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Who Is Your First-Year Student? How Different Personalities Adjust to College

Adina Glickman


Whoever your student was when you dropped them off at school, they’ll be practically unrecognizable when you see them next. There may be confidence you never thought possible. There may also be piercings and ink.

Whatever road they’re now traveling, yours as a parent has also experienced a seismic shift. All of the parenting skills you mastered through their childhood and teens are now obsolete. The hard work you put into learning how to love, guide, and communicate with them goes sideways when they leave for college.

At first it will feel like you’re driving blind, but as you let your student show you who they are becoming, you’ll realize that this new stage of parenting is awesome. When you don’t need to give your full attention to protecting them, you have brain and heart space to see them, appreciate them, and enjoy them as they unfold into unique adults.

But until they settle into their college selves, it can be a mighty confusing journey. As a freshman advisor and the director of Stanford University’s learning strategy programs, I spent almost 20 years behind the firewall of silence that students install between themselves and their parents. The backstage pass to students at college when parents aren’t around afforded me a glimpse you all don’t get to see.

Here are some “types” of students I’ve encountered. Of course these descriptions are ridiculously two‐dimensional compared to the real person your student is, but you may see elements that ring true from one or more of them.

The Free-At-Last Captive

This student has been serious about school since kindergarten. They were driven and single-minded about getting into college. Now that they’ve arrived, their goals are less clear and their sense of purpose feels vague. They’re discovering how much fun it is to have friends, to join a sorority or fraternity, to get involved with clubs or sports.

You may feel...

Who IS this person? You’re relieved they’re finding joy in non-academic endeavors but you may also worry that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction.

What you can do...

Don’t panic, and don’t judge. Remember that your student is on their own path and the whole point of being in college is to try things out. Remember that academics are a fraction of what college is all about. Remember that, when they were growing up, you “just wanted them to be happy.” Their happiness may look new and different to you. Cultivate a loving curiosity about it.

The Observer

Not necessarily shy, but not sure how to step into the college scene, this student takes a wait‐and‐see approach. They don’t yet know where they fit in or if they even want to. Academic endeavors aren’t terrible, but they’re not feeling great either. In fact, nothing feels totally comfortable, so this student does a lot of standing on the sidelines questioning whether they’re meant to be in college.

You may feel...

Worried that they’re sad or depressed, anxious that they aren’t making friends or “taking to it” with more pleasure and sense of adventure.

What you can do...

Remind them that they should focus their attention on what makes them feel good, because when they feel good, other good things are more likely to emerge — like bravery, creativity, and self-acceptance. Reassure them that whatever they can do to feel grounded and comfortable is good for them. Remind them of how long it took for you to feel like you knew your way around the new job you started years ago. Remind them that change is unsettling, and to be patient with themselves as they find their footing, which you are very sure they will.

The Kid in a Candy Store

If you can even get this student to respond to your texts, you’ll discover they’re enrolling in and dropping classes every other day, considering majoring in economics and minoring in calligraphy or possibly majoring in biology with a double minor in political science and computer science. They’re joining clubs left and right and appear like a blur being propelled from one exciting possibility to the next.

You may feel...

Breathless and exhausted! While you’re glad they’re filled with energy and optimism, you fear they’ll spread themselves too thin and burn out.

What you can do...

Remind them to drink water and get more sleep. And keep being curious and listening without offering assistance unless they ask. Don’t worry about how quickly they change their minds about a major or a class or a club. College is supposed to be a mind-changing experience!

The Pre-Professional (Happily or Unhappily)

The happily pre‐professional student has wanted to be a doctorlawyerengineerstockbroker since they were yay high. They truly feel like they’ve arrived and are moving in the right direction.

The unhappily pre‐professional student has also wanted to be a doctorlawyerengineerstockbroker (or said they did), but being in college is now shining a light on just how much they aren’t sure anymore. Fun computers in high school are nothing like engineering foundation courses in college. Freshman chemistry is boring compared to the philosophy seminar they’re taking.

You may feel...

If they’re happy with their pre- professional plan, you feel massively relieved that they’ve chosen a direction and are on their way. If they’re unhappy, you feel massively anxious that they’ll flounder until it’s “too late” and live out their life in your basement.

What you can do...

Communicate your massive relief as neutral support. Why? Because they may change their mind some day and they’re going to need to feel like you can accept their new truth. Your neutrality communicates that it’s not their life plan that you’re attached to, it’s them.

If they’re unhappy with their plan, your massive anxiety should also be communicated as neutral support. They may want you to make it better, tell them what to do, and so on. Don’t go there. Communicate that it’s normal to change direction, and it might take time to find a new sense of purpose. And that you believe in them and their ability to find their footing.

Frequently, students don’t tell their parents that they’re unhappy with the plan. Instead, they fail or do poorly in classes that are needed to follow the path they’d decided on. Or they’ll do well but be miserable. They may not want to share their discontent if they feel you’re more committed to their plan than they are. As much as possible, divest yourself from their journey so you can help them find the path they’re meant to follow.

The Walkabouter

This student brings to college a sophisticated and independent spirit, and is ready to take on multiple challenges. With a growth mindset in which effort, time on task, comfort with failures and setbacks, and a sense of adventure guide their decisions, they’re taking the college experience very seriously while also having some fun and finding their friends.

You may feel...

Scared for them, excited for them, and sometimes a little left behind.

What you can do...

Sit back and enjoy the ride. Mourn the ending of their childhood dependence on and allegiance to you. Continue to be their best adulting role model by getting on with your own life.

No matter which of these types most closely resembles your child, I can tell you some truths about what every first-year college student encounters.

  1. They aren’t getting enough sleep.
  2. They’re meeting people who are nothing like them, and who may be introducing them to ways of thinking and being that might surprise or even dismay you.
  3. They’re overwhelmed by how many decisions they have to make every day. Vegan burger or salad bar for lunch? Volunteer for club secretary or not? Read my email or ignore it completely? Join the party or study? Start a new Insta story or give up social media entirely?
  4. They’re exhausted from the emotional whiplash of feeling exhilarated, terrified, homesick, insecure, and invincible — sometimes all within a single afternoon.
  5. Every day feels like a million different things, and when you casually ask them how they’re doing there’s no easy way to summarize or encapsulate it. They still want you to ask them.
Adina Glickman is the founder of Affinity Coaching Group, which offers academic, life, parenting and career coaching. She is the former director of learning strategies at Stanford University and is the co-founder and director of the Academic Resilience Consortium, an association of faculty, staff and students dedicated to understanding and promoting student resilience. Learn more at affinitycoachinggroup.com.

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