What Are Life Skills?

There has been a shift in recent years in the mindset of college students. Students no longer flock to universities just for the experience or for the chance to become "more well rounded." Instead, students seek out a college education to ensure they are more employable after graduation.

According to The Washington Post, though college graduates may not be unemployed, the reality is that 40% of college graduates are underemployed, meaning they are in jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree.

These employment outcomes may result from poor preparation in an area where young adults are often considered lacking: life skills. Life skills enable adults to function properly in society and include stress management, study habits, financial knowledge, self-care, social awareness, and the general ability to work well with anyone.

Millennials and Gen Zers who feel that they lack these abilities now take "adulting" classes to learn new skills to help them not only function better personally, but to make them more desirable candidates for any number of jobs. CBS News notes that these courses include cooking skills, budgeting, time management, conflict resolution, and even sewing.

Colleges can do more to facilitate this type of learning through introductory college courses for first-year students, workshops, and additional training on campus. Teaching these adult life skills at the undergraduate level not only helps universities with enrollment, but also trains students to be well-adapted members of the workforce and society.

Example Life Skills for College Students

Life skills are important for everyone, but particularly college students coming from various lived experiences, financial situations, and ability levels. They may lack more basic skills that they'll need for employment or to navigate the challenging aspects of adult life.

A student sits on marble stairs next to a backpack, looking at his tablet computer

Time Management and Responsibility

Effectively managing time and being responsible are adult life skills that college graduates need to successfully navigate not only their careers, but their personal lives as well. In life, everyone is performing a juggling act between work, family, fun, and bills. But no matter what obligations you have outside work, companies expect their employees to be responsible individuals who can manage their time wisely.

Tips to Teach Time Management to College Students

Though we tell students to manage their time, we don't often explain what that means or give them the proper tools to improve this skill.

  • Teach students to make lists and prioritize those items by the most important to least. Writing things down with a pen and paper may prove more effective than a phone app or computer program, as it provides a tangible way to track your tasks and priorities.
  • Have students invest in a time management tool. My favorite is the Passion Planner, which allows individuals to make lists, write down appointments and due dates, and fill out a "passion roadmap" to help them achieve their goals.
  • Help students understand how much time things take. Sometimes, an unrealistic ideal of time leads to poor prioritization, lateness, and an apparent lack of responsibility.

A student sits at a desk next to a computer, staring with concern at a bill

Financial Knowledge, Money Management, and Budgeting

Many college students struggle with money due to a lack of financial education prior to high school graduation, but it's also due to the financial stress of college. In fact, some students struggle with budgeting to the point that they run out of money while they're in school.

Money.com explains that due to unexpected expenses, the cost of tuition, books, and other college fees, many students run out of funds prior to the end of the semester. This can be detrimental to their success and can also set them up for debt and other issues upon graduation — if they can even afford to graduate.

Tips to Help Students Gain Financial Literacy

  • Share budgets and help students realistically understand costs. AffordableColleges.com has some great tips, sample budgets, and ways to save money while in college.
  • Encourage students to create a credit history, but explain how to pay off balances so as not to incur debt.
  • Whether it's a car repair or an illness, unexpected expenses occur throughout adult life, including during college. Helping students to establish savings or income streams for these expenses is critical.
  • Have students meet with a financial planner or professional to help them understand adult financial needs, including insurance and investments, that they may want to consider prior to graduating.
  • Help students understand the importance of living within their means. This can be tough — not only due to the demands of work and school, but also because of the rising costs of living across the country. However, frugality is key and it complements the desire of many young adults to live in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Several students lounge in a common area, sitting on bean bag chairs, talking, and drinking coffee

Stress Management and Self-Care

With the steadily increasing demands of school, there has also been growing concern for the mental health of college students. From dealing with food insecurity to having to work while in school, students have a lot to deal with beyond the classroom. Learning to embrace self-care and manage stress provides a foundation of coping skills that graduates can use in the workforce.

