1. There is the stress of making a good adjustment because students believe their future depends upon their doing well. Did they make the right choice? How can they be sure? Should they change courses, direction, major? Putting choices into a longer-term perspective is useful. There are many people on campus that can assist them in making decisions: professors, peers, and College staff.
2. Some students will be homesick, missing their family, friends, and pets. They will miss old routines and structures.
3. Students may be ambivalent about dependence and independence. Some will openly ask for parent support and others won’t tell parents important details. Parents need to ask their adolescent how they are doing without prying too much – while also being accessible and open.
4. The school may not live up to the expectations set by the brochures and admissions counselors. Rarely does an admissions pamphlet tell all about the ins and outs, and the limits and shortcomings of a place.
5. The work is hard and some students may experience their first low grades. Most students have done well in high school. Some high school courses are not as demanding as college. A student has to learn a particular professor’s expectations and style of grading.
6. Students will be expected to maintain their own schedules and develop good study habits. There is no one around to force the student to study, to go to class, or to get a good night’s sleep. Students have to create a structure that works for them. Time management is a skill that can be learned or improved through work with the Macalester Academic Excellence (MAX) Center (phone number is 651-696-6121).
7. Students may become excited about whole new areas of study and may change their career goals and major plans. Parents who believe their student’s goals and dreams are set in stone may be surprised.
8. While many classes are small, some students may feel overwhelmed by large classes. They may be the youngest in the class or the least experienced in the subject matter. Many students are used to being the oldest and the brightest, and this is a big shift for them.
9. Some professors may not be as exciting and challenging as students thought they would be. While some professors are interesting lecturers, some are not. Some lead discussion classes and expect students to do a good deal of the talking. This may challenge quieter students.
10. Some students may have trouble with reading and writing assignments. The level of writing required may be higher and in greater quantity than what was expected in high school. Some students need extra tutoring in writing, grammar, spelling, etc. (Suggest the MAX Center: 651-696-6121.) Some readings may be more complex and difficult than expected. Assignments may require several readings and much more time than students allot. Students may develop anxiety about their performance.
11. Students may really like their advisor, or may not. If they have an advisor they do not get along with, they will hesitate to ask that advisor for help. Most advisors work well with students but occasionally personalities don’t mix well. Students can change advisors. Communication is the key here, even if personalities don’t match.
12. There is a maze of things to figure out – such as which courses to take, who to get to know, where to go for this or that. A lot of energy goes into trying to make sense of the new environment. Students may feel confused and bewildered from time to time.
13. Colleges have vocabulary and rituals that are new and unique. Concepts such as deans, provost, convocations may be new. What do students call their professors? Dr.? Ms.? Mr.? They need to ask. Some campus rituals may feel strange.
14. The food is not like home cooking. Students can gain weight during the first year eating too much fat, starch and junk food. Most students will complain about the food. The food here is pretty good, much of their dislike comes from eating at the same place for three meals a day, seven days a week … and it’s not mom or dad’s cooking.
15. Students dress differently than in high school. Some have body piercings and purple hair. As your adolescents explore their identity, they may look radically different during the first vacation or two home.
16. There are so many choices that the student can be overwhelmed and may not complete projects and tasks. There are so many clubs, organizations, activities, courses, lectures, sports practices, and concerns that it is sometimes hard to decide what to go to. Work can suffer if the student is spread too thin. Conversely, studies show that judicious active involvement can help students make better use of their time and increase the quality of their work. Some students don’t get enough sleep and get sick because they are committed to too many groups and/or projects. Balance is the key.
17. There is some promiscuous behavior and some drug use. Students have to mature, make responsible choices, and be aware that others may not engage in the most constructive behaviors. Sometimes roommates want to bring their partners into the room. Some students may even talk like “everyone else is doing it.” Keep in mind that this is their perception rather than the reality.
18. Students will be leaving old friends behind. They can keep up with them through email and vacations. In some cases, they will go their separate ways. This may surprise and sadden some students, especially those who have had the same friends since grade school.
