Before she heads to college in just a few weeks, Emma Khan, 19, of Naperville, Ill., is savoring time with her family and friends. “We’re going on bike rides, watching movies and having dinners together,” Khan says. “It’s important for me to see them before I go.”
Now that coronavirus vaccines are available, Khan’s looking forward to what she hopes will be a more normal sophomore year at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. But she doesn’t expect the transition to be seamless.
“I’m very close with my family, and I’m nervous about leaving them,” she says. “I’m also worried about managing my time and living with three new roommates.”
Khan isn’t alone.
According to a 2018 study, academic, social and emotional changes all play a role in college adjustment, with stress influencing how well students adapt. In another study that included 822 undergraduates, stress was the most common mental health issue. The researchers found that a need for life/school/work balance and stress management tools were top priorities for the study participants. And this was before the uncertainties and added stress of the pandemic.
Like most life changes, college comes with a learning curve, and knowing what to expect can help. Mapping out what lies ahead can help students and their families feel more prepared, says Don Capone, a psychologist at a counseling center at the University of California at Berkeley. Capone calls this “coping ahead” and says discussing potential pitfalls can help students brainstorm valuable solutions.
Here are some common adjustments students face and expert-backed advice on how to cope with each one.
First-time students face a wave of new responsibilities, including managing finances, class schedules and social calendars. They’re also confronted with peer pressure and whether to engage in risky behaviors such as casual sex, skipping class and substance use.
Experiencing these changes in one fell swoop can be a roller coaster of stress. “For many students, these added responsibilities can be overwhelming because their entire routine must change,” Capone says.
Research suggests this adjustment may be more challenging for first-generation college students, especially when family values like interdependence collide with the independent culture of campus life.
And when independence comes rushing in, ambivalence can follow. For instance, while Khan is excited to take control of her life, she’s also worried about balancing adult responsibilities like cooking, cleaning and staying on top of her studies.
Adjusting to this new phase is a marathon, not a sprint. With a menu of new responsibilities to juggle, focusing on well-being is just as vital as solid study skills.
With the students he counsels, Capone prescribes self-care, which can include physical exercise, stress-coping tools and self-compassion exercises.
Parents can help their college-goers by normalizing their kid’s worries, making it less likely that anxiety will spin into panic, Capone says. Letting them make their own choices while still providing emotional support can also help, says Clarissa Daria Simon, PhD, a health scientist at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
Forging new friendships
“I’ve been wondering how the rise in covid cases will impact my classmates and me socially,” says Gabe Castro-Root, 18, of San Francisco. Castro-Root, who will start his freshman year at American University in D.C., says he’s wondering whether ongoing safety measures, including mask mandates and potential limits on social gatherings, will make it harder to make friends.
“Social changes like dating and friendship are one of the biggest adjustments new students face,” explains Jill Yoshikawa, an educational consultant in Sacramento. For some students, constructing a new social world is more challenging than academic stress, she says.
Yoshikawa, who has coached students for over 20 years, says today’s college students often struggle with having unstructured, free time.
“In many cases, their parents have organized their social lives from the start,” Yoshikawa says. “They’ve had camps, social dates and enrichment programs, but college is a time when they must take the lead.”
Frequently, students are hard on themselves because they expect immediate outcomes, she says. They’ve grown accustomed to studying for a test and getting an “A,” but forming friendships is a process, she says. Therefore, Yoshikawa encourages students to shift their expectations: “I remind them that new relationships are a reward that unpacks over chapters.”
Finding a solid support system and sense of belonging can help college students flourish, research shows. Young adults can start by getting involved with social groups and organizations that align with their values and interests.
If they need additional guidance, residence hall directors, student services and college counselors can help.
Poor sleep is a common complaint among first-year students, and sleep deprivation can lead to mental health concerns like anxiety and depression. For one study, the researchers interviewed 15 first-year students and found that noisy residence halls, unstructured schedules and the temptation to socialize contributed to sleep problems. Another study found a clear link between the hours of sleep a student gets and their academic performance.
Megan McFadden, 18, of Huntersville, N.C., says sleep is something she’s slightly worried about.
“My freshman year, I had trouble sleeping at times, due to stress, living with a roommate and finding time to do everything,” she recalls. This fall, McFadden, who will be a sophomore at Butler University, plans to live in a sorority house. While she’s excited, she’s also concerned about getting enough rest.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, practicing good sleep hygiene from the start can set students up for success. This includes not drinking caffeinated beverages, especially late in the day. “Last year, I tried not to have caffeine after 2 p.m.,” McFadden says. Sleep experts also recommend going to bed at a reasonable time and keeping naps to under one hour.
“New students are often surrounded by other high achievers, which can make them feel confused, scared and inadequate,” Capone says. Making comparisons to peers, as well as putting pressure on themselves, can feel like “social media on steroids,” he explains.
And when perfectionism and academic pressure collide, stress can swell. “I struggle with perfectionism and push myself to achieve at the highest level,” McFadden says.
Capone suggests that students find a study buddy, eat a balanced diet and work on time management.
“It’s also important to practice courageous vulnerability and ask for help,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to let a professor know you’re struggling and need assistance.”
As classes change, academic stress will wax and wane, not just in the first semester, but throughout the college. Finding a way to cope can make a world of difference. Instead of holding herself to unattainable standards, McFadden focused on her larger goals. She says that exercise, sleep and hanging out with friends help her academic performance, too.
If feelings of anxiety, sadness and irritability disrupt sleep, relationships or academic performance, talking with a counselor can help, Capone says.
Research shows that college life can coincide with mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety. One 2021 study found that the pandemic had taken a toll on student’s well-being, but also that enrolling in a campus wellness program helped. On most campuses, student health services offer mental health counseling and can connect students with peer support groups, too.
Concerned parents can support their kids by keeping lines of communication open, Simon says.
“Talking openly can help young adults share their struggles without the fear of being dismissed or judged,” she says. And having friends, caregivers, advisers and counselors to lean on can help first-time students weather the college transition.