5 Critical Skills For College Academics

Many students and parents become convinced during high school that the ability to do math calculations, write papers, and learn terminology for classes like biology, chemistry, or history will lead them to do well in college. While content-based knowledge is important, it overshadows other equally important skills for college. Process-related skills will help students to not only master the course content that comprises exams and written assignments, but also allows them to master the overall needs of student life. Regrettably, process-related skills are too often not seen as academic skills during high school, but once a student reaches college they will directly see that they are true skills for higher education.


For college students, there is a great deal of power in following Plato’s maxim of “know thyself.” College requires a great deal of independent work, especially for reading and studying, which are the core of college academics. Being fully aware of what will lead to getting off track is a critical skill for students, and a high level of self-awareness is needed to understand what temptations one will always succumb. It is also important for being able to predict one’s own behavior in different scenarios. Knowing what will cause a student to procrastinate on doing work, lead them to staying up late and missing morning classes, as well as their own strengths and weakness within academic skill areas are all part of the necessary skill of self-awareness for college.


A strong level of self-awareness can also help students to understand where and when they are more likely to get work done, as well as where and when they will not. One of the greatest challenges college students face is how to be consistently productive to complete their work, and many complain that they don’t “feel motivated” to do the assigned readings, prepare for exams, or complete papers. Students need to deal with a constant flow of academic tasks, so productivity becomes an ongoing critical skill for college. Being productive in any pursuit essentially means completing the greatest amount of work in a short amount of time, often to meet a deadline. Rather than wasting time, students want to have productive time, but too often find that they procrastinate, avoid, or otherwise find themselves not getting their required work done. Top students have evolved their own methods that help them to be productive, and these are usually not the same ones they used during high school because the two systems are very different.

Being Goal Directed

There are many terms that are often used to describe a student’s ability to set a goal and complete it. Level of independence, being responsible, and even task-orientation are all terms I’ve encountered to describe this ability. But, it’s “goal directedness” that I think describes this the best. College is essentially a long series of small tasks: Chapters to be read, homework to be completed, papers to be written, and exams to be passed. Each represent a discrete goal, often comprised of sub-goals, and students must have the skill of being able to define the goals and sub-goals of a task, then focus their energies solely on their completion. Being goal directed means that a student works and lives around their academic goals, that they are paramount to their lives and are never put second. It also means the student knows what they must do for each task and directs their energies toward them in a singleminded effort. Without the ability to identify the end states of their efforts and the steps along the way, students can easily lose focus and their efforts can become vague, diffuse, or inconsistent during the semester.

Work Demand Awareness

In order for a student to effectively direct their energies toward the completion of a goal, they must first be fully aware of what these goal are. Work demand awareness for students is the skill of knowing all tasks that must be completed, exactly what must be done for each, including both the larger “end product” goal as well as the sub-components they must work on each day and week. Part of this overall awareness is when critical events for classes are coming, such as the days and times of exams and due dates for projects or papers. Also knowing the parameters of a task, such as the length and tone of a paper, or chapters to be covered for an exam, bring them to the full knowledge of the challenges that lie ahead. Too often students wind up doing poorly in college because they aren’t aware of when tests are, papers are due, or even the details of an assignment that they must complete. They lack the critical awareness of their work load, it’s demands, so they do not begin to address their work demands early enough.


Many parents say that one of the reasons their student is doing poorly because they lack “follow through,” and the issue of fulfilling all tasks or obligations in college is so important that it requires a deeper conceptualization. The ability to complete all academic tasks, ranging from covering all required readings to preparing fully for an exam, is one of the most important skills students need to have. Completion, or the skill of fulfilling each detail of a task from start to finish, applies to nearly every aspect of college academics. Whether it’s addressing all required questions for a written assignment, covering all required readings during test preparation efforts, or including all necessary sections in a research report, completion means that a student fulfills all required parts indicated by the professor. Completion also has a larger scope that spans over the academic term, since work tends to get harder around midterm and after for students. Being able to fulfill the details of tasks equally well, whether it’s during the easier early-term period or the harder mid-term to finals span, is also a function of completion. It’s not only completing individual tasks but completing the whole semester to finish strong and with good grades.

In college academics, the process-related skills that support good academic performance can often be overlooked. For students, knowing themselves well enough to predict what will drag them off track, understanding where and when they are most productive, being goal directed, having a full awareness of their work demands, as well as the ability to complete all the details of academic assignments are all important skills. Traditionally there has been an over-focus on course content skills, yet these critical student process skills are universally needed by students to succeed in higher education.