and kinesthetic strategies—to best absorb information. Strategies include outlining notes, underlining or flagging key ideas, verbalizing concepts, and discussing topics. The human brain responds to colors and shapes, so utilizing those aids may assist memory. Colored tabs, highlighters, sticky notes, or simple drawings help students categorize and sort material. Mnemonics, such as acrostics, acronyms, rhymes, or songs, also build lasting neural connections for improved retention. Most people can sing the alphabet song or name the order of planets by reciting a version of “My very educated mother just served us nectarines.”

Limit distractions. Text messages, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, video games, emails, and other online interruptions lure students away from the task at hand, especially when the subject matter challenges or perplexes a tired teen. The best way to stay focused involves turning off cell phones and studying in the library or another quiet, well-lighted spot. Keeping track of distractions increases awareness too, so students may want to let close friends and family know their study times to help prevent some interruptions. Working when one is most awake speeds up reading and assignments. Some students study better with headphones and classical music while others find music distracting.

Practice metacognition and mindfulness. “Thinking about thinking” is often used to define metacognition—in other words, reflecting on personal habits, routines, successes, failures, and what works best for learning. Evaluating processes and altering actions involve higher-level thinking. Mindfulness entails a sense of living in the present and awareness of oneself. Too often people dwell on past experiences, holding grudges or reliving an unpleasant event. On the other hand, some individuals worry about the future instead of planning for it. Meditation, yoga, and calm moments de-stress students and improve mindful living. Positive self-talk encourages progress too. Keeping a journal of thoughts for a day or week may help students increase their self-awareness, and writing down grateful statements each night can refocus their attention to a thankful presence.

Independence Is Possible

Executive function skills can be enhanced through consistent practice after steps are taken to identify personal needs and to learn strategies to improve deficits. Long-term measures, such as planning, prioritizing, estimating time, and creating action plans, help college students accomplish goals and successfully transition to the unstructured college routine. Teachers, advisors, career counselors, and other resources can offer guidance to students as they adjust to an independent lifestyle.

Patti Schabinger, College Comprehensive Consulting LLC, can be reached at [email protected].


  1. Good Morning Patti,

    I was reading through your article, “Executive Functions for College Students…” and found it to be quite helpful (thank you!) . Currently, I working on a curriculum to address concerns with college transition and creating student awareness. May I use this article as a reference?

    Valecia Rotell

    1. Hi Valecia!

      I am so sorry that I didn’t see your comment. Of course, you can use my article with referencing my name if you are still interested. Thank you so much!

      Patti Schabinger

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