How to Steer Your Own Ship: Advice for College Freshmen

Let’s face it. For college-bound students, senior year is all about getting in to college. So much time and energy and effort go toward college visits, choosing where to apply, completing applications, and then waiting. Then, once students are accepted, it’s all about figuring out which school has made the best offer and which school is “the one.” By the time they proudly don a t-shirt bearing the name of the college they will attend at the end of their senior year, everyone is ready to celebrate at graduation.

Then, the flurry of college shopping takes over. Choosing the perfect bedding becomes a time-consuming activity along with all other preparation. Before you know it, it’s move-in day. Suddenly you are lugging boxes and bags up flights of stairs, meeting the roommate, and prying yourself away.

Between setting up a payment system, having the “be careful” conversation about sex and drugs, and enjoying the last months of life as we know it, there is little time or inclination to delve into the anxiety that our teens feel about the huge transition from high school to college.

Granted, college is by design a time for our children to become the captains of their own ships. There is something to be said for letting them set sail with as little interference as possible. But I think it doesn’t hurt to provide them with a few tools that will not only help them steer but also feel a little more confident at the helm.

3 Tips for Incoming College Freshmen

1) The first semester of college may be hard

If, in the odd moment when they let their guards down, one of my children confided that they were nervous, I was quick to counter their negative thoughts. College will be like camp with a little bit of homework. And you will meet so many people who will be your friends for life.

This strategy has backfired countless times. The truth of the matter is that there is plenty to worry about and their experience may not be seamless. By telling them that everything is going to be fine, I inadvertently put more pressure on them. Then, they worry even more when their first days are not perfect tens.

I learned this the hard way with my middle child. Like so many of us, we had focused our energy on the college application process: choosing a school that he thought was a good fit, filling out the application, sweating through the wait, feeling the joy when he was accepted, and then talking about how much he would love college life.

Guess what? Turns out he had a really tough first semester. Most of his friends were together at a different school so they had a built-in social network. He missed the window where you could walk up to anyone and introduce yourself so he didn’t find his people right away. And his dorm was filled with kids who were on the baseball team. He was lonely.  And he felt worse because his experience didn’t match his expectations. We spent a lot of time on the phone that first semester talking about it and recalibrating.

He not only survived, but he ended up thriving. He returned second semester with a whole new approach and has never looked back. Even better, he uses what he learned from his first semester to put himself out there when he’s in a new situation.

And we learned, too. When my third child was accepted to college, we immediately began the conversations about how she would love college, but that she should expect to have some difficult moments. That it was completely reasonable to have some bad days, and that we would be there when she needed us. That it might take a little time to find her people and that in the meantime, she would sometimes feel lonely.

2) Sometimes, it’s okay to feel stressed.

No, really. We often feel like stress is debilitating, which inevitably leads to negative results. But research shows that if we change our thinking about stress, then the tension we feel can be positive. In other words, our sweaty palms and pounding hearts are our body’s way to prepare us for whatever lies ahead. Biologically, it is a way to get more oxygen to our brain so that we have the energy and the courage to walk into that classroom, introduce ourselves to someone new, or try out for a lead in the play.

Clearly, there is a difference between this stress that, if approached positively, revs us up, and the kind of anxiety that is debilitating. But if we panic at the first sign of pressure and then focus on avoiding discomfort, our children don’t learn that they can trust themselves to handle an awkward, new, or uneasy situation.

My daughter, who has never shied away from an adventure, tends to get very nervous before she begins something new. She will shut down a bit and get quite cranky before bursting into tears and confessing that she feels apprehensive. Then, we talk about what’s making her stressed, and I remind her the stress she feels is normal and helpful.

This strategy was essential in the month before she left to begin college. We reminisced about the other times when she has felt the same way. And we focused on how she ended up having wonderful experiences or solving her problem or passing a test. It still wasn’t easy for her, or for me. But it reframed her “pre-game” stress as a necessary part of how she adapts to new situations.

3) Don’t forget to check your email

It might seem silly, but this reminder is important too. There are few things that cause more stress than missing a deadline your first year at college. Sadly, I speak from experience. Colleges use email to communicate matters big – tuition and financial aid information – small – campus activities that may be of interest – and in between – where there will be free food. We parents don’t get this information so it’s really important to make sure that they get into the routine of regularly checking their email.

My children who have grown up with cell phones and computers still did not make checking their email a regular occurrence when they were in high school. Of course, they knew how to enter the portal to find out if they had been admitted. But then, for some reason, they thought they were done and they could enjoy the rest of their senior year. I suppose it’s reasonable to expect that they would just show up at college and everything would be ready for them. Why not?

My oldest son worked at an overnight camp the summer before his senior year. And to his credit, he did embrace the philosophy of being unplugged. However, he did miss several emails from his advisor who then assumed that he was not interested in any support, as well as the window during which he could select and register for his courses. He signed up for classes in the car on the way to school. And so began the list I made of what I would discuss with my next child about college.

There really is nothing like having a kid leave home for college. It’s truly a high-stakes separation. College comes with high expectations that our teenagers will take ownership of their academic performance, career path, and social and emotional growth. We can still play an important role in supporting their transformation.

The post How to Steer Your Own Ship: Advice for College Freshmen appeared first on Your Teen Magazine.

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