19. Students will be confronted with different people from a variety of backgrounds. There are cultural differences; racial differences; and differences in sexual orientation, religion, values, and lifestyle. It can feel overwhelming to start over with new people. It can be hard to make new friends. It also gives students a chance to develop a new identity. There will be feelings of acceptance as well as rejection. Coping with new ideas, new people, and the possibility of rejection takes energy.
20. Roommates often have different lifestyles, values, and ways of doing things. A roommate can be particular, messy, reliable, unreliable, assertive, helpful, noisy, confused and difficult to live with. Some students find it challenging to live with a new person. For others, it will be easy and friendships will emerge. If a student calls home to complain about a roommate problem, encourage them first to work things out. There are Residence Assistants (RAs) who have been trained to assist in this process. Students may need to talk about switching roommates if the situation becomes intolerable – for example, if a roommate is abusive. The RA can help with that as well.
21. There may be troubled students who want to rely on your adolescent excessively for support, care, and nurturance. Some students may be very emotionally distraught and needy. This can be demanding and take a lot of time and energy. Your student needs to know when to say, “I can’t handle this” and when to refer his or her friend to the RA or for counseling (Counseling Services is 651-696-6275.)
Home and Family
22. Some students call home often. Others don’t. Understanding student and parental expectations about the kind of contact that will be maintained is important. Have a discussion about what each family member needs as a minimum and wants as a maximum of contact. Also discuss ideal conditions – times of day, days of week that respect each person’s sleep habits, study needs, work schedules, etc.
23. Family structure changes. Parents may experience freedom when the kids leave home, or they may feel a great sense of loss. Or they may feel both! A father may find himself the only male among his wife and daughters. A mother may find herself the only female among her husband and sons. The phone may be quieter than before. New space may become available. When the student returns home, he or she may feel like everyone has gobbled up the student’s space and moved on.
24. Students may choose to not come home for vacations, or may not be able to do so because of cost or distance. They might be invited elsewhere. They might join campus service trips such as Habitat for Humanity. If parents are looking forward to home visits, they may have to adjust their expectations. Communication about expectations again is the key.
25. Parents need to express concern and interest, and empower their adolescent to seek appropriate kinds of help when necessary, to make good choices, and to learn from experience. Parents cannot step in and do it for their student. However, some of the situations can be stressful and difficult for your adolescent. There is a fine balance in taking a genuine interest and offering help – but not encouraging your adolescent to rely on you too much.
Coburn, K. L., & Treeger, M. L. (2003). Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years. (4th ed.). New York: Quill Press.
Dr. Michael Obsatz, Professor Emeritus, Macalester College.
Dr. Linda Schmid, Director of Clinical Services, Crisis Connection, Former Staff Psychologist, Macalester College
Daniel J. Streeper, M.A., Post Secondary Student Development, Former Director of Campus Programs, Macalester College
Adjusting to College: A Guide for New Students & Their Parents http://isis.fastmail.usf.edu/counsel/adjust.htm
Barkin, C. (1999). When Your Kid Goes to College: A Parent’s Survival Guide. New York: Avon Books.
Johnson, H. E., & Schelhas-Miller, C. (2000). Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin Trade Paperback.
Kadison, R. & DiGeronimo, T. F. (2004). College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What To Do About It. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Boss. (The chapter for parents is excellent for suggestions on staying in touch, problem solving and mental health symptom checklists.)
Lauer, J. C., & R. H. Lauer. (1999). How To Survive and Thrive in an Empty Nest: Reclaiming Your Life When Your Children Have Grown. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Pasick, P. (1998). Almost Grown: Launching Your Child From High School to College. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Seaman, B. (2005). Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. (This title is misleading; this is a very good description of the current state of college life, its everyday stressors and joys, and is not nearly as shocking as the title suggests.)
Van Steenhouse, A. (2002). Empty Nest, Full Heart: The Journey from Home to College. (2nd ed.). Simpler Life Press.