“What did you think about your freshman year during the pandemic?” I asked my college freshman last week. I figured since we were only a week before the end of the semester, he would have lots to say.

“It was okay,” he said.

“Just ‘okay’? Why?” I asked.

“COVID, man.”

Gee, I thought that with vaccinations in our state that allowed for young adults and college students to get a shot in the arm and with the beautiful weather that allowed for us to move more freely among others he would have said, “It is getting so much better.” But he didn’t. I am sure the shock of life in a metaphorical bubble has left a scar.

I promised him–and my own students–that if we could get more people vaccinated and if we could continue to follow community health safety practices, we–and they–could have a fall semester that more closely resembled the academic years of yore.

The more quickly that we can get back to a “new normal,” I think the better we will all feel. This time last year, we were preparing for a pandemic college experience. Make no mistake–last fall was tough for all of us, but especially students who had to put their expectations on pause. And as you can see from one college student, the result was a mediocre experience.

To celebrate this return to a more traditional academic year, I am going to lay out some suggestions for each year of college.

If your student will be a freshman this fall, first, congratulations for getting them through what was most likely a unique (good word for it, right?) senior year. They may have already had to learn how to balance remote work from home without the benefit of direct supervision. What may have been a struggle for them to build those skills will serve them well this fall. There are a few other things they can do to prepare for college:

  • Buy and use a planner. This is the #1 piece of advice freshman say is the skill–time management–that makes a difference between being overwhelmed and being less stressed.
  • Explore. Even if they know–or think they know–what they want to major in, encourage them to “shop around,” by taking interesting classes outside their intended major (They will have to do this for the general education requirements).
  • Prepare for failure. Talk about what they should do if they struggle in a class or have a conflict in a relationship. Remind them that you are there for them to talk through their options and that they have resources on campus.

If your student is a rising sophomore, again there are congratulations in order! You and they made it through an unpredictable, wild ride. They were, in essence, our guinea pigs for how to manage a variety of different course delivery options and live and learn on a campus with more restrictions than ever.  There are a few other things they can do to make their second year better:

  • Talk to an advisor. After a year of classes, it is best to sit down with an advisor to make sure they are on track and to make changes if needed to their major or their pathways.
  • Take a career course or assessment. If your student has access to a course on career exploration, encourage them to take it. It can help them solidify their plans or find an new route. If they take an assessment, be sure to get them to make an appointment with career services to discuss the results.
  • Change study habits. What worked their freshman year may need to be modified their second year. Classes get harder and more important as they move into their major. This is the time to remind them of tutoring and office hours!

Poor juniors, they get overlooked some times because they are usually doing well moving toward completing their degrees. However, there are things they can and should be doing to make that year a pivotal one:

  • Get an internship. If they have not scored one by their junior year, they need to consider applying for one very soon. They can also get real-world experience through job shadowing, a part-time job, or a micro-internship.
  • Or get a job. I am not suggesting working full-time (unless it is a must), but getting a part-time job during the break or throughout the school year can do more than help them earn some money–it can also provide workplace skills such as time management, communication, and problem solving.
  • Find a mentor. Faculty can serve as mentors as well as other staff or alumni. Encourage your student to find someone to talk to about their goals and career aspirations.

Seniors are often both excited and nervous about finishing their degrees and launching into a new world. My college senior (who will have graduated May 15 of this year) is a bundle of nerves. She is both ready to graduate but not-quite-ready to live on her own. Here are a few things that can make that transition a little easier:

  • Learn to budget. If your student hasn’t had an opportunity to make a list of what they will be responsible for post-graduation, then start the conversation now. Phone? Internet? Insurance? Emergency fund for car repairs? All of those items will need to be accounted for as they move toward self-sufficiency. And it can be a rude awakening if they haven’t even researched how much things can cost.
  • Review your resume. Now is the time to review their resume (or write one if they don’t have one) and get it ready for sending out. An appointment to Career Services will help tremendously.
  • Stay connected. Encourage your student to stay connected through an alumni association or other organization after graduation. They may be surprised by how their networks during college can help them after they launch their careers.

Normal academic year next year? This is to be determine, but we can continue to plan as if it will happen and make adjustments accordingly. If there is one tip for all the college years, it is Be flexible.

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