Many parents spend lots of money and time getting their high school student ready to go to college, and most of that time is preparing for admission and perhaps even earning a top scholarship. Little, if any time, is devoted to preparing for the transition intellectually, socially, and emotionally (to name just three) for the demands of higher education. And while it is important to set your student on the right pathway, it is also important to set them up for success by filling their toolbox with information and strategies they can use as the begin their journey.
What does it take to successfully transition from high school to college? There are six areas of adjustment that your student will experience and the more you and your student know about these, the better equipped you will both be:
What we know is that adjustment to this new experience and new environment requires change, which takes time. There’s a psychological process that students move through as they traverse the first year of college. As students move from high school to their first year of college, they must adjust their behaviors and thinking academically, culturally, emotionally, financially, intellectually and socially, in order to meet a new set of expectations. And you can be sure that students will likely experience challenges in each of these areas (so be prepared when they call that first semester).
I Made Good Grades in High School, Now What Is Happening?
It will be helpful to know that the learning environments in high school and college are different, no matter how academically challenged your student has been in high school. At the college level, students are expected to take a more active role in their learning; therefore, they need to think about how they will adjust to meet the heightened expectations of higher education. Successfully making this adjustment means having the ability and know-how to meet the increasing demands of college, and being open to change.
Academic Adjustment Challenges
- Developing self-regulatory behaviors (time management, avoiding procrastination)
- Establishing relationships with professors
- Managing assigned reading and workload
What you can do to help them adjust: Remind them of the numerous resources on campus that are there to help them make this adjustment.
Wow, There Are a Lot of Different People in the World
Your student may have come from a very diverse high school environment, and then again, maybe not. Regardless of their previous exposure to different cultures, college students, regardless of where they go to school, will encounter different religious beliefs, sexual orientations and identities, ages, and abilities–even different nutritional practices–in a number of different settings.
Some of these situations will be social, others academic or work-related. What these experiences have in common is that they provide opportunities to learn from others with a different perspective. How much a student will benefit from these diverse interactions depends on their ability to adjust culturally. Being accepting and welcoming of differences is one way to embrace diversity in college.
Cultural Adjustment Challenges
- Living and learning with a diverse student body
- Adjusting to language differences among classmates, roommates and faculty
- Understanding their own bias-related belief systems
What you can do to help them adjust: Support your student as they experience the diversity on their campuses. Encourage them to meet new people and participate in new experiences.
I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying!
College is stressful regardless of how steely your student is. Students respond differently to new learning environments, meaning they’ll have different emotional responses to the experiences they will face during the first year. Some will be prepared to handle the stressors of college life more readily, while others may struggle with challenging situations. Successfully making this emotional adjustment means learning how to cope and manage their feelings.
Emotional Adjustment Challenges
- Experiencing homesickness
- Coping with stress
- Developing strategies for handling mental health issues
What you can do to help them adjust: Remind them of the resources on campus for mental health counseling and coaching. And listen without judgment!
Adulthood Is Hard…and Expensive
It is never too early to develop money management skills, and college students especially need to learn how to handle their finances. For many students, it may be the first time they don’t have ongoing guidance from family about money issues. It can be hard for students to learn how to budget and not be tempted to spend their money frivolously. Students need to adjust to this change sooner rather than later to avoid issues such as bank fees or high-interest debt.
Financial Adjustment Challenges
- Developing budgeting and financial literacy skills
- Understanding tuition costs and navigating financial aid
- Finding and managing a job
What you can do to help them adjust: Get them to create a budget and stick to it. Talk to them, too, about finding a part-time job if they feel they need more money to cover expenses.
I Just Heard the Coolest Lecture and Now I Am Changing My Major!
One of the most exciting adjustments is that your student will have a class, or even a single lecture, that turns them on to learning. When that happens, be prepared to hear all about the intricacies of, say, nucleotides. This often happens because students have the opportunity to join a true academic community. This community includes fellow classmates, faculty, and college administrators. During class, students are expected to engage in intellectual discussions with their faculty, raise questions, and at times, even challenge them. In turn, students will be exposed to new ideas, subject areas, and career choices that they may have never considered before.
Intellectual Adjustment Challenges
- Experiencing a shift in previously held values
- Feeling uncertainty about choosing a major
- Taking calculated risks that move outside comfort zone
What you can do to help them adjust: Listen with interest and ask questions. Then, direct them to advisors and career counselors for more information and support.
Friends, Friends, and More Friends
We know that one of the biggest stressors for students is the social changes. Students are in a new environment and their social skills are still in development. First-year students especially will be faced with shifts in their relationships, finding a new peer group and handling the pressure of fitting in. Residential students will also have to adjust to a new living situation, which may include roommates.
Social Adjustment Challenges
- Experiencing changes relationships
- Developing strategies for living with a roommate
- Handling social situations involving peer pressure
What you can do to help them adjust: Remind them to a make the first move when they have not made friends yet.
Throughout their first year, students will be encouraged to learn and claim their education in many ways, in the classroom and beyond. Learning involves making connections, taking calculated risks, and being open to change. You can help by engaging in candid conversations with their students before and during their first year, about the habits, behaviors, and attitudes that contribute to college success and how to cultivate them.
You can encourage their students to fully engage in their college experience and be ready to operate with a growth-mindset; that is, an understanding that college is a place where they will mature academically, culturally, emotionally, financially, intellectually and socially, if they embrace particular behaviors and attitudes.
Download our checklist for the Six Areas of Adjustment: Six Areas of Adjustment Checklist PDF
This blog post was written in collaboration with Laurie Hazard, Ed.D. and Stephanie Carter, M.A., the authors of Your Freshman Is Off to College.