Over three-million high school students are graduating this spring in the United States. Many of them will head to university in the fall. The transition from high school to college is a major one, and successful adjustment to college has life long implications.
College adjustment comes in different forms including adjustment to the academic workload of college, engaging in learning, and earning high grades. Successful adjustment also means experiencing a sense of belonging at college, making friends, and taking part in the social aspects of this time of life. Finally, students benefit from adjusting psychologically which means experiencing low levels of depression and loneliness and high levels of physical and mental well-being.
Much of my recent research is focused on the role family members play during the transition to college. Maybe you are about to make this transition yourself or have children who are about to leave the nest. This list is for you. If you know someone who is making this transition, or know parents shepherding their emerging adult kids through this time, please take a moment to share this collection of research-based tips with them.
- Have fun and try to embrace the uncertainty that goes along with a major life transition like going to college. Students’ attitudes about whether attending college with have a positive influence on their lives is a strong predictor of academic performance. Your perspective and outlook about college matters.
- Be open to making new friends as soon as you step foot on campus. Even during orientation! Almost everyone is in the same boat as you are, hoping to make friends quickly. Your success in college depends, in part, on surrounding yourself with close others who can support you and help you have fun. Students who engage in extracurricular activities outside of classes (for example, student social organizations) tend to have a smoother adjustment to college.
- Hold onto high school friendships, but not too tight. Support from high school friends is linked with making strong friendships in college, but not letting go of those high school friendships to make room for new ones is linked to lower adjustment during the first semester of college.
- Don’t be afraid to talk to your professors or teaching assistants. Successful adjustment is about reaching out for help when you need it. This means trying to find the answers on your own first, but then contacting those who can help you when you can’t. That is what they are there for! Your professors and teaching assistants want to see you succeed in their classes.
- Lean on your family. Family support can give you comfort when classes get hard or you are stressed about finals. Family members can give you advice and help you solve problems if you need help. Strong support from family is linked to lower loneliness and depression during the first year of college and higher academic adjustment including motivation and concentration. Family support is also linked to feelings of belonging at college. If you don’t have support from parents or siblings, think more broadly about who might serve in a “family” role for you. Do you have an aunt, uncle, or neighbor who values education that would support you? Family support can come from a wide variety of people, whether or not they are related to you.
- Be confident. Feeling anxiety about communicating with peers, professors, and speaking up in class is associated with lower resilience during the transition to college. One of the best ways to increase your communication confidence is to practice! The more you speak up in class, the easier it becomes. You can also focus on the potential positive outcomes of any interaction instead of the negative ones. Instead of thinking about how you might look foolish for asking an obvious question in class, think about how you (and your classmates) will likely do better on the test if the concept is clarified for everyone.
- Be open with your parents and ask them for help when you need it. Their support is critical to your success. Hiding information from them, even if you think they are better off not knowing, is associated with higher rates of depression and feeling like you don’t belong at college, not to mention the stress you will likely feel trying to keep secrets from them.
- If you feel like your parents are “over-parenting” you, respectfully let them know you need some space. Over-parenting, also known as helicopter parenting, happens when parents try to solve problems for their emerging adult kids, are overprotective, and make decisions for them to a point where the kids feel stifled. College students might feel their parents’ behavior is excessive and intrusive. Being helicopter parented is linked to lower self-esteem, difficulty adjusting to college, and lack of independence for emerging adults. Despite all this, keep in mind #5 and #7, that parent support is important to your success, so don’t push your parents away! Just let them know you are ready to make decisions for yourself.
Thanks to my niece, Shelby, for the inspiration for this article. Good luck with your own transition to college next fall!