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Ultimate Guide on Executive Functioning Skills for College Students (evidence-based strategies)

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

Ah, college. It's a time of self-discovery, of learning, and - yes - a time of late nights and lots of socializing.


What a lot of people don't realize is that, without understanding the impact of executive functioning skills for college students, those good times simply won't be found.

Despite all the wonderful, memorable elements of the collegiate experience, it can also be overwhelming.


According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only about 41% of college students are graduating on time. When you acknowledge the fact that private four-year colleges cost an average of $50,000 or more per year, those extra years of study really add up.


According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only about 41% of college students are graduating on time.

So what gives? How can you make sure that you, as a college student, are able to make the most of your college experience and graduate with a degree (and without a pile of debt)?


The answer lies in executive functioning skills.


In this post, we'll take a closer look at executive functioning skills for college students.


What are they, why do they matter - and most importantly, what can you do to improve them?


Let's get started.


Dear reader, are you a...

  • College student

  • Concerned parent

  • Engaged educator

  • High school student preparing for the next step


What Are the 11 Skills of Executive Functioning?

As a college student, you probably have multiple responsibilities to juggle - perhaps more responsibilities than you know what to do with.


Your to-do list is overflowing with assignments, exams, and social events, among others. With so much to keep track of, it can be overwhelming to stay on top of everything. This is where executive functioning skills come in handy.


Harvard University researchers refer to our executive functioning skills as "our brain's air-traffic control system," and that's a pretty accurate description. Executive function skills often go unnoticed, but play a vital role in making sure our lives run smoothly.


Harvard University researchers refer to our executive functioning skills as "our brain's air-traffic control system"

Like air traffic control is integral in landing a plane safely, your EF skills are vital to make sure you're where you need to be when you need to be there, and get everything done that needs to get done.

There are eleven skills that are widely regarded as the most important EF skills.


Organization

Organization refers to our ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information, materials, and tasks. Good organizational skills mean being able to find what we need quickly and remembering what needs to be done.


It's something many of us struggle with. In fact, the National Association of Professional Organizers reports that, on average, we spend a year of our lives looking for lost items, or 8700 hours!


...on average, we spend a year of our lives looking for lost items, or 8700 hours!

In college, good organizational skills can help you stay on top of deadlines and assignments. For instance, keeping a planner or calendar to map out your tasks for a day or week can help you stay organized.


On the other hand, poor organizational skills might leave you feeling lost and disorganized.


For example, forgetting important dates and misplacing important documents can result in missed deadlines, which can have severe consequences.


Planning/Prioritizing

Planning and prioritizing refer to our ability to set goals, plan ahead, and make decisions about how to allocate our time. Good planning and prioritizing will help you achieve your goals efficiently and effectively.


Students who have strong planning skills perform better across the board, according to research published in Procedia:


According to ANOVA results, participants with a high level of planning strategy are characterized by higher total scores of learning strategies, cognitive (especially strategies of elaboration and strategies of organization of training material) and metacognitive strategies.

This skill is essential in helping you balance academics and other responsibilities. A good example of this skill is being able to prioritize your assignments by tackling the most crucial tasks first.


On the flip side, poor planning and prioritizing might lead to confusion, missed deadlines, and stress.


The most obvious example is procrastinating on your schoolwork - procrastinating on assignments and cramming before exams can lead to poor grades.


Working Memory

Working memory refers to our capacity to hold and manipulate information in our minds for a short period. This skill helps us complete complex tasks by allowing us to remember and execute multi-step instructions.


In college, good working memory can help you recall information during lectures, take notes, and write papers. According to the study (2019), "The Role of Executive Function Skills for College-Age Students," It also helps you effectively plan out the paper you will be writing.


Petersen, Lavelle, and Guarino (2006) explained that planning is a skill linked to increased performance on educational tasks and retention within collegiate programs.

For example, being able to keep track of multiple sources while writing a paper is an indication of good working memory.


However, poor working memory might lead to poor academic performance and subpar performance in other areas. An example of inadequate working memory is forgetting important details during a class discussion or missing important points in a lecture.


