Updated: May 9, 2022
Surveys of first-year college students’ mental health report that many students feel overwhelmed most of the time, regardless of the school they attend. The Harris Poll revealed that emotional preparedness, defined as, “the ability to take care of oneself, adapt to new environments, control negative emotions or behavior and build positive relationships – is a major factor to students’ success during their first year of college.”
Many first-year students, accustomed to a familiar (and often overscheduled) high school routine while being scaffolded by the daily support of parents, arrive on campus expecting an easy transition. What they find instead is that they are lacking many of the skills needed to successfully manage their daily life in college. Lots of well-meaning parents have contributed to their student’s lack of preparation by over-involvement; they assisted too much. Although with the best intentions, parents who help their children succeed at all costs, minimize their daily stress, and avoid disappointments, leave little room for their teens to hone adulting competencies. The result? First-year students who have not developed coping skills struggle or even fail when they must take responsibility for themselves and rely on independent decision-making.
The Teacup Student– Easy to Shatter
College administrators and staff have begun referring to these incoming students as “teacups.” They are the freshmen who are so fragile that they often break when college stressors and challenges come their way. Some teacups are so shaken by a college challenge or disappointment that they appear visibly shattered. It’s common for these students to break down in office hours with an advisor if they are unable to register for a first-choice class or with a professor over a disappointing grade. Other teacups break quietly and internally, overwhelmed with independent decision-making or imposter syndrome, the belief that they are not as capable as their peers.
Lessons to Ease the Transition to Independence
But there is good news. Research by those studying the transition from high school to college as well as best practice suggestions from college mental health experts illustrate that the skills necessary for a successful transition to college can indeed be taught – and the earlier the better. High school students who not only understand why it’s important to be self-sufficient in college but also know how to become independent decision-makers, set themselves up to thrive in their first year of college. Here are four lessons that can help high school students begin to build the adulting competencies they will need for college.
Master Basic Life Skills Before Heading to Campus
No one goes from dependent to independent overnight. The beginning of high school is a great time to begin to acquire college-level skills, but students should be reasonable about the pace at which they expect themselves to learn a large number of adulting competencies. Just a few of these include:
Professional and financial: keeping a budget, writing a professional email, booking plane, train, and bus travel, and using a phone to make an appointment or leave a voicemail;
Health: treating common physical maladies, understanding medication dosages, filling a prescription, and the basics of health insurance;
Food: prepping a simple meal, knife skills, comparing prices, reading nutrition labels, and understanding shelf life of food;
Identity protection: memorizing your social security number and keeping your personal information safe online.
Tackling basic life skills for the first time while adjusting to all the newness of college will make the transition process even more stressful. A student who has made their own doctor’s appointment, done their own laundry, and gone to the post office to mail a package before leaving home will have an easier time when they engage in these tasks again on campus.
Recognize that Asking for Help is Actually an Adult Behavior
When a high school or new college student is asked to define “adulting,” a common response involves “doing things on my own.” However, when an adult is asked the same question, they will often talk about having learned their limits and how they benefit from getting help from others. It’s challenging for young adults to understand that asking for assistance when needed is actually an adult behavior and a sign of maturity.
College-bound students should be encouraged to search online and familiarize themselves with the various resources that will be available on their campus. These include physical and mental health resources from the counseling center, health center, fitness center, and wellness center; academic resources from the campus library, writing center, academic advising office, and from professors and graduate teaching assistants; and professional planning resources including the office of financial aid, the office of merit scholarships and awards, and the career center. There are also specific resources on the majority of campuses which support students with disabilities, students of color, and first-generation college students. Many new college families are surprised to learn that the majority of support resources available to students on their campus are already included in their tuition.
Build Resilience as Armor for Disappointments
Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence, discovered that highly successful adults share several qualities which include resilience, the ability to bounce back from failure. It is this same resilience that helps college students thrive. The familiar comforts of home such as childhood friends, caring teachers, and supportive families can cushion the falls of the teen years in the face of adversity. That means that many young adults do not begin to learn the skills of resilience until they enter college.
And college life comes with a lot of choices, far more than were available to students in high school; numerous options can add a sense of confusion and feelings of being lost or overwhelmed. Knowing this, students can build these skills of resilience by setting out to take control of what they can in their lives. This includes creating manageable schedules with realistic task breakdowns to provide a sense of achievement and competence. It also involves developing a community of friends and mentors filled with healthy relationships so that students don’t feel isolated when they have to handle rejection or in a time of struggle.
Discuss In Advance What to Do When Things Go Wrong
Finally, first-year students should expect to make mistakes. Struggle with college-level academic and social situations is part of young adult growth. Knowing how to handle themselves when things don’t go as planned, especially in a situation that is unfamiliar and frightening, can make a major difference in a student’s psychological well-being. As high school students prepare for the transition to college, it’s beneficial for them to engage in dialogue with their parents or other trusted adults before leaving home and make a plan for if/when things go wrong. Some of these topics might include, “What will the student do…”
if they overspend beyond an agreed-upon budget?
if they are struggling academically or even failing a class?
if they feel unsafe on campus or at a party?
if their wallet, cellphone, or laptop is lost or stolen?
if a friend has passed out due to alcohol consumption?
if they feel that they are unable to control their thoughts or emotions?
if they try, but just can’t seem to get along with their roommate?
Faculty and staff expect first-year students to find the transition to independent living a challenging one; rookie mistakes and poor planning are normative college struggles. However, by engaging in these discussion topics before arriving on campus, students won’t have to call home every time something doesn’t go as planned in college. Failing at something doesn’t make someone a failure. Knowing this is a huge step toward adulthood.
Andrea Malkin Brenner, Ph.D. is a college transition educator and author who speaks frequently with high school students and parents on the challenges related to college transitions. She draws on her 25 years of experience as a college professor, as the creator and director of American University’s first-year experience program, and as the faculty director of the college’s University College program. Andrea is the creator of the Talking College™ Card Deck, the original card deck of discussion prompts for college-bound students and their parents, and co-author of How to College: What to Know Before You Go (and When You’re There), a leading guide for college-bound high school students. See AMBrenner.com for more information.
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