5 Tips To Help Your Current or Future College Student Thrive

Below is the transcript from the conversation I had with my dad, when I called home from college to let my parents know I was not thrilled with my experience during the first semester.

Me: I'm not really happy. I don't think I like it here. My roommate is not like my friends at home. The environment isn't what I expected.

My Dad: Oh, I remember that feeling too.

Yep, that was the beginning and ending of our conversation about my uncertainty during my first weeks (or possibly months...I don't quite remember) of college. While it was the end of the conversation, I still had to work through the unsettled feelings until I successfully came out on the other side. I was reminded of this feeling when I unearthed some old notes for a talk that I did for incoming freshman when I was an orientation leader at UC Berkeley many years ago.

Speed ahead decades later and the same feeling of uncertainty seems to swirl around in the minds and hearts of many freshman today. While the feeling is similar, the response is often quite different. More and more I am hearing about students getting into the college of their dreams (or the one just short of their dreams) and, after not feeling like it's the right fit, they transfer at the semester or year-end.

My years of working in higher education along with my background in Life Transitions Counseling and Positive Psychology has me looking at this HUGE life transition through a unique lens. Whether you have a disgruntled freshman, or an over-the-top excited high school senior who just go into their target school, these 5 tips will hopefully help normalize feelings and prepare your student for success in what likely will be their first significant life transition.

  1. Validate feelings about uncertainty and normalize the experience. When we do anything new, particularly leaving absolutely everything and everyone you've ever known, it will be stressful and it will take time to build a comfort level. In working with clients experiencing life transitions, I notice it takes a good 6-9 months to begin feeling grounded - yes, that might mean the full freshman year before connecting to the school! True connections are not something that you can put on fast-forward.
  2. Whether your child is mid-way through freshman year or heading to college in the Fall, doing an "expectation check-in" can help get some grounding in reality. To help us prepare for an experience, our brains will draw on any information possible to create a mental picture. Often this picture comes from Hollywood or social media where what we take in can look like 24 hours of nonstop fun. While, yes, college has many fun moments, the majority of the day consists of real life moments which don't always feel like a party. Helping to prepare the brain with a more accurate picture can be very helpful to reduce stress and disappointment in transitions. Asking your student what their vision for college looks like and what they hope to get out of the experience is a great start.
  3. Knowing and using one's strengths is a significant component to over-all wellbeing and life satisfaction. Having your child identify and use his or her strengths throughout the college experience can help with navigating through tough patches. Leveraging one's strengths can be helpful with studying, selecting meaningful campus involvement and building new solid relationships. For a free strengths assessment, visit www.viacharacter.org.
  4. Encourage your child to create a self-care plan. When times get stressful, a self-care plan is more important than ever AND it is usually the first thing to get dropped. If your student is not loving college life, ask what he or she is doing to take care of him/herself physically and emotionally. Getting a wellness plan in place BEFORE school starts, is a great way to start the new semester or new year.
  5. With our brains natural tendency to see the negative, help your student re-direct to what's working and what's going well. The simple question of "what went well today" or "what went well this semester" can create a positivity spiral. Encourage your child to seek experiences and people who spark some joy and stimulate the flow of positive emotions. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson's theory of "Broaden and Build" confirms that "experiencing positive emotions broadens people's minds and builds their resourcefulness in ways that help them become more resilient to adversity and effortlessly achieve what they once could only imagine". 

If all else fails with these 5 tips, you can always go back to my dad's one line - "Oh, I remember that feeling too." That may be all your child needs to re-direct and figure out how to make the situation work. I can't imagine how different my life would have been had I packed up my bags and returned home. After that first semester, I returned to school and jumped in with both feet, got involved on campus and built my community (yes, even my roommate became one of my closest friends freshman year). I ended up not only loving my experience at Cal, but staying on for many years after working for the University.

The most important lesson? By shifting my mindset, I took an experience that wasn't initially working for me and created it into all that I had hoped for and more. Thanks, dad, for not giving me an alternative!