What to Expect Your College Freshman's First Year

Each year, nearly 70 percent of high school seniors attend college in the fall following graduation. And regardless of their backgrounds, academic preparedness, and college choice, nearly all will experience some level of anxiety associated with the transition from high school to college. As a parent, you probably want to make this transition as smooth as possible. But knowing where to start can be a challenge.

Common Freshmen Thoughts

According to a national study, Your First College Year (YFCY), the transition from high school to college is no easy task for most 18-year-olds. In fact, the YFCY study, which was designed specifically to track first-year students, found that not all new college freshman can make the adjustment.

Only about 75 percent of students at a four-year college make it to the second year and just over half of students at two-year institutions will return their second year.

These figures are cause for concern for parents, especially if they are forking over thousands of dollars to help pay for college or co-signing on huge loans. So, what can concerned parents do to alleviate some of the stress and anxiety their son or daughter is experiencing?

Most college administrators suggest starting with an understanding of the concerns plaguing many college freshmen today. According to the YFCY, these worries include paying for college, struggling with homesickness, feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities and coursework, trying to meet new people, adjusting to the social scene, and balancing social pressures with academic demands.

What Parents Can Expect

As a parent of a college freshman, people have probably already warned you to expect the unexpected. What makes this even harder, though, is that freshman year is the time in a student's life when you have to allow them to become autonomous and self-reliant. And while you can’t always rush in and fix things for them, you can be a source of support and encouragement. 

In fact, a survey conducted by the Jed Foundation found that parents are the primary source of support for 63 percent of college students experiencing emotional distress. The key is knowing when to help, when to offer advice and when to let them figure it out on their own. Here are the top things parents can expect to witness during their student’s freshman year and what you should do in response.

They Might Feel Overwhelmed

In the YFCY study, students frequently reported feeling overwhelmed by all that they had to do. Keeping up with their homework, completing assignments on time and pulling in decent grades often plagues students, especially those that are used to performing well in school. Keep in mind that the college workload is different from high school and professors may approach teaching much differently.

When students are feeling overwhelmed, it is important for parents to help them break things down into more manageable parts. Looking at a long list of reading assignments, papers that are due and lab work that needs to be completed can be overwhelming. But talking to students about how to manage these things day-to-day can help ease their mind.

They Might Be Lonely or Homesick

If your freshman is homesick, do not worry—they are not alone. According to the YFCY study, 66 percent of first-year students report feeling lonely or homesick, especially as the newness of the college experience wears off and the fall days turn into winter months. What’s more, students who had a strong social network at home can be frustrated by the fact that they have to start all over. They may miss their high school friends and the comfort those relationships brought them.

While it can be difficult to listen to your child talk about missing home, you do not want to rush in and offer to fly them home right away. Many times, students just unload their unhappy thoughts and feelings on you because you are a safe person. Then, the next minute, they're rushing off to dinner with their dorm mates without a care in the world. Wait to see if these feelings are ongoing or just come and go as your student adjusts to life away from home before you attempt to address the situation.

They May Have Roommate Issues

It should come as no surprise that many freshmen struggle with roommate issues. Whether it is the fact that they have a stranger living with them or something more significant like a bullying roommate, roommate issues are bound to happen. After all, some students are morning people and others are night owls. Likewise, some are clean freaks and others are total slobs.

The key is to give students the skills they need to handle these bumps in the road. For instance, if the roommate is a bully, students need guidance not only on how to handle the situation but how to take a stand against the bullying as well.

They May Have Trouble Adjusting to the Social Scene

When it comes to the pressures of balancing going out with the demands of their coursework, many students struggle to exercise self-control when they have so much freedom. In fact, partying is a common activity among new students. And quite possibly for the first time ever, these students are struggling to make decisions without their parents’ restrictions.

Many students report that the freedom that comes with college is often way too much for them to handle. At first, they think, “Wow! This is going to be great.” But many students quickly realize that too much going out can really take a toll on their studies and their grades.

They May Struggle With Time Management

For many freshmen, this is the first time in years that they have had free time. Many of these students had maxed out schedules while in high school. They were often taking difficult classes and involved in a number of outside activities like sports and school groups that left very little time for anything else. But now that they are in college, they have three classes early in the day and then nothing else on the schedule.

