A Love Letter to College Bound Seniors in Spring: How to Adjust to your First Year of College

Getting into your dream school is an exciting achievement, but once the thrill of acceptance fades, graduation happens, and summer is over, there’s the reality of settling into your new space.

No matter how many visits you’ve taken to campus or how excited or nervous you are to leave home, there will be normal adjustments to college. In fact, you can rest easy knowing colleges around the country have studied and prepared for your future problems.

You will be receiving a lot of advice. Some of it you shouldn’t take. But the following are tips gathered from college students and universities to help ease your transition into the first year at college.

Five Reminders for Well-Adjusted College Students

#1 Making friends. Maybe talking to new people makes you nervous. Maybe you consider yourself shy or introverted. But your successful transition to college depends on getting to know your classmates and forming strong relationships because most certainly you will experience challenges, setbacks, and failures in college. These problems may come from home (or relationships away from college) or they may be problems at school, but having friends you trust will make an important difference in your life.

Also, consider that every freshman is in your same position. Everyone is new and needing to build their own nests. While you may find it awkward to strike up a conversation with an unfamiliar classmate, take advantage of the natural opportunities that spring forth from making introductions, attending orientations, or greeting students in your dorm.
If you are an extrovert, you may be tempted to befriend everyone. But remember it’s quality over quantity. Extroverts need deep bonds to succeed in college, more than they need a hundred new friends.

#2 Changing majors. As Ellie, a college sophomore at Oregon State University, told me recently, she was surprised to discover how common it is for students to switch majors. If you’ve left home with big plans to become a doctor or teacher or business woman, don’t panic if your classes introduce some doubts about your future. As normal as it is to change majors, it’s also normal to experience doubt. Also, if you start college undeclared and feel insecure about your non-major identity, relax knowing that even those who are declared have doubts about the future. Both declared and undeclared majors should meet their college counselors and talk to them about their future plans.

How do you know if you should change majors? Your new friends are amazing, but they may not be able to help you with this problem. Certainly talking to trusted friends or family members is a great start, but really lean into your academic advisor, maybe even the counseling department at your school. Make appointments to consider your options, so you understand the costs and benefits with changing majors. Also, connect with at least one professor. Ask them to tell you the story of how they became the teacher you know today. You may be surprised at the windy path some of us take to our final career destination. As you (re) consider your major, consider what The New York Times calls the Six Myths about Choosing a Major.

#3 Dealing with homesickness. I couldn’t wait to go to summer camp as a kid, but inevitably I would make friends with another camper who was painfully homesick. She would not want to play, swim, or even enjoy the outings with the other kids. I use to marvel at homesickness, but after working with college students for two decades I discovered just how normal it is for even the bravest of students. In fact, if you aren’t someone to miss home, like me as a child, you might find yourself feeling somewhat homeless. Home may not feel like the place you come from but it’s not yet the new place either. 
The solution? As much as you would like to pack your bags or even transfer to a new school, make sure you’ve fully embraced the menu of opportunities at school. When my friend began playing, swimming, and horseback riding at camp she began to remember why she was away from home. She still missed her mom, but she could stand on her own two feet—at least for a week.
Of course, your experience at college is well beyond my camp analogy but there is still some wisdom here. Make sure you’re doing more than your classes. (And make sure you are attending your classes.) Find a club, a cause, a group of people that inspire you. Attend guest lectures, concerts, and other student events. Just as you embraced the role of main character for your college application essay, you are still the protagonist of this story. So go on, feel homesick AND get out there and have some adventures. Like the protagonist, your moral and psychological development depends on an interesting plot. Perhaps most importantly, don’t beat yourself up over being homesick, which only means you are attached to your roots. Psychologists like Krystine I. Batcho are even asking questions about whether homesickness is a weakness or a strength. If you’re missing home, she says to “Transform the grief of separation to nostalgia.”
Finally, there are real reasons to consider going home or switching schools. I do not want to suggest that plugging in will solve some of the problems my own students have faced with sick parents, injury or illnesses, or even a failure to thrive in the Portland climate. Lean on your advisors in such time and make an appointment to visit your school’s health center, where there are trained professionals to advise you. Whatever route you take, don’t wait for these feelings to subside or keep them to yourself. We are made to help each other, and some people, like the mental health professionals at universities, have built whole careers out of their love of helping young people just like you.

