How to Prepare for the First Year

Advising parents: how to prepare for the first year of college

Posted by Shelly Shinebarger, Director of Student Support Services

The first year of college can be stressful for students and parents. For students, it’s a time of new people and new demands; they’ll be expected to read, write and produce more than ever before.

For parents, it can be equally difficult, as they experience their kids truly separating – individuating – from them, maybe for the first time. It can be hard for parents to accept their children’s need to speak and think for themselves. And it can be tough to draw the right lines, because even as students mature and develop, they still need guidance.

So how can you, as a guidance counselor, help prepare your students and their families for the hug goodbye on campus this coming fall? Here are some suggestions.

First, for parents looking for a good resource, I recommend Letting Go by Karen Levin Coburn. It has helpful tips about what to expect during college years, with chapters on the “sophomore slump,” “orientation and disorientation,” expectations and identity. It can help parents of new college students put it all in perspective.

Before freshman year, I really encourage families to have frank talks about healthy choices and how to make them once kids are running their own daily routines. Students’ overall well-being is so important for success; they need to take care of their minds, bodies and spirits. They need to achieve a healthy balance, getting enough sleep, exercise and food. (And yes, eating breakfast!)

It’s hard for students to remember to take care of themselves. They might be used to a very scheduled existence, filled with high school, after-school sports or activities and homework. At college, they’ll have a lot more freedom, but many more distractions – and no one making sure they get everything done. That’s why it’s important to stress balance, so they can create a routine and lifestyle that works.

I personally advise students to treat their days like “work days.” Some might nap between classes or hang out and talk when they could be reading. They’re probably used to doing homework at night and think they’ll hit the books later. But residence hall life is distracting, and campus is teeming with evening parties and social and sports events. If students use their days to study, they can relax at night with their friends.

Understand, too, that student rooms are not for studying. They’re for socializing and sleeping.  One of the first things students should do on campus is identify a quiet place – and time – for study. Nine out of ten students have a roommate. And students trying to study in their rooms at midnight might have a dance party overhead, a Nerf football game in the hall and music blaring next door. What should take two hours during the day can take four at night.

Parents should also encourage students to visit faculty members with any questions or issues they encounter. Remember, students really do get brownie points for visiting faculty, who are also advisors at Union.

And a word of advice for parents: do not call professors on your student’s behalf. This is a big no-no. Obviously, there are exceptions, such as emergencies or serious illnesses. In these cases, a call to the Dean of Students office is best.  But generally, students must learn to advocate for themselves, so they can manage themselves after college, as well.

Parents should also encourage students to honestly assess their strengths and weaknesses when registering for classes. If a student has a learning disability, for instance, he/she should not pick three heavy writing classes.

Parents should also encourage students to plug into college health, counseling and writing centers. Tuition is paying for these services, so use them!  Especially in the beginning, during the transition, remind students to make connections and ask for help when they need it.

Parents should understand that when students first arrive on campus, there’s a bit of a honeymoon phase.  They love everyone! But after about three weeks, they can get homesick. They get tired, and the first work becomes due.  The homesickness is often just normal fatigue and stress.

We see some parents who are too quick to call with worries about their child’s mental state. Maybe a student had a bad day and vented to mom and dad, who are too far away to properly assess the situation. Often, when we contact these students at their parents’ request, they’re fine. So parents should encourage kids to reach out for help if they’re truly depressed. There are, of course, some kids who become isolated and stop going to class, and that kind of behavior must be treated seriously.

But mostly, I encourage parents to fight their natural urge to fix everything. Students need to fend for themselves. Advise them, provide tools , but teach them independence.  Allow them to make mistakes.

Parent-student relationships have changed so much in recent years. When I was in college, I called home once a week on Sundays, and long-distance charges meant the clock was ticking. Now, many students and parents communicate many times per day, connected constantly via texts, email and cell calls.

This can make it even harder for parents to let go, and not remain overly involved in their children’s daily ups and downs. But it’s important to encourage students to find their own solutions to problems and challenges, so they can eventually make their next transition successfully:  from student to adult.