Executive Functions for College Students: Don’t Leave Home Without Them

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 pattischabinger@gmail.com.

A Holistic Approach to Preparation, Planning, and Placement for Students With LD

By Kyle Kane, JD, IECA (SC)

The last several years have seen a welcome increase in the number of students with learning challenges going off to a four-year college. Although students with learning disabilities attend at half the rate of the general population, they are beginning to recognize that they can also reap the benefits of participating in the traditional college experience.

That is the good news. The bad news is that just 34% of them will graduate in four years, which compares to the national average of 52% of their neurotypical peers (Sanford et al. 2011). That low completion rate is traumatic for the students who fail and expensive for their families. Although students with learning differences drop out of college for a variety of reasons, many of them are simply not prepared for the transition to college and independence.

As independent educational consultants (IECs), we must be leaders in the process of educating families, helping them identify areas of challenge, find resources to address those deficits, and develop practical plans for support in college. We can do this in many ways, including:

Guiding families and students to critically examine their academic skill level. Families frequently overlook the all-important invisible academic skills, such as planning, writing, and studying. Do students understand how to plan for the completion of the assignment? Do they understand how to construct and execute an essay? Are they highlighting too much? Too little? These are areas that IECs become aware of when they work with students on their essays and applications. If students exhibit significant deficits, it is important to take steps to resolve them. High school is the time to target those issues.

Guiding families and students to evaluate their nonacademic skills, such as independence and social-emotional competence. We help families identify areas of challenge as early as possible and use effective strategies to strengthen these essential skills. Being capable of handling money, taking medications, and socializing appropriately are important skills to have and must be practiced regularly in the safe setting of home under the guidance of families.

Helping students hone their self-advocacy skills. The difference between accommodations in high school and college are significant. Students’ IEPs do not follow them to college, and colleges are not required to seek out and accommodate students; instead, the responsibility lies with the student to access the accommodations and services they need to be successful. The difference is because colleges are governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), not the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Given the freedom to choose whether to disclose a learning disability, most students choose not to disclose in college. In fact, only 17% of students eligible for disability services will register for them in college, although 94% of them used accommodations and services in high school (Cortiella and Horowitz 2014). To be successful, students must understand this difference, acknowledge their need for support, and practice exercising their self-advocacy skill muscles while in high school. We can help students practice throughout our process by talking to them frankly about strategies that help them succeed and encouraging them to use them.

Providing insight and advice about the appropriate level of college accommodations and support based on the psycho-educational or neuropsychological report and consultation with the psychologist. Obviously psycho-educational and neuropsychology reports provide a perspective on the student that is highly valuable in evaluating student capabilities and readiness. But frequently families do not understand—or they misunderstand—the report in terms of the student’s functional limitations and the implications for college placement. IECs can provide clarity and perspective to families that will help them make solid decisions about the best learning environment for their students.

Collaborating with the professionals in students’ lives. Although most professionals who work with students with learning challenges are focused on one specific aspect of need, IECs provide the 30,000-foot view of what is necessary for college and beyond. We are uniquely positioned to start the conversation about where the students are and where they need to be by graduation from high school. Gaining the insights of other professionals is also highly useful because it provides a depth of knowledge about the student that is important as IECs search for the best next step for students.

Introducing tutors, coaches, and advocates who understand students’ different learning styles. It is often difficult for families to find tutors, coaches, and others who truly “get” their students. IECs work to develop a network of tutors, teachers, coaches, and advocates who bring the knowledge, creativity, and experience to effectively work with our students.

As IECs, we have a responsibility to do as much as we can to increase the college-readiness and college success of the young people we serve. We must approach our students in a holistic manner and ensure, as best we can, that they are prepared to succeed in college and beyond.


Cortiella, Candace and Sheldon H. Horowitz. 2014. The State of Learning Disabilities: Facts, Trends and Emerging Issues (Third Edition). New York, NY: National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Sanford, Christopher, Lynn Newman, Mary Wagner, Renee Cameto, Anne-Marie Knokey, and Debra Shaver. The Post High School Outcomes of Young Adults With Disabilities Up to 6 Years After High School: Key Findings, From the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (NCSER 2011-3004). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Kyle Kane, The College Consulting Collaborative, can be reached at kyle@collegeLD.com.