#4 Waving Your Freedom Flag. Hooray! You are finally, finally on your own. You’ve not just jumped out of the nest—you’re flying! Isn’t it awesome?! 

Just this week, I spoke with a college freshman who recounted the thrilling first semester away at college. He loved going out every night and found that college gave him so many opportunities to socialize. He assumed his grades were fine, in fact, he believed he was doing quite well. But when his parents visited at mid-terms and they looked at his grades together, he was shocked: three Ds and one F. Did I mention he was attending his dream school?

This story is perhaps a common one for college freshman who are celebrating their freedom and forgetting (often intentionally) the importance of a balanced lifestyle. Yes, even college students need a balanced lifestyle. As a former college professor, my number #1 piece of advice is to attend your classes. Always. I never had a student attend all classes and get lower than a B. Why? Because they received all of the instruction, in addition to the added learning from our reading and writing assignments. Additionally, get some sleep. While partying all night might be cool, attending class and sleeping at your desk is very uncool. 
 
In the end, you can use college to form healthy habits or you can find ways to scrape by and get your diploma. It’s certainly possible to party and finish school—but it’s also extremely stressful, not to mention in some cases dangerous. As you embrace your new freedoms at school, embrace the flip side of independence: you are the only person who can truly take care of yourself. So, do a good job. To hear a college student’s point of view, read The New York Times blog on “The ‘Heady Rush’ of Freedom of Freedom in College, and How to Manage It.”
 

#5 Managing Stress. College should challenge you. In fact, if you fought hard for your acceptance you may experience a gap in the expectations of high school and college. Additionally, if you have a career plan that includes graduate school, you may be diving right into a first year that could extend for five, six, or even eight more years of formal education. If at all possible, I recommend taking less credits your first term. Sure, you could technically handle eighteen credits but why not try fifteen or even twelve? Those other three credits could be added later as a summer course or as a heavier semester as an upper classman. I know one very smart, high-achieving freshman who’s been taking 18-credits since his first quarter of college. There’s still three months left of his first year and guess who’s feeling burned out? 

Like #4’s tips on freedom, make sure you are sleeping and eating regularly. Scientists at the University of Töbingen in Germany have discovered that sleep allows us to process and encode recent learning, so sacrificing sleep for more social time or even studying all night does not benefit you. And as your brain becomes undernourished from sleep, you’ll become edgier and more stressed out.

Nutrition can really enhance sleep. And while coffee does have caffeine, it does not contain nutrients. 
 
Finally, if you find yourself stressed out, make sure to communicate with loved ones and someone at school. My students often feared having “excuses” about missed class, late, or missing work but after a conversation about their lives I sometimes learned of problems at home, a very stressful class, internal pressure, and so much more. In those times, I was able to validate the real challenges of college and offer support. The mantra here is communicate, communicate, communicate. Call home and tell your loved ones about your life. Talk to your professors and advisors. Talk to your friends and roommates at school. Isolating yourself means it’s just you and your stress hanging out 24/7. The University of Georgia also has an excellent guide on managing stress in college, accessible to anyone on their website.

There are certainly other transition issues that colleges address every year. Your school will have a page on their website called “college adjustment” or something similar to The University of Santa Cruz’s page devoted to helping college students.

Bailey, a junior at Chapman University in Orange, California, reminds us of the original vision of leaving home for college. She advises college bound students to, “Pick a place where you want to spend the best four years of your life. And don’t forget to call mom once in a while!” The “best four years of your life” is something you can contribute to as you adjust and learn to take care of yourself at college. “Calling mom” or special person in your life will help you remain open and connected to the people you love. As you leave home for college or experience your first year of college, remember that most of us already know the problems you’ll face. 
 
College adjustment is a normal part of starting your undergraduate career, but it’s also a time for self-definition and balancing self-reliance with support. So more than worrying about making us at home proud, decide what being proud of yourself looks like, your very own health and wellness prescription. And if you’re not sure, add this inquiry to the goals for your new college setting—the just-right place to write your own recipe for a healthy college adjustment.
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