Preparing for College

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‘Tis the season that many high school seniors and their parents are starting to prepare for the transition to college. The process has hopefully been in the works for many years, but the last months provide a pivotal opportunity to smooth the way. 

The shift from living under the parental roof and supervision to independent living creates opportunities and challenges for students and parents. It’s smart to be proactive in trying to anticipate and address as many of these as possible, and in concrete and practical ways. Let’s consider four general categories of independent living skills, in order of increasing complexity. 

“How-to” skill building: These are the basics. Students, do you know how to do your own laundry, cook a few basic meals, and clean a toilet? Do you set their alarm and get up on their own, without parental prodding? Do you know how often to wash bed sheets? If not, now is the time to learn and to actually start doing these things, so it becomes easy. 

Habits and routines: Students, are you managing your time, work and responsibilities on your own? How are your independent study skills? Do you avoid the procrastination trap without parental nagging? Are you balancing work and leisure time in a healthy way? Do you generally keep healthy sleep, nutritional, and exercise habits without parental intervention? Do you limit your own internet use? If not, what, specifically, would it take to accomplish these between now and mid-August? While it may sound straightforward, these changes do not generally happen overnight, and starting out with mastery of these can put you way ahead of the curve. As a parent, I know that sometimes pulling back and risking a temporary negative outcome can be more difficult for the parents than for the student, but better to do this now than later, when the stakes are higher. 

Self-advocacy: College is a fantastic opportunity to practice skills in communicating effectively with others (including peers and superiors such as professors) and advocating for oneself. In order to feel empowered to grow in this area, versus feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed by anxiety, it helps to have a few basic skills before arriving on campus. Parents can help most by refraining from intervening on their student’s behalf and encouraging the student take action themselves, with support and instruction as needed. Specific examples include how to write an appropriately formal email, how and when to write a thank you note, gaining comfort talking in person to an authority figure, and making and keeping appointments. Parents can help by giving feedback on draft emails written by the student and by role-playing conversations ahead of time. 

Safety and Health: This category is the most important and the most difficult (and most awkward to discuss) and includes topics such as substance use, sexuality, consent, healthy relationships, physical and sexual assault risks, depression and suicide. The first step is having the conversations about these topics, including identifying and defining personal values, strengths and areas of vulnerability. These are different for each student. Some people are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure, others struggle more with substance use, while others hold impossibly high academic standards for themselves, putting them at risk for anxiety and depression. Try to anticipate the specific scenarios and situations that might be problematic, and come up with concrete and personalized strategies to address these. Write them down. Practice them between now and leaving for college.  

In addition, students should know how to use their medical insurance, fill a prescription, and manage common illnesses such as colds and fever. I recommend encouraging students to seek help at their student health center, including for mental health issues. I’d emphasize that if they are 18 years old, they can do this in confidence (with some exceptions for acute, high-risk situations, when parents are notified), while at the same time encouraging them to let their parents know if they are struggling, for the extra support and assistance. It is important for students to know their medical and psychiatric family history, so they are fully informed of their own vulnerabilities and can communicate that information to medical professionals. 

*If a student has a medical condition, including a mental health condition, for which they receiving care, please be proactive and set up care well ahead of time, either through the college’s student health center or in the community where the school is located. If a student has had a recent health crisis, consider deferring start of college until they are more stable.

Here are a few added “pearls” my husband and I have gleaned from our work with college students as well as from our own experiences muddling through as parents. 

College is not the be-all-end-all, “best years of your life.” This unrealistic expectation puts too much pressure on the student and the experience. As with the rest of life, college is complex and layered.  Parents, encourage your child to talk with you if things are not going well. There’s no shame in admitting to having a rough time. It is not uncommon to feel lost or lonely at the start of college.  Be patient; it may take time to make close friends and to find your tribe. It’s not easy, but continue to put yourself out there. Taking time off if needed is also okay.

My daughter’s advice is to not focus solely on academics, but also “make friends, be adventurous” (in physically safe ways). My son says, “be open” to new experiences and people; while this may be less comfortable than sticking with the familiar, it can lead to college’s greatest rewards.  

At our son’s college orientation, the Chancellor distilled his advice to the incoming students to three key things, which I still remember as brilliant: go to class, don’t let substance use adversely impact your college experience, and “be kind.” I’d add: go to office hours, talk with your professors, and don’t skimp on sleep.  

When your student faces a challenge, first listen actively. Try to refrain from jumping in with advice. Often people are looking for an ear, to be heard and understood. Offer empathy and emotional support. By offering advice right away, you may inadvertently be giving the message that you lack confidence in their problem-solving skills. Students often prefer to figure things out on their own if they can, improving their sense of self-efficacy. You can ask what steps they are thinking they might take to address the issue, and what they think might be helpful. Encourage them to use the numerous resources already available on campus, whether it be their RA for a roommate issue, the student health center, their academic advisor regarding class schedules and choosing a major, or the career center.

Ultimately, parents grapple with the perennial challenge of finding that elusive sweet spot between offering assistance and backing off. In most cases, it’s best to empower your student to do as much to solve their own problems as possible, while making it clear that you are always there for them.  We did explicitly communicate to our children that if something serious and overwhelming occurs, they should call us right away, even if they are feeling ashamed and embarrassed, or are worried we will be angry or disappointed; we are their biggest allies, are always in their corner, and are in the best position to help them. 

Parents, I’d recommend finding an opportunity to sit down with your students and have some of these discussions, and listen, don’t preach. Students, be patient with your parents and be open to having at least one discussion with them about the transition to college. 

Parents, know that your children will try things you wouldn’t choose for them. The emerging adult brain is biologically primed for new adventures and exploration. Be open to hearing about their experiences and choices and try to understand why they make the decisions they do. In the end, opening up avenues of non-judgmental communication provides the strongest safety net. 

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