The First College Year

The First College Year

Your student’s first year of college may be emotional for both you and your student. Families who understand the cycle and rhythm of the academic year can help their student negotiate critical transition points. The following are some of the typical opportunities and adjustment issues that may be part of your student’s first-year experience.

The First Weeks — Navigating a New World

Students are experiencing college life for the first time. They are excited to explore both academic and co-curricular opportunities and are trying to make connections with other students, staff and faculty. Almost everything is a new experience. Students may be:

  • Excited and apprehensive
  • Exploring new freedoms
  • Learning to manage new responsibilities
  • Feeling homesick and lonely
  • Trying to find their place socially
  • Anxious about new academic challenges

Mid-Semester — Reality Check

Classes are in full swing. Early assignments and exams have been returned and students may be surprised (either pleasantly or unpleasantly) by their grades. Students start to realize that friends from the first few weeks may or may not stick around. Students may be:

  • Feeling more or less confident about academic abilities and choices
  • Making adjustments to study habits and time management skills
  • Asking themselves whether they fit in socially
  • Seeking additional opportunities to get involved on campus
  • Dealing with consequences of poor decision making
  • Meeting academic adviser to select courses for next semester
  • Excited or apprehensive about heading home during break

End of First Semester — Information and Stress Overload

Students are sorting out how to approach their first final exam period as the first semester winds down. The realization that academic work in college is much harder than high school has set in for many. For those who have procrastinated or stumbled in the early months, the pressure is now a reality. Students who have joined student organizations may have end-of-semester commitments. Students may be:

  • Feeling more confident about the lay of the land and the friends they have made first semester
  • Anxious about adequately preparing for final exams
  • Finding it more difficult to get along with their roommate
  • Overwhelmed by the number of commitments they have in the coming weeks
  • Excited or apprehensive about heading home for break

Second Semester — A New Beginning

While a new semester is a fresh start it is heavily influenced by the experience students had their first semester and during break. If your students lived on or near campus, they may enjoy being home and reconnecting with their families and friends, which may make it harder to return, while others experience challenges at home that make them excited about heading back to campus or their apartment. First semester grades and confidence in the friendships they established last term also influence their excitement or apprehension about the start of the new semester. During second semester students may be:

  • Feeling renewed interest in opportunities to make connections
  • Getting more involved and even taking leadership roles in co-curricular activities
  • Working to find a balance between academic and social commitments
  • Thinking about living arrangements and roommates for their second year
  • Contemplating academic interests, strengths, and choice of major
  • Meeting with their academic adviser to select appropriate courses to meet their goals
  • Exploring internship and employment opportunities

Adapted from Empowering parents of first-year college students: A guide for success by R. H. Mullendore and L. Banahan (2007) and The happiest kid on campus: A parent’s guide to the very best college experience (for you and your child) by H. Cohen (2010).