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This too shall pass: Handling students first-year college challenges

While much energy is spent on the college admissions process and the focus on getting in, as important is staying, graduating and getting out.

More than 36 percent of all four-year college students transfer out of their first university, half of those to a community college. While challenging academics play a small part, it is often the executive functioning skills and adjustment to being away from home that are the big culprits impacting both mental health and grades.

Following are some things students can learn before they leave for college that will help boost their chances of staying in college once they get there.

• Learn to make decisions. Expecting a student who has been under complete parental control until high school graduation to make good decisions when they haven’t had any prior experience is unrealistic. Having students start to make their own decisions is good practice for both student and parent, as the parent learns to relinquish control.

• Learn time management. Students should manage their own time and calendar once they are in high school. Google or iCal calendars have great sharing capabilities so that parents can still be clued in to students’ appointments and time. This also encompasses learning to set an alarm and get themselves started in the morning on their own as well as managing short- and long-term school work and other commitments.

• Learn to do their own laundry. No one wants a roommate with stacks of stinky, dirty laundry as their dorm decor.

• Learn to cook. Many first-year students have problems with eating healthful foods. While Tuesday’s grilled cheese and Fruit Loops seem rebellious during the first semester, most students crave nutritious food, and being able to prepare basic foodstuffs with a hot plate and microwave can help feed the brain as well.

• Learn to handle money. For most students, the first time they are fully managing their own money is when they leave for college. Begin transferring control of money to students in high school, setting budgets and providing the funds for purchasing clothing, haircuts, etc., to the student and letting him or her suffer the consequences of ill spending while still in the safety of home.

First-year transition

Once students are in their first year, it is important to touch base with them to ensure that the factors beyond academics are staying within their stretch comfort zone. It is common for first-year students to feel homesick, uncomfortable and out of place, especially after winter break.

During the first semester, everything is new and students are often focused on discovering their new surroundings (like where are those bathrooms?), negotiating with their new roommates and figuring out how to manage their new independent life. Then they come home for winter break, where doing the laundry is free, close and easy; mom and dad make their favorite foods and surround them with familiar comforts; and they get to see those high school friends as they exchange war stories about their first semester away.

However, after the winter holiday break, reality sets in. Even if they stay in California for school, the weather is cold and (hopefully) wet, the days are short, the food gets tiresome, the classes harder and they begin to realize that they haven’t yet formed the deep relationships and friendships that are the backbone of their hometown visits. This is the most common time for students to begin talking about transferring, as they think the problem is the school and not the circumstances and assume that a new college would be “better.”

Often the student doesn’t articulate that outside factors are the problem; the complaint usually is stated as, “This college sucks,” and that learning is not happening. This often manifests in poor grades and missed classes and is misdiagnosed as a bad-fit college.

If the student starts to show these symptoms, start by addressing the underlying social, cultural and mental health issues. This is the time to send care packages, do more Skype, FaceTime or Google Hangouts, and encourage the student to become involved with school activities. This is the time to be there for them, perhaps with a little tough love, reminding them what they loved about the college and encouraging them to hang in there, as this too shall pass.

Hollis Bischoff is college admissions adviser for Strategies 4 Admission LLC. She blogs about college admissions at strategies4admission.com/blog and tweets at @collegeunlocked. For more information, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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