Helping Your Student Transition from High School to College

24 May 2017

Your student left the elementary grades where much of his time consisted of fun field trips, crayons, crafts, and play dates. Then he moved on to middle school where disciplined study may have been hit or miss. Good work habits and study skills were emphasized, and we, as parents, provided transportation for our students everywhere from sports activities to music lessons to co-op classes. Independence, self-motivation, and increased responsibilities became the order of the day as your student progressed into high school. And, now, before the ink has even dried on the diploma, your student is ready to transition to college. Just as you have taken every opportunity to effectively help your student prepare for each stage of his education, now that your student is heading off to college, there’s still a bit more parenting work to do.

The onus of a smooth transition is not only incumbent on your new graduate, but also on us, as we also have a new role to play. The most common mistake we make as parents is refusing to grant our young adults the independence and maturity they require to succeed. Our inclination as loving parents is to hold our children too tightly despite their attempts to squirm and wiggle free. We try to make all their decisions and keep them snugly beneath our wings. Without recognizing that we are now counselors in their daily affairs rather than managers, we may cause our new freshman to adopt unhealthy or destructive patterns that will carry over into adulthood. Either they will continually and passively accept our overprotection and remain dependent children throughout their college years and into adult life, incapable of independent thought, or they rise in great rejection of our bondage and interference and make life choices that reflect their anger. They, and we lose on both counts.

So, you may ask, how do we help our students transition well from high school to college? You must prepare your student for a smooth transition. It will not happen overnight. Let me offer a few suggestions I have gleaned from my children’s experiences during their first year of college.

Acknowledge the Challenges

Assure your student he is not alone. Everyone will have freshman jitters and nervousness before he arrives on campus and over the next few weeks. Your student’s first few weeks up to the first few months may be stressful, no doubt about it. He may be nervous about waking up on his own, buying his textbooks, making friends, and, further into the year, taking tests and exams.

Encourage New Friends

Relieve your student’s doubts about not being able to make friends. Reassure him that it will happen naturally in the dormitory, in the cafeteria, at the student center, at sports events, and of course, in class. Everyone is pretty much in the same boat. Most students don’t know anyone, either.

Emphasize Time Management

Being responsible and accountable to himself is an important area for a student to develop during high school years. If your student struggled with this during his senior year, a crash course is overdue before sending him away to college. Learning to stay on top of everything will be critical for his overall ability to do well academically, socially, and physically. The excitement of hanging out with new friends, involvement in sports activities, and unlimited screen time will vie for what should be your student’s study and homework time. Train and encourage him to embrace the principle that balance is everything, and to remember that, the number one reason he is in college is to get an education.

Counsel About Schedules

Morning people do well with early morning classes, but if your student is not a morning person, being away at school is not likely to change that. Deter him, if you can, from signing up for early morning classes at least during that first semester. Help him to set up his class schedules in a way that will support and promote his gradual shift into campus life and classes. The first month or so many students will want to stay up late (although you’ve discussed the need for plenty of rest) and feel pretty excited about making their own decisions about when to go to bed. You’ll want your student to be aware that falling asleep during an 8 A.M. class, or missing it altogether, does not impress the professor.

Assist in Budgeting

By high school graduation, your student has probably had some experience in money management, whether it came through a weekly allowance or a working a part-time job after school. If this has not been the case, talk with your student about some of the practicalities involved with spending money and learning to live within his means. Some parents provide spending money by depositing a specific amount each month into a student bank account. Others may deposit one lump sum for the entire semester.

Some students will, by necessity, need to work and/or apply for scholarships and financial aid packages. In either case, it is important that your student grasps the importance of handling his money well. Go over a few of the expected expenditures with your student long before he is in the student bookstore to purchase books. Working a faux budget is a great idea to help the student achieve a level of confidence in spending his money for gasoline, laundry, student activities, parking, permits, etc.

Facilitate Keeping in Touch with Family

Finding a schedule that is a good fit for your student’s schedule and yours is a major hurdle. Initially, there may be frequent phone calls and text messages exchanged. As the student transitions, however, the parent is the one who will be trying to contact the student much more often than the student is contacting the parents. To avoid the frustration that occurs when this happens, try to come up with a flexible scheduled time to talk.

Talk about Academics

Keep your student aware of this fact: students have fewer class hours in college but are expected to study much more. Also, it’s a different type of studying. If students did not develop good study habits during high school, they will find it difficult initially. Students who did not have to study much during their home education, or who did not meet deadlines, will face a greater challenge once they realize they are alone and responsible for missed assignments or missed classes. Professors do not call parents. If needed, encourage your student to find study groups and tutors.

Discuss Roommate Issues

Learning to relate well to other people, working through conflict to become and stay friends with the person assigned or requested to live with, is the overall goal. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. However, rather than rushing to your child’s defense in roommate issues, try to decipher the underlying problem. Before taking any action, be certain the problem is related to deeper issues, not just that your student would rather room with someone else or has some other superficial reason to desire change.

Understand There Will Be Stress

Don't underestimate the effect stress can have on your student; it is the most reported health impediment to academic success. The reasons for stress vary from student to student, of course, but nearly all students are affected by many stress factors. First, everything is new: the living, study, and recreation environment. Also, most students are overwhelmed by finding their way around the campus, no matter how large or small the school. There’s also stress related to meeting new people and adjusting to roommates. Though it may seem a small matter to parents, for many students, there is stress in buying books and other class items by themselves for the first time. Finally, classes are hard, and mid-terms and finals are ahead. Finding that some relationships with old friends may not survive certainly can cause stress and affect studies, also.

Offer Suggestions for Stress Relief

Take breaks from studies. Go walking. Call family or friends. Helping your student learn or remember how to figure out what relieves his stress (lessons learned from high school) will enable him to recognize when he is feeling stressed and so that he can begin working on a plan to relieve or avoid it.

As a parent, encouraging your student is your primary role in helping him through this important transition from high school to college.

GREENHOUSE is NCHE's flagship publication. 

GREENHOUSE magazine is published fall and spring plus an annual graduate issue in May. GREENHOUSE is mailed to NCHE members.

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