Possibilities Abound: The Power of Collaboration

By Diana Cohen, Applerouth Tutoring Services

When the team at Applerouth Tutoring Services first read in Insights that IECA was providing pro bono college counseling to students through The Possibility Project, we were immediately inspired to also help support teens in the New York City after-school program. (See “Possibilities Abound,” Insights, April/May 2015). We approached volunteers Marilyn Emerson, a former IECA president, and Ann Rossbach, the current IECA president, and offered to supplement IECA’s college mentoring with a pro bono SAT class. Today, headed into our third year of collaboration, we’re more excited than ever about the possibilities that abound when organizations work together for student success. We hope the story of our collaboration will provide guidance and inspiration for others in their efforts.

Three Organizations Come Together

One need only spend a minute on The Possibility Project’s website to glimpse the amazing work the organization is doing for New York City teens. The program brings together students from all five boroughs of the city to write, produce, and perform an original musical based on the students’ life stories and a vision for a better future. Theater serves as a vehicle to turn negative forces in the students’ lives and communities into positive action.

“A key organizational goal is educational attainment,” explained Meagan DuBois, the Possibility Project’s artistic director and the liaison with IECA and Applerouth. The project’s educational outcomes are excellent: 99% of participating 12th graders graduate from high school or attain a GED, and 92% from the Saturday and after-school programs go on to college. “We want the college attendance number to be at 100% for every student who wants it,” said DuBois. “We also want to get our young people into their top-choice schools and with better financial aid.”

When The Possibility Project approached IECA several years ago about a one-time college admissions workshop, Emerson, then president, quickly identified the opportunity to do more. With the support of the IECA Board, she launched an effort to match Possibility Project students with IECA mentors. That effort has grown into a multi-faceted program that includes mentorships, college campus visits, a June workshop series with admissions representatives, and a fall SAT class with Applerouth. The Possibility Project also received an IECA Foundation microgrant in 2016.

Communication Makes It Work

Within a few weeks of Applerouth’s offer to provide test preparation support, all parties were on a conference call to discuss everything from class schedules to a calculator drive. Emerson and Rossbach provided critical guidance on the timing for the class according to application deadlines and potential score goals, and DuBois helped us understand the student body and the program.

Armed with those insights, Applerouth identified tutor Jess Kelley-Madera—a Cornell graduate and performing artist who studies improvisational theater—as the instructor for the SAT class because she understood the value of the theater-based programming. Improvisers, like Kelley-Madera and her Possibility Project students, are trained to listen and provide a valuable contribution to what’s been stated. “Listening and understanding my students’ lives is a role I take very seriously,” she says. The shared love of improvisation has helped fuel the Applerouth SAT class. Because the students in the class all knew one another from their theater work, there was no need to break the ice.

But the SAT class was not without its challenges. In the first year, students were still trying to orient themselves to the college admissions process, and they had many questions about the SAT’s importance and necessity. Eager to ensure that each organization was delivering its unique expertise to the students, she shared her observations with the others.

Once again, the three organizations held a conference call to discuss what they’d learned and how they could enhance the program. We all agreed that an introduction to the college admissions process was needed as a precursor to the mentorship and SAT class. The IECA volunteers planned a summer workshop series that Emerson would lead throughout June. Kelley-Madera, who was gearing up for her second year of teaching the SAT class, attended the workshops to stay abreast of what her students were learning about admissions.

A Year in the Life of the Program

The enhanced collaboration proved to be very successful in 2016. The year kicked off with college tours in February. While touring Siena College, Emerson arranged for a former Possibility Project student and mentee to speak about her experience at the school. As DuBois observed, that connection is invaluable: “The college tours are important because they allow our teenagers to see that it’s possible or realistic to go to college–that someone like them is at college and thriving, which makes their dream real.”

The newly-added June workshop series built off that momentum, arming students with information about admissions, financial aid, and what to look for in a college. Admissions representatives from the University of Rochester, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Purdue, and NYU spoke at the workshops. After the series was over, Emerson met individually with each student to help them complete the Common Application. Each student then worked with an IECA volunteer mentor on the college essay.

Reflecting on her experience teaching the SAT class after the June workshops were added, Kelley-Madera saw marked improvement for her students: “Everyone was clear on the purpose of the test and had rough goals in terms of scores….I had no reservations about the students getting to college and even being ahead of the process.” DuBois also noticed that the 2016 cohort seemed more focused on their applications. “I had students contacting me in October for recommendations, saying, ‘Hey, I’ll need this by Thanksgiving,’” she said.

