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Three Strategies to Strengthen Students' Self-Efficacy for Postsecondary Transitions

December 18, 2019

SRI International
   Stephanie Suarez, REL Appalachia

Every fall in high schools across the country, counselors, college-access providers, and grade 12 students race against the clock to make sure all college admission requirements have been completed: college entrance examinations, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application, personal statements, college applications ... the list goes on. These stressful college entrance requirements are a crucial piece of transitioning to higher education, but there are many ways counselors and college-access providers can support students and their postsecondary transitions throughout the high school experience. One way is to build students' self-efficacy.

Student and teacher

Self-efficacy, a component of social-emotional learning (SEL), is the belief in one's ability to succeed or to accomplish a task1. More specifically, academic self-efficacy is the belief that one can do well on academic tasks. Both self-efficacy and academic self-efficacy are linked to students' postsecondary attainment and persistence. College students with high self-efficacy, for example, are better able to adjust to the more rigorous academic expectations in college. They also perceive they have a greater range of career options and majors2. Similarly, academic self-efficacy is linked to aspirations for careers that require advanced education and training3.

Self-efficacy and the transition to postsecondary

While students can face many college-access barriers, from financing their postsecondary education to meeting logistical barriers such as knowing when and how to apply for college, low self-efficacy is often considered an "invisible" barrier. As a result, many students might enter institutions of higher learning without the proper supports for a successful postsecondary transition. Research indicates that self-efficacy is the greatest predictor of students' postsecondary performance and persistence4. As students grow older and progress through middle school and high school, however, their levels of self-efficacy decline5. Given this, practitioners should be intentional about strengthening students' self-efficacy in middle and high school as part of the college-readiness process.

Strategies to strengthen students' self-efficacy for postsecondary transition

Here are three strategies6 for strengthening self-efficacy you can implement now to help prepare students for postsecondary:

  1. Give students a road map with milestones. Create a timeline of activities that includes college entrance testing, FAFSA completion, searching out institutions and options, essay writing, application submission. This strategy allows students to build their own self-efficacy through scaffolding. By breaking large tasks into smaller tasks, students feel less overwhelmed and more confident in being able to accomplish tasks.
  2. Provide models for successful transition. Invite recent graduates to return and talk about their experiences in postsecondary transition and programs. Students can share stories about how they were admitted, received financial aid, or transitioned to a higher education institution. This strategy provides a "vicarious experience" for students to build their own self-efficacy by seeing someone like them be successful. As such, this strategy is most effective when students can see some of their own characteristics in the model.
  3. Help students set goals. Work with students to set a goal for completing the FAFSA, researching postsecondary options, or completing applications. As proximal goals are met, students gain confidence in their abilities. Goals should be attainable, timely, and specific.

Resources for ongoing learning

For more concrete examples and detailed explanations of the above strategies, check out:

Recent REL presentations



1 Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior, vol. 4, pp. 71–81. New York: Academic Press. Reprinted in H. Friedman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of mental health, San Diego: Academic Press, 1998.

2 Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D., & Larkin, K. C. (1986). Self-efficacy in the prediction of academic performance and perceived career options. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 33(3), 265–269.

3 Ali, S., & Saunders, J. (2008). The career aspirations of rural Appalachian high school students. Journal of Career Assessment, 17(2), 172–88; Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G. V., & Pastorelli, C. (2001). Self-efficacy beliefs as shapers of children's aspirations and career trajectories. Child Development, 72(1), 187–206.

4 Robbins, S. B, Lauver, K., Le, H., David, D., Langley, R., & Carlstrom, A. (2004). Do psychosocial and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 130(2), 261–288.

5 Usher, Ellen, & Pajares, Frank. (2008). Self-efficacy for self-regulated learning: A validation study. Educational and Psychological Measurement. 68, 443–463.

6 Margolis, H., & McCabe, P. P. (2006). Improving self-efficacy and motivation: What to do, what to say. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41(4), 218–227; Schunk, D. H. (1990). Goal setting and self-efficacy during self-regulated learning. Educational Psychologist, 25(1), 71–86; Uchida, Akitoshi, Michael, Robert, & Mori, Kazuo. (2018). An induced successful performance enhances student self-efficacy and boosts academic achievement. AERA Open 4(4).