Having your child go off to college is equal amounts exciting, fear, and anxiety. As a parent doing this twice this fall, we are feeling it. As a therapist in a college counseling center and a former Accessibility Coordinator, I’ve heard a lot of student stories about how they planned or most likely did not plan for the college transition. Those students who did not plan well ended up in my office seeking help for their stress, anxiety, and academics. Hearing those student stories for 13 years I’ve compiled a list of the most common transition issues that can be avoided. If you plan well and help your student plan well, the issues decrease significantly and that leads to much less stress and anxiety, and doing better the first semester. It’s a common reality that a student transitioning well does better and stays in college.
Drop the Expectations
It’s normal to be excited. Your student should be. It’s all new and, let’s face it, this may be a new start for them too. Your student may be craving something new, new people, new atmosphere, new experiences etc. New is exciting. However, excitement does not mean ideal, better, problem-free, or logical. Excitement doesn’t last either. Being excited, even a bit afraid, should be expected. BUT that’s where the expectations should stop.
Why? Your student has not been to college before. What is there to expect? If I’ve never been on a roller coaster before, there is no way to accurately expect what’s about to happen. Same for college. So, talk to your student about their expectations and encourage them to either not have any or set the bar way low. In my discussions with students, most expectations go unmet. When expectations go unmet, grief occurs and that can have a profound effect on their academics, and motivation, and can make normal semester stressors or existing mental health issues worse.
The best advice, encourage them to have very few if any expectations. This allows your student to live in the present moment and concentrate on establishing themselves as a student and connecting on campus in real and meaningful ways.
Get Accommodations Early
It’s true that most students with any disability don’t ask for accommodations (National Center for Learning Disabilities). There are a variety of reasons for this and most have to do with not wanting to have experiences like K-12. Regardless, getting accommodations as early as the school will allow is the best thing to do. Why? If a student waits to apply for accommodations until mid-semester, they are going to have to wait, possibly several weeks until the accommodations are approved. At a time in the semester when stress is higher and a student finally says yes to accommodations, now the student has to wait several weeks. Picture the effect on stress and anxiety.
If there is an upcoming test, and typically there is, accommodations will not be in place. That causes more stress and anxiety at a time in the semester when those emotions are higher anyway. If a student has gone through the process of requesting accommodations, has them approved, and turned the accommodations letters in to professors, there is no wait. The student just has to use them. Less stress, less anxiety, no waiting, and no extra steps. So, encourage your student to get them early and avoid a lot of pain. Besides, they don’t have to use them if they don’t want, but the accommodations will be there when and if they decide to use them.
Learn soft skills
What’s a soft skill? Things like time management, task management, study skills, prioritizing, and knowing when to get help. These skills matter and should not be taken for granted. What may have worked in high school may not work as well if at all. Don’t think that you’ve got it nailed down either. Even if you do, once a student sees a schedule where classes are done at 12 noon, all a student may see is a bunch of free time. There may be no scheduled classes, but students still have work to do. If all that is seen is hours upon hours of free time, a student’s academics may suffer. Over the course of 13 years working on a college campus, I can tell you that students are horrible at the soft skills needed for college success. Time management consistently ranks as the worst skill.
My best advice: students can rate themselves on a 1-10 scale (one being the least and ten highest) on how well they do on each of the soft skills mentioned. Anything not at a 6 or higher needs some work and even a 6 may need some work too. Practice makes progress, so take one soft skill at a time and work on it.
I put together a free workbook to walk you through the process of evaluating and working on soft skills for college. Click the link below.
We all need help. We aren’t perfect. Every one of us needed help at some time over the pandemic. Getting help is normal and important. At college, there are numerous supports available to every student. If you are doing a college tour, take note of the support available. I wrote a blog article about it: The College Tour for Students with Disabilities- Supports. Supports may vary from school to school and some supports, like counseling, have limits to them. Know what they are, where they are located, if they are appropriate, and if the supports can deliver the amount of support you may need. For example, a student may need counseling but the limits to the number of sessions may not meet the need. If a student has questions about support, there are many options to get the information: ask the staff in the library or student services, email the support directly or email the admissions counselor who you worked with for assistance.
The bottom line, use the supports available as soon as you may need them. Don’t wait. If a student already knows they are not good at math, get a tutor right away as soon as the semester starts. Keep the appointments consistent every week, same day, same time, the same person. Oh, and the tutors may know of other services too and even the inside scoop on how best to use other supports.
Learn to say Goodbye
If there is one thing I’ve learned through COVID, it’s that grief has become a big issue for students. There are no six degrees of separation anymore. It has hit home in our homes and in our families. Students going off for their first semester have all that and the social grief of leaving their friends and seeing them go off to their schools too. It gets more complicated when there is an ongoing dating relationship. I’m not here to tell anyone what to do with that, but it does complicate things.
Saying goodbye is healthy. Say it in a way that works for you. Know that grief is normal and there is no set way to grieve. Some losses may be minor and some may be much more significant. However, all are real and need some emotional care and attention. Even the small ones can add up. There is a cumulative effect if grief is not taken care of and attended to. It does get better though. So use the supports that already exist and the ones at college if grief starts to affect your academics. Don’t avoid it but work through it.
College is hard and it can be harder if not prepared. For me, forewarned is forearmed. It mitigates some of the pressure, stress, and problems that can occur. With anything new, there are expected hiccups. However, this isn’t learning a new game or an instrument. There is a lot that can go wrong and keep going wrong if not prepared. That can lead some to not go back the spring semester if going back at all. It’s far different to successfully navigate college and realize you need a different direction than not be prepared, mess it up, feel like a failure, think you can’t be successful and quit.
Best advice, be prepared. You’ll thank yourself later.