Tips for Encouraging Better Mental Health in College

  • Teach students to build relationships and find support systems.
  • Students need to prioritize getting the right amount of sleep, watching their intake of alcohol, eating healthy foods, and getting the right amount of physical exercise.
  • Students need to be informed of the services available to them both on and off campus. For example, some graduates don't know that their insurance may include therapy, incentives to join a gym, and more.

Purdue Fort Wayne: A Model for Teaching Adult Life Skills

Though Purdue Fort Wayne's curriculum is full of essential life skills, they've also been able to successfully incorporate them into their orientation module — specifically to help high school students transition into college.

"We introduce success topics during the summer orientation session and utilize the subsequent first-year seminar, intentional advising practices, social integration programs, and wrap-around support systems to provide students with both resources and relationships to help them be successful," notes vice chancellor of student affairs, Dr. Kristina Creager.

"Specifically, we weave skill sets such as time management, self-efficacy, and stress management into all facets of our extending orientation model. With a substantial first generation and Pell-eligible population, we equally utilize one-on-one financial aid assistance and affinity-based budgeting and financial management programs. As we have finished the first summer-fall of this model, we [have seen] a substantial increase in first-year student engagement and have, thus far, seen a 12.9% increase in first-time, full-time direct from high school students re-registering for their second semester."

This model will not only benefit students in their time on campus, but will hopefully produce career-ready graduates.

Motivation and Perseverance

Many students learn motivation and perseverance techniques at institutions like Purdue Fort Wayne through support staff, coursework, and orientations and classes designed for first-year students. However, it can be difficult for some students to stay motivated when the going gets tough.

In recent years, higher education professionals have focused on developing student perseverance to increase retention rates. According to Inside Higher Ed, students are more likely to persevere and stay motivated if they possess self-efficacy (i.e., the belief in their ability to succeed), have a sense of belonging, and perceive value in the school's curriculum.

Tips to Keep Students Motivated

  • Ensure that curricula are tailored to life after graduation.
  • Provide opportunities for students to engage with others on campus to foster a sense of belonging to their community.
  • Ensure that students understand the support services that are available to them (often highlighted orientation or in first-year student seminars).
  • Match students with mentors to answer questions and help build their self-worth.

Four students sit at a desk, working together on a project

Cultural Competency and Working With Others

Cultural competency is an important life skill for students to acquire in order to work well with others, both personally and professionally. Like any other skill, cultural competency requires learning and practice — something Tiffin University (TU) in Ohio is tackling to ensure that its students can work with diverse groups of people following graduation.

According to TU's president, Dr. Lillian Schumacher, "Developing cultural competence takes a lifetime to perfect because this ability has to do with human behavior, which is complex, complicated, and messy. Recognizing this early on can be extremely valuable to the way in which an individual works towards continuous development of cultural competency."

Through their initiative, Celebrating CulTUral Uniqueness, TU has made great strides to ensure not only that cultural skills are in the general education curriculum, but that students and teachers earn certification in this core competency. "We are thrilled with offering this certification," says Dr. Schumacher. "It is an exceptional program for any audience wanting to strengthen their cultural competencies and their ability to work with individuals who are different than them. This program will change mindsets and strengthen our understanding, acceptance, and valuing of diversity and inclusion."

Above all, these are critical skills to the success of all college graduates that seek employment, especially as more companies become globally minded and grow in cultural diversity.

Julia K. Porter, Ph.D.

Julia K. Porter, Ph.D.

Educator, Consultant, and Writer

Dr. Julia K. Porter is an educator, consultant, and a writer. She began her career as a high school English teacher in Brooklyn, New York, and has taught college courses since 2008 in writing, literature, humanities, and ethics. She holds a Ph.D. in global leadership from Indiana Tech, an MA in English literature from Brooklyn College, and a BS in English education from Indiana University/Purdue University-Indianapolis.