Adulting 101: Master the skills they don’t teach you in school

Read time: 10 min

College isn’t only about academics; a big part of the experience is becoming independent by learning or mastering everyday tasks—aka adulting. It can be tricky to keep track of everything that needs to get done and also socialize, work, and excel academically—but it is possible. If you’re worried about staying on top of things this semester (or just need a refresher on how to #adult while still enjoying the fun and freedoms of college), here are some tips to help.

Here’s how students say they handle some common adulting tasks

adulting skills

Doing laundry: 92% of respondents say they are confident doing it themselves. 7% say they sometimes need help. 0% say my mom does it for me.

Paying bills: 80% of respondents say they are confident doing it themselves. 20% say they sometimes need help. 0% say my mom does it for me.

Making health care appointments: 84% of respondents say they are confident doing it themselves. 16% say they sometimes need help. 0% say my mom does it for me.

Managing a budget: 75% of respondents say they are confident doing it themselves. 20% say they sometimes need help. 5% say my mom does it for me.

Taking car for maintenance/repairs: 56% of respondents say they are confident doing it themselves. 26% say they sometimes need help. 11% say my mom does it for me.

Completing assignments on time: 90% of respondents say they are confident doing it themselves. 8% say they sometimes need help. 2% say my mom does it for me.

Waking up in time for class/work: 92% of respondents say they are confident doing it themselves. 8% say they sometimes need help. 0% say my mom does it for me.

Filing taxes: 47% of respondents say they are confident doing it themselves. 32% say they sometimes need help. 17% say my mom does it for me.

Cleaning up: 92% of respondents say they are confident doing it themselves. 8% say they sometimes need help. 0% say my mom does it for me.

Cover the basics: Sleep, food, and hygiene

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Balancing a busy academic and social schedule (and work, for those who do) can make it hard to find time for things like food and sleep, but they’re absolutely necessary and worth prioritizing. “Take time daily to eat healthy, exercise, and shower. It will make you feel your best [so you can] handle other responsibilities,” says Courtney H., a second-year student at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Look at your schedule and try to choose a consistent time to sleep each evening. Sticking with the same bedtime each night can help you reach that seven- to eight-hour sweet spot we all strive for. For even more benefits, get up at the same time each day, avoid screens before bed, and relish your sleep routine.  These habits will help keep your circadian rhythm on track, which means you’ll be less groggy in the morning as your body gets used to the routine. Depending on whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, you can try 11 p.m.-7 a.m., 12 a.m.-8 a.m., or 1 a.m.-9 a.m., give or take an hour if you know you require more or less sleep.

Likewise, designate time for eating so you don’t go hungry, and try to eat at least three nutritionally balanced meals each day. One strategy to achieve this is to use Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate guidelines: Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, one-fourth with protein, and one-fourth with whole grains. Having easy-to-make or pre-made meals on hand is another way to make nutrition a bit easier.

In addition to rest and fuel, your body also needs maintenance: Keep on top of basic hygiene. If you oversleep and have to run out the door for class, find time to brush your teeth, and then wash your face later. When you’re studying in the library or the computer lab, wash your hands before heading home to help stop the spread of germs that could make you sick. And if you’ve been hunched over your computer all day cramming for an exam, take time to get a bit of exercise and go for a walk.

Schedule your nonnegotiables and plan around the rest

Map out your time effectively, whether it’s on your phone or you insist on carrying around a physical planner (I do!).

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This includes things like class, work, and family duties. These are on a mostly consistent schedule, making them easy to plan for and an excellent foundation for your routine. You can also consider weekly or monthly commitments, like organization meetings or sporting events.

Think about all the tasks you might need to accomplish in a given timeframe, such as doing laundry each week or wiping down kitchen counters every day. These mundane tasks usually don’t take too much time, but it’s important that they get done regularly; having time blocked out on your calendar for chores is a great way to ensure you don’t fall behind.

If you often find yourself procrastinating with schoolwork, try this: Celebrate the idea of “productive procrastination,” suggests Dr. Davis Smith, staff physician at the University of Connecticut. Dragging your heels on that thesis paper you have to write? Instead of endlessly scrolling through social media, use that time to cook something healthy, throw laundry in, or run a quick errand. You might not be getting academic work done, but you’re still making those #adult moves (which will free up time later for studying).

The most important thing about a schedule? Stick to it. “[Things] pile up pretty quickly if you put off small tasks thinking, ‘I’ll have time later,’” says Meg R., a second-year student at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Keeping to a schedule will do wonders for making your life more manageable.

Make your doctor, dentist, and other adulting appointments

They aren’t the most glamorous tasks, but they have to be done: things like going to the doctor or dentist, dealing with taxes, and taking your car in for an oil change. Know when and how to complete these tasks, and add them to your calendar.

Regularly checking in with your school health clinic or primary care provider and getting a dental cleaning every six months will keep you functioning overall as an adult. Getting annual flu shots or other vaccines is also important, as being sick for even a short time can have you falling behind significantly with assignments.

Getting an oil change and taking your car in for an annual inspection are important, especially if you rely on your vehicle every day to get to class and/or work. Even if you’re comfortable parking your car in one spot for a week and walking everywhere, you’ll want it up and running if an emergency comes up, so don’t neglect these routine tasks. And if you prefer to pedal your way to class, remember: Bikes need maintenance too. To get the most out of your bike (and avoid costly repairs in the future), use these bike care tips.

When in doubt, ask for help

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Learning to manage all these different responsibilities is going to take some trial and error, and that’s totally OK. The first way you try something isn’t the only way it can be done; if a written planner isn’t helpful, try setting reminders in your phone. If you can’t keep to a study schedule on your own, reach out to a friend and see if you can study together on a regular basis.

The most important thing to remember? “Don’t be afraid to ask for help on things you don’t know how to do,” says Allison M., a graduate student at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. While you’re learning how to live on your own, keep in mind you’re not truly alone, and you can always ask a peer (or the internet!) for help.

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Article sources

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Holly Swyers, PhD, professor of anthropology, Lake Forest College, Illinois.

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