Too much free time can lead to procrastination and poor time management because they falsely believe that they have all the time in the world to complete their work. But then, before they know it, the day is gone and they still have 50 pages of reading and a term paper to write. Ideally, parents will work with their students prior to college to establish time management skills.

Strategies for Helping

You play a significant role in helping your freshman transition to college. And while it may feel like one of the most emotional, confusing, and overwhelming roles to date, the importance of what you have to offer cannot be overstated. Here are some suggestions on how you can help your college freshman transition from high school to college life.

Turn Off Your Helicopter

There is no place for helicopter parenting at the college level. Remember, every time you step in to rescue your student, you are inhibiting their growth and development as an independent person. You also are sending them the message that you do not think they are capable, resourceful or strong enough to handle this situation on their own.

What’s more, you are denying them the opportunity to develop critical problem-solving skills. Some research suggests that overparenting kids can hinder the career opportunities and work behaviors, especially if they never learn to do anything on their own.

Cut the Cord Sooner Rather Than Later

Before students leave for college, it is important for parents to allow them an appropriate level of independence. In other words, allow them the space to make decisions about how they are going to spend their time, especially the summer before college. In fact, some students have indicated that having a significant amount of freedom the summer before, while still living at home with parents to offer guidance, helped prepare them for the freedom they had at college.

Foster Resilience and Mental Toughness

Believe it or not, mental toughness, or the ability to bounce back after something difficult happens, can be learned. Look for opportunities to coach your child on how to persevere through the ups and downs of college life.

Whether it is a failing grade on a paper or a lost student ID, as a parent you have the opportunity to guide your child through these challenges. And, if they are struggling with the concept of mental toughness, encourage them to research some of the services at their college or university that could help them hone these skills.

Learn to Recognize When Something Isn’t Right

Loneliness, depression, suicide, substance abuse, and sexual assault are very real issues that plague college students. In fact, many mental health issues present themselves during the college years. Therefore, as a responsible parent, if you suspect that something is not right, you need to take action.

Contact your student’s resident assistant, the Dean of Students, the student health center, or another resource and have them check on your student if you're concerned. And if they do not listen to you right away, keep asking for help until you find it. These types of concerns should never be ignored. Instead, be sure issues like this are addressed right away.

Preparing Your Teen for the Risk of Mental Health Issues in College

Listen to What They Have to Say

It is important for parents to talk with their students and ask them how they are feeling. Many times, simply expressing what is bugging them or talking through what they are facing is enough to ease the stress and anxiety they are feeling. At this age, it is important for parents to start to take on a role of advisor or coach. And instead of telling their kids what to do, they coach them instead so that they are making the decisions on their own.

Encourage a “College Survival” Class, If Offered

Many colleges and universities offer a special course for their first-year students. Often dubbed a college survival seminar, this class teaches everything that is needed for transitioning into college life. Many times, the topics include everything from study skills, time management, and personal development, to self-awareness and career exploration all rolled into one.

Negotiate How Often You Will Communicate

Before your freshman heads off to college, it is important that you know how often you will talk with one another as well as what means of communication you will use. For instance, will you talk on the phone or Skype? Do you plan to text? What about emails? It’s important for parents to stay connected to their students. And it is important that college students need to respect the fact that parents need them to check in from time to time.

Discuss Expectations for Visits Home

Parents are almost always thrilled when their college freshman makes that first visit home. But that joy often fizzles when they realize things have changed.

Too many times, parents expect their kids to behave the same way they did before they left, including being in bed at a reasonable hour. Meanwhile, their students are used to having complete control over their schedules, including when they go out, when they come home, what time they eat, and what time they go to bed.

With this in mind, parents need to have an honest discussion about what they would like things to be like when their student is home on break. The key is to be willing to negotiate with the student without the expectation of having total control. Likewise, students need to realize that while parents are often willing to give them some freedom, they do have to be considerate and respectful of the rest of the family's needs. 

A Word From Verywell

Remember, transitioning from high school to college does not have to be a challenge, for you or for your child. With the appropriate guidance and support, parents can make a difference in how their freshmen handle the first year of college. And, with a little patience and perseverance, you will be able to watch them grow into conscientious young adults ready to take on the world.

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