Life Skills for College
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Life Skills for College

Send them on their way with these tips and guidelines on everything from sorting laundry to avoiding debt.

Before They Go

Going off to college is a huge step in any adolescent's life. It requires so much more than adjusting to needs of professors, course requirements, and cramped dorm rooms. It demands a set of grown-up skills that are new to most kids -- everything from sorting laundry to avoiding credit card debt. We've compiled a list of the major challenges every college-bound kid is sure to face, with step-by-step guidelines and important tips on handling each. Print this out for your child, and both of you can feel more secure and confident about the year to come!

Checking Accounts

A big part of going off to college is learning to manage your money. Whether your parents are giving you a monthly allowance or you're paying your own way, you'll need to open a checking account. Here are some tips:

  • When shopping around for an account, try to find a low or no-cost account. Many banks near campuses offer special student accounts. Visit the nonprofit site for more information on checking account options.
  • Once you've opened an account, keep good records. Every time you write a check, withdraw cash from the ATM, or make an ATM purchase, jot it down in your check ledger. It's easy to tell yourself you'll do it later, but before you know it you'll have forgotten how much you spent.
  • Be sure to do the math: Subtract the amount of each purchase from the total in your account. Otherwise, you may end up spending more than you have and bouncing a check, which will cost you upwards of $20 in bank fees. Every time you bounce a check, this fee increases, sometimes even doubles.
  • When your bank statement comes in the mail, don't wait to open it. To make sure your records match the bank's, read the instructions on the back of the statement on how to balance your checkbook. If there are discrepancies, contact your bank.


Credit Cards

The minute you walk onto campus, you'll be surrounded by companies trying to hawk their credit cards. Before you sign up for anything, be aware of these credit card essentials:

  • Look for a card that has a low interest rate and does not charge an annual fee. Many cards offer tempting incentives that are worth less than the annual fee you end up paying. Always read the fine print on the contract.
  • Limit yourself to one credit card, two at most.
  • Pay your credit card bill before the due date to avoid late fees -- often $25 or more. Study your credit card statements carefully, and contact your credit card company in writing if you spot a mistake on a billing statement.
  • Always stay within your credit limit and pay your balance in full each month, or else you'll be charged penalties and interest. If you can't pay the whole bill, be sure to pay more than the minimum required.
  • Avoid using your card to charge more than you can pay off at month's end. Falling into credit card debt not only costs you huge amounts in fees but also goes on your credit rating, and a bad rating endangers your chances of renting an apartment, securing loans and mortgages, and even getting a job.
  • If you find you're unable to resist overspending on your card, consider getting rid of it and using your ATM debit card instead. Debit cards can almost always be used in place of credit cards, and because they draw straight from your bank account, you can't spend more than you actually have.
  • Keep a list of your credit card account numbers in a safe place and immediately notify your credit card company if your card is lost or stolen.


Doing the laundry is not quite as easy as it looks! Here's a step-by-step guide to the world of washers and dryers:


Step 1. Sort your clothes into four piles: white, dark (blues or blacks), colors, and delicates (bras, rayon, and other synthetics -- check labels!).

Step 2. Feed coins into machine (if it's coin operated), and choose temperature (hot for whites, warm for darks, cold for colors, cold/gentle for delicates).

Step 3. For front-loading machines: Fill machine with clothes, add a cup of liquid laundry detergent to detergent compartment, and start cycle.

For top-loading machines: Start cycle. When machine has 3 inches of water, add a cup of detergent. Wait until detergent disperses in water, then add laundry and close lid.

Step 5. When washer comes to a complete stop and all lights are out, take out clothes. They should be damp but not sopping.

Tips: Wash bras in a mesh bag; they wear out less quickly that way. Most silk and wool items need to be dry cleaned or washed by hand.


Step 1: Sort clothes into normal heat (sheets, towels, jeans), low heat (cottons that you don't want to shrink), and hang dry (bras, rayon, spandex -- check labels!).

Step 2: Clean leftover lint from dryer's lint screen.

Step 3: Deposit coins and add laundry to dryer.