Time Management

Time management is the ability to prioritize tasks, allocate time effectively, and meet deadlines consistently. Good time management enables you to accomplish more in less time, reduce stress, and achieve your goals. In college, time management is vital as you will constantly need to balance studying, socializing, and working.


Poor time management, on the other hand, will result in missed deadlines, procrastination, and failing grades.


Metacognition and Self-Monitoring

Metacognition is the ability to understand your thought processes and regulate your mental resources - essentially, it's thinking about thinking. It can also refer to the process of observing, evaluating, and adjusting your behavior.


Good metacognitive skills enable you to identify your weaknesses and strengths, develop effective study strategies, and reflect on your learning progress regularly.


According to researchers at Vanderbilt University, good metacognition skills also include the capacity for:


...recognizing the limit of one's knowledge or ability and then figuring out how to expand that knowledge or extend the ability.

In contrast, poor metacognitive skills and self-monitoring lead to poor academic performance, lack of self-awareness, and ineffective study habits.


Response Inhibition

Response inhibition is the ability to control impulsive behavior and resist temptations that interfere with your long-term goals.


Good response inhibition enables you to stay focused, avoid distractions, and resist vices such as drugs, alcohol, and social media addiction.


Poor response inhibition leads to disorganized behavior, lack of impulse control, and academic and personal setbacks.


In college, you will encounter all kinds of tempting situations, such as late-night parties, social media scrolling, and too much junk food, so having good response inhibition skills is key.


Emotional Control

Emotional control is the ability to recognize and manage your emotions appropriately.


An emotionally controlled person can keep calm and composed under trying circumstances, while an emotionally uncontrolled person tends to be reactive and erratic.


Not only that, but:


Emotional management ability is positively related to self-efficacy. Self-efficacy helps increase college students' motivation to learn, experience positive emotions, and thus devote more time and energy to learning.

In college, opportunities to maintain emotional control will present themselves every day, from dealing with stress from workload and deadlines to navigating tricky social situations.


Sustained Attention

Sustained attention is the ability to remain focused on a task for an extended period.


A person who possesses this skill will remain attentive and productive, even when dealing with repetitive tasks, while a person who lacks it will find it hard to maintain focus.


A great example is completing a lengthy research project. Students who can sustain their attention on their research paper for extended periods are more likely to produce a high-quality, well-researched paper.


Task Initiation

Task initiation is the ability to start and continue with a task. People who possess this skill tend to be less prone to procrastination and are always prepared to start with a task, even when it is challenging.


A student who is excellent in task initiation will instantly begin coursework, regardless of whether they like the subject matter or not. Meanwhile, a student who struggles to initiate their tasks may find themselves running out of time and working on assignments at the last minute.


Self-Motivation

Self-motivation is the ability to motivate oneself to complete a task without external influence.


People who possess this skill often have a strong drive and know how to motivate themselves to achieve their goals. A student who is highly self-motivated can study long hours without feeling distracted or bored.


In contrast, someone who is easily demotivated may struggle to maintain study habits.


The good news is that you can teach yourself to be more motivated, believe it or not.


Research shows that students can learn how to become better learners by using effective motivation strategies.

Flexible Thinking

Flexible thinking is the ability to be open-minded and adapt to new information, allowing for more effective problem-solving. A person who possesses this skill will be more adaptable when dealing with any situation.


A student who has a flexible mindset will be able to handle criticism and feedback on their performance without becoming defensive.


Meanwhile, a student who struggles with flexible thinking may hold a rigid posture or thinking pattern.


Want to learn more about EF skills?

Check out our comprehensive guide, "What are executive functioning skills" for a deep dive into these 11 skills, and more!


Why is College Challenging for Students With Poor Executive Functioning Skills?

College can be one of the most challenging and exciting experiences for students, but it can be particularly challenging for those who struggle with executive functioning skills.


As you now know, these skills are crucial for academic success, but they can be extremely challenging for some students, causing them to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and disorganized.


So why are executive function skills so important for college?


