Guiding your freshman to a successful first year

Article at-a-glance

  • The most common freshman problems are homesickness and stress.
  • Prepare your student several months before the first term by letting them test life-skills from the safety of home and by investigating resources in advance.
  • Keep communication open by being an open-minded sounding board for their problems.

Many of the problems a college freshman encounters fall into two basic groups: homesickness and feeling overwhelmed or out of place. There is little we can do to shield our kids from the stress of high expectations and there is no magic pill for homesickness. But, there is much we can do to support them their first year if we plan ahead in the months and years before they arrive on campus.

Choose the right college experience

Not every teen is ready to live hours from home. Some may need the safety net of a year or two at a junior college nearby while others can flourish in an urban setting thousands of miles away. Ultimately, their choice of college is their own, but we can offer ideas and help them lay out a plan to be successful at the college they choose.

Prepare them in advance

Ideally, you’ve spent years slowly adding responsibilities and accountability to your child’s plate. In a perfect world, your teen has years of small-scale money management experience and is already used to being accountable for his academic performance.

Use the final months before college to:

  • Encourage them to research their campus extensively – identifying building locations as well as their dining options, faculty, and other resources.
  • Let them sample more independence in decision making and schedule management.
  • Test the daily living skills they’ll need at the college they’ve chosen: navigating public transit, learning to do laundry in a laundromat, and finding the healthiest choices in a cafeteria are all smaller skills that can be learned at home to prevent them feeling overwhelmed.
  • Have them create a budget for the first semester and test it at home to make sure it is realistic. The outcome of the experiment may help determine if they need to work while going to school.
  • Encourage them to read as much as possible and even practice techniques for reading faster and retaining more. College involves huge amounts of reading that can be overwhelming after a lazy summer.
  • Go over healthy stress management techniques like exercise, social interaction, talking out problems, and so on. Help them identify unhealthy stress management techniques they’re already employing and suggest alternatives.

Familiarize yourself and your student with all the available resources

Most universities have a wide array of services. Your freshman should at least be familiar with the locations and hours of the learning lab, their professors’ offices, the health center, tutoring resources, and the best places to study.

Many of these resources will be covered in orientation but — no big surprise — many freshmen skip orientation. If your student is likely to need a particular resource, also identify backup options like off-campus mental health counselors or private tutors.

Many colleges also have social media groups where your student can begin “meeting” other students in advance.

Finally, learn the right channels for addressing problems that may arise.

Opt for on-campus housing

Universities and scholarship organizations know that students are more successful when they live and work on campus, which is why some insist on this for the first year.

Dorm living has its own stresses but frees students from the need to cook, commute, keep up a house, and even the need to own a car. The close proximity of students to all the available resources and extra-curricular activities can also help them assimilate more quickly into college life and keeps social isolation to a minimum.

Find a communication balance

This will take discipline on your part. Too many long calls with mom can make homesickness worse. Too few can leave your freshman feeling stranded or let a problem develop unchecked. When you do call, ask open-ended questions about their new life but go easy on telling them all the things they might be missing out on back at home. Ask about their new roommates, friends, professors, and extracurricular activities to make sure they are finding a healthy balance between isolation and over-commitment.

Encourage involvement in campus life

There is something for almost every personality on campus. Encourage your student to look for a club or activity that offers some continuity with their high school extracurricular choices as well as one that pulls them in a new direction. The college years should be about self-discovery as well as learning.

Build a new parent-child dynamic

This may be the hardest step, but transitioning from a parent-child to a parent-adult relationship gives your student the room to make their own choices, learn from consequences, and establish their independence.  Being a non-judgmental sounding board will help the lines of communication stay open. Sympathize, offer suggestions, roleplay potential solutions, and remind them of the resources they have available on campus to solve problems. Resist the urge to rescue or nag.

A recent Harris Poll shows that in spite of all the pressures of academic life, 6 out of 10 students still reported their overall first year as excellent or good, a percentage that rose in conjunction with how emotionally prepared they were for the experience. Happily, 61 percent of students also reported their relationship with their parents improved significantly since beginning college.

Review the first posts in our college-prep series:

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