But the journey doesn’t end with college admissions. “When students leave [The Possibility Project], they need to know what else is out there to support them . . . not being afraid to reach out [to adults] is critical,” said DuBois, noting that the goal is to connect the teens with adult mentors and that IECA and Applerouth have helped support that important goal. For example, Tamia Young, a senior, recently consulted Kelley-Madera about whether to take the SAT again and decided to do so, reporting that “Jess thinks it’s a great idea.”

Tamia echoed the importance of having trusted people to help her with the process. “She wanted to get to know me and push me forward,” she explained about her experience with Kelley-Madera. Tamia also appreciated that her IECA mentor asked questions that helped improve her essay—e.g., What’s the turning point?—and provided same-day feedback on drafts. She was almost finished with her college applications when we spoke in January; she plans to study theater and is interested in attending college outside of New York City.

Looking to the Future

Everyone is buzzing about the future of the program and has ideas for further growth. The shared excitement about what we’ve done together should come as no surprise. As DuBois aptly observed, “The thread of all these organizations is the success of our young people.”

If you’d like to help foster the success of this particular group of young people, please contact Marilyn Emerson about mentoring a Possibility Project student. Although efforts to help are sometimes met with a learning curve, they are also always met with great appreciation. We invite you to join us on the journey.

Diana Cohen can be reached at dcohen@applerouth.com.

Securing Students’ Success, not Admission, Makes IECA Unique

By Mark Sklarow, CEO, IECA

Recently, a small group of new independent educational consultants (IECs)—all college-focused—were gathered at an IECA event. Seeing me, they waved me over. Why, they wondered, did we not have the word admission in the organization’s name? I noted that the word admission didn’t appear in our name, our by-laws, our purpose statement, or any tag line at any point in our 40-year history. Jaws dropped.

To be sure, there are others who embrace that mantle. There are organizations with admission in their name, in fact more than 50 of them. There are others who refer to admission in tag lines that appear under their name and still more with admission in their mission statements. One group ignored the organization’s own name, building their Twitter account around admission. What could possibly explain IECA’s apparent omission?

Of course, admission—whether boarding schools, colleges, grad school, emotional or behavioral needs programs, even summer and gap opportunities—is the basis on which members work. But I would argue strenuously that admission is not our primary goal. The work of an IEC is not hyper-focused on getting an acceptance letter. Does any IECA member believe that our mission, our raison d’être, is to get our clients admitted? I can picture some readers’ heads nodding. But hold on.

Is an IECA member’s success judged at the moment an acceptance is received? Or is success judged once a student settles in and discovers they’ve landed at the right place? When the student—and the family—see that the student is growing, maturing, succeeding, and thriving (my favorite word, as STI alumni know)? Is it better to be judged as successful in our work because of where students get in—or by how they progress, learn, and get out?

I understand the thrill that comes with an acceptance letter. I’ve been there with my own daughters. We cried; we exulted; we called relatives. But that moment is fleeting. What has stayed with my daughters—and your clients—is the joy of reflecting on how much the school, college, or program shaped them.

And one more thing: there are some out there who wonder about IECA being “split” with some IECs doing school advising, some therapeutic, some LD, some grad school, and 85% working in the college search and application area. I dismiss this split talk as nonsense. Because if we are an organization concerned about students succeeding, learning, maturing, and thriving rather than solely being admitted, then we had better recognize that so much more goes into our work than test scores, GPAs, and scattergrams.

How can we effectively advise students today without understanding the impact of emotional issues, such as executive functioning problems, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and autism spectrum disorders? Can we effectively advise for success without caring about ADD, dyslexia, and scores of other identifiable learning issues? And what about the impact of a growing number of behaviors related to addiction to phones, online gaming, and substances? It is our ability to understand the entire child—the hopes and fears behind the GPA, the challenges and difficulties hidden behind the activities list, the personal struggles and successes—that makes our work significant.

It may be possible to secure admission to a school or college based on scores, numbers, and great essay advice, but securing success for a student requires a much deeper dive. And that’s the unique basis of membership in IECA: expertise on what adolescents, teens, and young adults need to achieve success. We help students with admission, certainly, but we are so much more.