One of the most significant challenges that students with poor executive functioning skills face in college is managing multiple due dates.


College courses often come with numerous assignments, projects, and tests that all have different due dates, making it difficult for students to keep track of everything.


Not only that, but college campuses are vast and offer many resources, which is great, but is something that can be overwhelming for students with poor executive functioning skills.


This challenge can make it challenging for students to navigate through their day-to-day activities, manage their time, and meet their course requirements.


For example, they may not have the necessary textbooks or equipment for class, or they may not know how to find their classroom.


Of course, it's also important to note that college is a significant transition point for students as they move from a highly structured learning environment to more independence, which can be a shock to their systems, and cause major executive functioning challenges.


With more autonomy, students must be able to manage their time efficiently and proactively set goals that align with their academic and personal lives.


Last but not least, remember that a vibrant social life, extracurricular activities, and the constant presence of technology can be a significant distraction for college students.


This can make it challenging to plan, organize, and meet deadlines, even for someone with outstanding EF skills.


Signs of Poor Executive Functioning in College Students

Not sure if your executive functioning skills are where they need to be?

Quite frankly, EF skills are areas that we can all stand to work on. There's not a single person who has "perfect" executive function skills - we can all improve.


That said, there are some red flags to watch out for if you're concerned that you (or perhaps your child) is struggling with EF skills in college:

  • Organizational challenges: Organizational challenges are common in college students who struggle with executive functioning. It can be easy for the student to lose track of syllabi, assignment deadlines, or struggle to approach long-term projects.

  • Behavior or emotional management issues: Poor emotional and behavioral coping skills can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and in some cases, addiction issues. Students who struggle with executive functioning may struggle to resist online or social distractions, have difficulty settling down to do work, and may leave assignments until the last minute.

  • Poor time management: Students who struggle with executive functioning may be overscheduled and stressed, leaving work until the last minute or not knowing how to maintain a consistent work schedule. In fact, according to the 2019 ACHA:

78.4% of all college students reported experiencing feelings of overwhelm in the last year.
  • Failing grades (or grades that don't meet expectations): You may find that academic difficulties begin to manifest themselves if students lack persistence or do not complete assignments, perform poorly on tests due to ineffective study habits, or do not attend classes frequently.

  • Poor self-care: College students who struggle with executive functioning may also have self-care challenges, such as inadequate sleep routines, poor nutrition, and lack of physical activity or socialization.

Other key signs of poor executive functioning in college students include an inability to maintain a routine, an absence of initiative or drive, leaving important emails and texts unanswered, making self-sabotaging choices such as drug abuse, and exhibiting difficulty with maintaining positive relationships.


How to Improve Executive Functioning Skills in College Students

From managing daily schedules to completing assignments on time and prioritizing studying and social life, executive functioning skills play a crucial role in the success of every college student.


That said, they don't always come naturally, especially if you're someone who's struggled with EF skills in high school. The good news - there are things you can do to improve your EF skills even if you're in your first, second, third, or even fourth year of college.


Here are some tips.


Take Care of Yourself First

The first thing that every college student should put on top of their priority list is their own well-being.


You can't expect your brain to function at its optimal level if you're not taking care of your body first. Therefore, it's essential to get at least eight hours of sleep every night, eat a healthy diet, and engage in regular exercise.


These habits will help you maintain a balanced and healthy lifestyle that can boost your cognitive skills and enhance your overall academic performance.


Examine Your Relationship With Your Phone

As much as we rely on our phones for communication and entertainment, they can also be detrimental to our executive functioning skills.


Excessive cellphone use can be a major distraction -it can interrupt focus and impair a variety of cognitive processes. But college students are spending way too much time on their phones:


Research has shown that college-age students in the US may spend an average of 8–10 h per day on a smartphone.

Whenever possible, limit your phone usage during studying time and create phone-free zones to improve your focus and concentration.


Create Calendars

Another efficient way to boost your executive functioning skills is to create a calendar for all your daily activities. This includes lectures, assignments, projects, exams, extracurricular activities, and social events.


