February 01, 2023 | Kyle Heys

Two girls smile while walking down an outdoor stairway on the Calvin University campus.

Transitioning to college learning and life can be both challenging and exciting. For many, it is a new world to navigate with new standards in the classroom, multiple opportunities to engage, a diversity of new humans around, and little accountability from others. Navigating that transition with grace takes two sets of skills: hard skills to function well in your subject classes and soft skills or non-technical skills like time management, teamwork, or problem solving, to manage yourself and relationships as you enter a new context.

Kyle Heys is the director of student success at Calvin University, and he’s walked beside hundreds of students as they transitioned into college. His own feeling of being lost when he was a student first stepping onto campus still motivates his work today. Heys shares four “soft skills” for navigating a university transition well. He says these skills will help ease someone’s transition to college life and be useful for future transitions in life.

1. Curiosity – ask questions

Curiosity is essential to learning and connecting. Many students are concerned about making friends when they move to college. Friendship takes outreach for connection and one of the most basic ways to do that is to be curious about the people around you. Treat making friends like a treasure hunt looking for something interesting about each person you meet. Asking questions starts and deepens friendships as vulnerability grows and trust develops.

Curiosity can help you navigate new classes or a new campus. Fear of looking unintelligent or appearing like we don’t belong often keeps us from speaking up with questions. Yet, questions channel our attention, builds motivation to learn, calibrates our current knowledge, pushes us toward deeper understanding, and facilitates new ideas. The Polaroid Instant Camera was created after the inventor’s daughter asked, “Why do we have to wait for a picture?” A simple question can help us find our way to the correct classroom or make a new discovery.

Start asking questions to prepare for your upcoming transition.

2. Initiative – do something

The amount you are involved in college is directly connected to how much you will benefit from your college experience. Do something. Find a club you want to join, start an intramural team, travel to the Grand Canyon, ask a professor about research opportunities, try out Dance Guild. These opportunities and more take you stepping forward to participate. It’s easy when transitioning to a new space to sit back and watch but getting engaged will open doors for your future and aid your growth.

College life provides more free time but also more to do with that free time. A planning system can aid your ability to navigate increased responsibilities and free up time to help you take initiative to make progress toward your goals.

Make a list of things you want to try out at your university.

3. Prioritization – not everything

Getting involved is a good first step. The second step is to not do everything. College learning requires significant time completing assignments, engaging readings, and studying material. You will need to be wise to say yes to the commitments that help you make progress to your goals and the type of person you want to be, and no to those that don’t. Learning to say no is hard but important. Try to balance making time for school, a social life, other co-curricular opportunities, and sleep. (Sleep is really important to your ability to learn and navigate stressful situations.) Additionally, college often comes with social opportunities that may or may not fit with what you value. You will need to make choices about what you want and don’t want to be part of your experience.

Figure out a system to manage your time and tasks. List out the values or goals you want to guide your experience at university.

4. Communication – listen and share

At Calvin, most of our students have a great experience but they say their first year was often different than they expected. Communicate with your parents and students currently in college about their experience and you will hear stories of failing a test, feeling isolated, struggles with the food, or roommate concerns. An important part of their first year was learning to navigate difficulty. Listening well to the experience of others and sharing your own will normalize some turmoil in your first year and help you figure out what resources can help.

Colleges have resources to help you navigate. Taking initiative to connect to those resources and communicating what you need is important. Tutors, coaches, librarians, advisors, peers, counselors, and many other roles exist to help you. Communicate your needs and listen well to the guidance they encourage.

Human Skills

Author Simon Sinek often notes that soft skills should really be called human skills. Human skills are essential to functioning well in people-related jobs and many life contexts. Continuing to hone and practice the four skills mentioned above will have value during your university transition and beyond. At Calvin, we are excited for you to develop these human skills.

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