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Navigating the transition to university: key factors for student success

Starting university is a huge milestone. It’s a very exciting time but can also be pretty daunting for some students.

The move from secondary/high school to university life is full of challenges — academic, psychological, and social —that can potentially impact student academic performance and well-being. Despite some prevailing views or conventional wisdom that ‘everyone knows’ the potential challenges of this pivotal time, the scientific research on the transition period in starting university is actually rather limited.

We conducted a rigorous systematic review of the studies in the psychological and educational literature that explored what helps or hinders student success during this crucial transition period.

Understanding the Transition

The jump from school to university is not just about tougher classes. It often means living independently for the first time, forming new social circles, and managing a whole new level of personal responsibility. This transition period is critical because the psychology literature indicates that if it does not go well, it can lead to declines in psychological well-being and increased stress, sometimes even resulting in serious mental health issues.

Our Study’s Goals

Our systematic review aimed to bring together all the scattered research on personal risk and protective factors that influence first-year university success in the form of academic achievement. The focus was on personal, not institutional factors, to pinpoint what we can control and improve to make this transition smoother.

It is important to acknowledge here that there are other indicators of a successful transition to university (e.g., psychosocial), but in this particular systematic review we centred our spotlight on academic success.

Key Findings

The review highlighted 27 studies examining various factors impacting academic achievement during the transition to university. We only included studies that:

  • reported quantitative correlation statistics for the level of association or relatedness between a measured psychological factor and academic achievement scores
  • were longitudinal in design (i.e., both the academic achievement outcome and the psychological construct in question were assessed at different timepoints)
  • sampled first year university students. 

Overall, the complexity of making scientific sense of this area of research is evident in the fact that we found 77 unique factors that have been proposed as important constructs that impact the likelihood of a successful transition to university and academic achievement.

We classified psychological factors according to the psychometric scale they used, and specific sub-scales (e.g., academic self-efficacy subscale of a larger instrument),  and have provided a summary of the main findings below.

Prior Academic Achievement as a strong predictor of university success

This is not too surprising – how well you did in high school is a strong (but not the only!) predictor of your university success. The correlation coefficients for academic achievement prior to beginning university ranged from .20 to .67 (M = .36). The correlation was stronger still for 1st semester grades at university predicting second semester or end of year grades (.69).

Academic Factors – believing in your abilities

Interestingly, very few of the coefficients met Cohen’s (1988) traditional criterion to be classified as a medium sized association (.30). Only academic self-efficacy is consistently found to have a correlation above .30. Thus, believing in your academic abilities is crucial. If you think you can succeed, you are more likely to do so. Academic motivation was, perhaps surprisingly, unrelated to academic grade outcomes. 

Personality Factors – a mixed bag

Different personality factors were categorised as risk or protective factors in the transition to university. For example, conscientiousness was found to be a protective factor of success with clear positive associations, whereas extraversion was negatively associated with academic achievement and deemed a risk factor. 

Time Management and Study Skills

Good time management and study habits are consistently linked to better academic outcomes. This means setting priorities, organizing study schedules, and prepping well for exams.


Procrastination is a big risk factor and can tank your grades. 

Psychological, social factors and the importance of a support network

The transition can lead to stress and potential psychological distress. Having a support network and maintaining social connections can really help, providing both emotional and practical support. 

Environmental Factors – money matters

Economic factors and parental financial support were both positively associated with academic achievement, while working at other job(s) for more than 16 hours per week was a real risk factor and negatively associated with academic achievement. 

Personal Beliefs and Behaviours

Four particular factors relating to personal beliefs and behaviours related to the institution or course were identified as protective factors of success in the transition to university and higher grades achieved:

  1. a more informed choice of university and course;
  2. if the university experience is in line with their expectations;
  3. those who feel their studies have greater value;
  4. commitment to the institution also shows a consistent, yet small, positive association with success in the transition to university.

The challenge of the jangle fallacy

A key challenge for educators and psychologists is to not to be overwhelmed by different names for very similar psychological factors or constructs (e.g., some studies measured ‘social adjustment’ while others measured ‘social integration’). The overlaps among a number of the 77 identified factors in the literature are considerable. This is known as the ‘jangle fallacy’.

We believe that our systematic review and categorisation has helped synthesise and simplify the literature to the point it can be more useful for educational psychologists, educators, and student support services.

Using this information to enhance study skills, mental health services and peer support

While the knowledge gained from this comprehensive systematic review is clearly an important development, knowing these key factors is just step one. The real goal from an Educational Psychology perspective is to develop effective strategies to help students thrive during their transition to university. Here are some implementable ideas based on our findings:

  • Academic Support Programs: Workshops on study skills, time management, and academic self-efficacy can equip students with the tools they need to succeed.
  • Mental Health Services: Providing accessible mental health resources and creating a supportive campus environment can help address the psychological challenges students face.
  • Mentorship and Peer Support: Establishing mentorship programs where upper-year students guide first-year students can provide valuable support and reduce the feeling of isolation.

If, as an Educational Psychologist or education professional/practitioner, you work with those who are starting university, remember that preparation and support are key. Encourage closer liaison between feeder schools/colleges and universities. Work with universities to develop and establish programmes that address these critical factors that influence the likelihood of a successful transition and that can help set the environment for a student to flourish. 

If you are a student, seek out resources and build a support network to help you navigate this hugely exciting yet potentially challenging time.

Moving Forward

The transition to university is a pivotal time in a student’s life. By focusing on the identified risk and protective factors, universities can develop targeted interventions to help students succeed. This review serves as a foundation for future research and practical applications, aiming to make the transition smoother and more manageable for all students.

Together, as psychologists led by evidence-based scientific literature, we can work with our secondary and higher education institutions to help create a more supportive and successful university experience for everyone.


Ball, I., Banerjee, M., Holliman, A., Tyndall, I. (2024). Investigating success in the transition to university: A systematic review of personal risk and protective factors influencing academic achievement. Educational Psychology Review, 36. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-024-09891-0

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