A well-designed calendar can provide a clear overview of your daily schedule, and help you plan and prioritize tasks effectively. According to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:


Students generally benefit from regularly setting aside time to think ahead and plan for the week ahead. This kind of planning helps you make sure you allocate enough time for each of your courses and helps avoid unforeseen pile-ups of work.

Make sure you keep your calendar updated and accessible, so you can easily track your progress and make adjustments when things go wrong.


Make Lists

In addition to calendars, creating a list of tasks can also enhance your executive functioning skills.


A to-do list can help you prioritize your tasks based on their urgency and importance, and avoid procrastination and anxiety.


Make sure you break down bigger tasks into smaller ones, and cross off completed tasks to feel a sense of accomplishment. There's nothing more satisfying!


Break Larger Projects into Smaller Ones

Tackling a big project can be overwhelming, but dividing it into smaller tasks can make it more manageable and less stressful.


Start by breaking down the project into smaller steps, setting achievable goals for each step, and scheduling deadlines.


By completing each step, you will gain a sense of accomplishment and motivation to move forward.


Practice Relaxation Techniques

Stress and anxiety can interfere with our ability to focus, concentrate, and recall information.


When you have a free moment, use it to practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, yoga, or guided imagery. Find a quiet place and spend a few minutes each day to calm your mind and body.


Here's a simple relaxation technique from Washington University in St. Louis you can try:


Breathe naturally and slowly, and as you do, repeat your word or phrase silently to yourself as you exhale.

It's a simple way to calm yourself down and get back on the right track.


Use a Timer

Time management is a crucial component of executive functioning skills, but it doesn't come naturally to everyone. That's why you need to practice!


Using a timer can help you stay on task, avoid distractions, and make the most of your study time.


Set a timer for a specific amount of time, such as 25 or 50 minutes, and work on a task without interruption until the timer goes off. Then take a short break before starting the next task.


Build Relationships With Your Professors

Your professors can be valuable resources for academic support, career advice, and networking opportunities.


By building relationships with your professors, you can learn from their expertise, get feedback on your work, and feel more engaged in your classes.


And don't wait to do it! According to a national poll of graduates:


60 percent [of college students] reported meeting their most influential faculty or staff mentors during that first year.

So reach out ASAP. Take advantage of office hours, ask thoughtful questions in class, and participate in extracurricular activities.


Try Apps or Organization Programs

Technology can be a helpful tool for organizing your tasks, schedules, and notes.


There are various apps and programs available, such as Google Calendar, Trello, or Evernote, that can help you stay on top of your workload. Find the one that works for you and incorporate it into your daily routine.


Do Self-Awareness Activities

Understanding your strengths, weaknesses, and learning style is essential for effective studying and self-improvement.


Take time to reflect on your past experiences, assess your skills, and set realistic goals for improvement.


You can also seek feedback from others, such as your professors, peers, or mentors, to gain different perspectives and insights.


How Executive Function Coaching Can Help You Thrive in College

You deserve to enjoy college - and to thrive there. You shouldn't be spending all of your time feeling stressed and anxious.


By improving your executive function skills, you can make the most of your time in school and graduate with a diploma (and an experience!) you can be proud of.


While the tips above can help you get on the right track as far as improving your executive function skills goes, the reality is that it can be tough to get better on your own. That's where an executive function coach comes in.


With the help of an EF coach, students develop personalized systems to organize materials and work areas, learn how to break assignments into smaller parts, and plan when to get the work done.


Coaching can be an incredibly valuable tool for college students who struggle with any and all executive function skills.


The investment in an expert coach is an investment in your future success. They can provide tailored strategies, identify areas to improve, and support you along your journey toward finding your full potential.


So what are you waiting for? Bring on the best four years of your life - and hire an EF coach to help you experience those years to their very fullest.


Stay engaged


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About the author

Sean G. McCormick is the founder of Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business that guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered.


He also founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains special education teachers, school psychologists and other professionals to support students with ADHD and executive function challenges.

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EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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