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High-school seniors have lost so much in the pandemic, but what they are gaining is priceless

The list is long of missed events and traditions: the spring of senior year is special. After four years of high school or of college, a senior is excited and nervous, relieved and hesitant. I know--I’ve taught college seniors for 15 years as they transition to their post-college life. Now I also coach students as they transition from high-school to college, and my coaching students embody the lost experiences of 2020. This Class of 2020 are missing performing in their last musicals, playing in their last varsity seasons, competing in their last dance competitions, not to mention missing prom, yearbook party, senior party, and likely graduation. Even more they’re missing daily connections with their classmates who are experiencing the transition with them. No debate about it. It’s really sad and deserves to be mourned.

The silver linings are plentiful too, and they’ve been named all over social media: more time with family, better sleep, more relaxation. I want to highlight another thing these seniors are gaining in the time of coronavirus that seniors in the past didn’t get: Practice handling unstructured school time.

One of my current coaching students said yesterday that he’s experiencing something new: boredom. As a super-involved high school senior, he usually has literally every minute of his day scheduled, from the minute the alarm rings at 6am to the minute his head hits the pillow. Suddenly, almost every aspect of that schedule has vanished: class times, baseball practice, games, student clubs, etc. Homework used to simply wedge itself into available spaces. There were no options about when to do it. Now the options for when to schoolwork are limitless. How he learns to plan and complete the work during this spacious schedule will tell him a lot about college. This is the ideal practice for his transition to a college schedule.

For years, people have asked me what the biggest struggle is as students transition to life after graduation. Hands down, the most common pitfall for new college students is managing their time. They have gone from 12 years of highly structured schooling. They are accustomed to daily classes, moving when bells ring, turning in homework in a clear rhythm, having attendance taken and mandated, etc. College brings freedom in their education never before experienced, including less frequent course meetings, often larger class sizes (massive lecture halls in some universities), projects that are self-paced over weeks not hours. In almost every college freshman who has struggled academically, the cause is poor time management. A former coaching student had said she wished she knew me when she was a college freshman. At that time, she said, she suddenly found herself with nothing scheduled on Wednesdays, so she would go to the mall for most of the day. This new routine spelled extensive stress and poor performance later, though, as she scrambled to get caught up. Such examples are plentiful. College freshmen must learn new time management to be successful.

Hands down, the most common pitfall

for new college students is managing their time.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, really. Students have very little practice with so much unstructured time before arriving on their college campus. As I point out in this podcast interview a few years ago, in most cases the only way to practice is to build specific skills and cross your fingers that they transfer into the new time and space of college. These skills of productivity include organization, self-motivation, focus, and a clear sense of time use.

But the Class of 2020 is getting a rare gift, along with the unexpected tragedy of coronavirus. Their spring courses becoming remote is a practice space for the kind of independent learning that will be expected of them in the fall. Never before has an entire population of students experienced such a shift to independent learning. Many schools are using asynchronous distance learning--self-paced assignments due at a named time. Obviously this requires massive amounts of independence and self-regulation. Other schools are more structured, such as hosting synchronous livestream classes most days of the week. Yet even those are meeting for fewer hours and expecting students to manage more of their own time.

So I am asking the high school seniors I coach to be especially meta-cognitive about their schoolwork right now. To really notice what they need to stay on track, to not allow work to pile up by putting it off because you can. (To these procrastination-tendency students, I work on planning and motivating). For others it is the question of avoiding burnout. With unlimited time to do school work, they work constantly believing that if there’s time remaining there’s more polishing to be done. (To these students with perfectionist tendencies, I work on recognizing “good enough”).

I’m asking students to track what works and doesn’t work for them right now so they have a sort of recipe to bring with them to college. Perhaps the Class of 2020, along with its scars of sadness, will succeed where others have floundered. They know better than to spend Wednesdays at the mall.

As a free gift to the students I care about, I am facilitating weekly group coaching during this time of remote learning. We address how to make the shift to online schooling and do well without overwhelm. It’s open to anyone who would like to join. For more information and to sign up, see

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