Preparing for the “Unknown of College”

haveuheard unknown huh

What an Academic Advisor Wants You to Know About the Unknown

by Priscilla Beth Baker
Many people have asked me recently what we as parents can do to better prepare our kids for college and being on their own. I think the “unknown” of college makes it an incredible stressor for both kids and their parents. My husband refers to it as “the black box.” You send your kid to this unknown black box and don’t have a real sense of what’s going on there, so we, as parents, look for opportunities to get a glimpse of what that looks like. It’s those unknowns of, “What will it be like? Will I make friends? Am I academically prepared? Will I be successful? Do I need to know what I am going to do for the rest of my life right now? What should I have done before now? What could I have done differently?”

I think students get caught up in those spirals of wondering and self-doubt, and that is incredibly stressful. The main thing that would reduce this kind of stress is for high school students to realize that they are NOT ALONE in these thoughts and that everyone around them is struggling to make sense of their future college careers as well. Realistic conversations with parents, older siblings, and guidance counselor-led individual and group sessions on educating students would help to reduce this anxiety.

As far as what we parents could do to aid our kids in making that transition go more smoothly? We can encourage them to solve their own problems (at school, on their sports teams, in their clubs, with their siblings, in their friendships) on their own instead of intervening on their behalf so much of the time. We can model problem-solving and direct them to resources but should let them gradually take the lead.  Holding them accountable is key as well. We all mess up. But the worst tactic is to cover it up or normalize it so nothing is learned from the experience. Helping them learn how to fail gracefully, as painful as that is to watch, is a gift.

If your child is homesick, I think it’s okay to do one or two visits each semester that your child can look forward to, but if they start to depend on it, that can become an issue. I would most definitely deter parents from letting their kids come home all the time if they live close by as well. They need to find their feet on their campuses and to do that, they need to be present. They will never be comfortable existing outside their comfort zone if they aren’t forced to do it. It’s incredibly hard to say to your child, “No, you can’t come home,” but it may be exactly what they need to hear, and they may actually be relieved to have that permission.

A good or bad roommate can make or break the student experience. I have more students complaining about their roommate situations than just about anything else, frankly. Learning how to communicate effectively with a perfect stranger and assert your needs is a huge opportunity for growth. Don’t let things fester, but know when to pick your battles. I tell my students, “Ask yourself if you are going to care about this in a day, a week, a month, or a year and go from there. If you are still going to be annoyed/angry/upset about this in a year, then it’s worth confronting. If you know it won’t even matter in a day, a week, or even a month, just let it go and chalk it up to being a funny story further down the line.” The thing is, they will actually learn more from having a bad experience with a roommate than the other way around. Not that that’s a HUGE consolation at the time, but it is a fact, and there will be major personal growth coming out the other side of that kind of challenge. As far as when it is necessary to step in? If your child has tried to resolve issues on his or her own, but the roommate is completely preventing your child from getting any rest whatsoever by being up all night/having people over, is destructive in any way, or is blatantly or aggressively argumentative to the point that your child feels attacked or even unsafe. That’s when you step in.

The transition to college can take a long time for some students. Typically, by Thanksgiving, things settle in much more, but it’s really getting that full year of unknowns under their belts and coming back as “upperclassmen” that is the real shift. It seems like forever to them, but that second year, so many things fall into place!

haveuheard advisorPriscilla Beth Baker currently works as an academic advisor at a large university and has two college-aged sons of her own. She is also a former high school English teacher and educational writer for Prestwick House Publishing.

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2019-12-04T17:02:43-05:000 Comments

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