Step 4: Run dryer for 30 to 40 minutes or until dry. (Avoid over-drying -- it's hard on clothes.)

Step 5: Remove and fold promptly (or else you'll have a pile of wrinkled clothes).

Cooking Basics

If you're in the dorms and on a meal plan, cooking may not be an issue. But if you've got a dorm-suite with a kitchen, you'll want to know how to do more than pour hot water into a cup of Ramen noodles. Here are some simple dinner options:


Fill large-size pot half full with water, and add a pinch salt and a teaspoon of olive oil. Bring water to boil over high heat on stovetop, then add dry pasta. Follow directions on box for cooking time (usually around ten minutes). When the time is right, test a strand of spaghetti for softness. If ready, turn off the stovetop, and strain pasta in a colander in the sink. Add butter, parmesan, and dry basil for flavor -- or a bottled pasta sauce, which simply needs to be warmed in a saucepan over medium heat.


For a basic tossed salad, buy a 10-ounce package of pre-washed lettuce, place in large bowl, and add chopped tomatoes, grated carrots, and cucumber slices. Top with a salad dressing of your choice. If you want to get more creative, make a chef's salad with lettuce, sliced ham, turkey, and avocado, and maybe garbanzo and kidney beans. For a summery salad, use fresh lettuce, sliced apples, walnut halves, a handful of dried sweetened cranberries, and toss it all in a raspberry vinaigrette.


Grate a cupful of cheddar cheese or Monterey jack. Place frying pan over medium heat, throw a flour or corn tortilla in the pan, sprinkle cheese on top of that, and cover cheese with another tortilla. Flip with a spatula until cheese is melted. Then eat!


Taking Care of Yourself

Remember all those times Mom told you to get to bed on time, drink your OJ, and put on a jacket before walking out the door? Well, she was right. It's easy to let self-care slip when you leave home, but if you do, your health will pay the price -- not just with nasty colds but with long-term illnesses like mononucleosis, too. Here's how to take care of yourself:

  • Make sure you get enough sleep. Most teens need eight hours a night. If you're pulling an all-nighter, be sure to catch up on your sleep the next day. Lack of sleep weakens your immune system and makes you more susceptible to the germs floating around the dorms.
  • Eat a balanced diet. That's three meals a day, with grains, proteins, vegetables, and fruits. It can be tempting to skip meals and snack instead, or to go on a pizza/French-fry diet, but such poor eating habits are not only bad for your overall health, they can cause you to gain weight -- the infamous "Freshman 15."
  • Work out a few times a week. Besides keeping your body in shape, exercise can reduce stress, increase energy, improve concentration, and lighten your mood.
  • Dress for the weather! Warm winter coats, hats, and gloves and proper rain gear really do help keep the doctor away.
  • If you come down with a cold or flu, get lots of rest, drink fluids, take Vitamin C, and visit your campus health services before your illness turns into anything more serious. Most college clinics will see you on a drop-in basis.
  • Your campus health services will also have information available on nutrition, safe sex, and other important health issues.


Alcohol is a part of life on many college campuses. Here are a few things to remember:

  • Even if it seems like everyone is drinking, that's not the reality. Many students don't drink, and it's really okay not to if you don't want to.
  • If you do decide to drink, moderation is the key. Binge drinking (downing at least five or six drinks in one sitting) can lead to blackouts, vomiting, and doing things you're not too proud of the next day. At its worst, binge drinking can result in death -- by way of alcohol poisoning or drunk-driving.
  • Play it safe. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, "Alcohol-related highway crashes are the leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults in the United States." If you anticipate a night of heavy-drinking, be sure to have a designated driver so that you and your friends get home safely.

Getting Help

Starting college is exciting and fun, but like all major life changes, it can also be stressful and emotionally challenging. You may experience homesickness or intense loneliness, or even depression. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Every college has a counseling center. You can speak to a counselor one-on-one, or join a support group -- for eating disorders, depression, alcohol abuse, and more. Sometimes just finding out that you are not alone makes all the difference. --Lilan Patri

Lilan Patri is a freelance writer and graduate student living in New York.