My College:
Student Life

"How Does Your Student Like College?"

Marlene Kern Fischer

When I am out and about in town I often overhear people whose kids have recently started college greet each other with, “How does [your child's name here] like school?”

The response generally is, “She LOVES it!”

Now, I understand one might not be inclined to go into personal details while standing on line at the deli counter or using the treadmill at the gym. However, I also know there's a strong chance their child does not actually love college and, in fact, may even be unhappy.

After the lengthy and exhausting application process, emotionally wrought acceptance period, Bed Bath & Beyond excursions, and tearful residence hall drop off, it can be difficult to acknowledge (to the world and to yourself) that your student is not ecstatic at college.

But if that happens to be the case, you are not alone. I don’t know the statistics but get the sense that there are more unhappy kids, at least at the start of college, than those who are completely delighted. Neither of my two older sons was particularly pleased with his college in the beginning and their dissatisfaction lasted for quite some time.

Many factors can affect how a first-year student feels about their school. Despite the fact that your student may have seemed as if they couldn't wait to leave the nest, I guarantee they miss you, their siblings, their high school friends, the pets, their old bedroom and home-cooked food (not necessarily in that order).

In addition to homesickness, there may be adjustments to living in a residence hall, roommate issues, disappointment in their academic program or the social life, struggles with classes, etc.

How much unhappiness is typical and what, if anything, should you do about it?

The Grass Is Often Greener...

It’s normal for students to think they might have been happier somewhere else, especially in this era of Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook where everyone looks like they're having a better time at their school than you are at yours.

Don’t be alarmed if you hear your student say, “I kinda wish I’d gone to…” (their second choice, their boyfriend’s school, the local state university, etc.). It's important to listen and allow them to vent their feelings but, in all likelihood, they will ultimately fall in love — or at least serious like — with the school they chose.

It took both my older sons a few semesters to find their footing. My oldest, who went to college in the Midwest, complained a great deal initially, but then joined a fraternity where he made wonderful friends. He also changed majors (several times) and ended up loving the university from which he had previously considered transferring. In fact, after he graduated, I was amused at how often he went back to visit, largely because of the fact that his girlfriend was still a student there, but also because he missed his alma mater.

They May Talk About Transferring

In a minority of cases, the school really is a poor fit and no amount of time will fix this. My middle son’s good friend from high school was unhappy at his college and, despite the friends he made and his best efforts to acclimate, he knew it wasn't going to get better. He transferred halfway through sophomore year and was much happier. In fact, he wished he'd done it a semester earlier.

I suggest that, if your student seems that miserable, they start the transfer process. It can be easier to get into many colleges as a transfer student than as a high school senior.

If your student changes their mind, they're not bound to switch schools; however it keeps the option open. A friend’s daughter went through the transfer process and was accepted at several schools but in the end decided to remain where she was. In her case, she just needed more time to adjust to her new environment.

Pay Attention to Your Student's Emotional Health

Keep in mind also that mental health issues can manifest during the college years.

If your student seems more than a little unhappy or adrift, you might suggest they seek professional help, starting with campus counseling services.

My oldest son’s freshman roommate routinely slept through classes and had trouble sticking to a schedule. When I asked my son if he thought his roommate was depressed, my then 17-year-old, who wasn't particularly perceptive, said he didn’t think so. His roommate ended up being asked to leave school during second semester and later said he felt lucky that the administration intervened.

Settling In Take Time

Freshmen and parents should expect an adjustment period which can last from a few weeks to a few months or even longer.

Have realistic expectations — understand that, as with most things in life, every college has its pluses and minuses. If the situation isn’t perfect it’s okay to acknowledge this, even as you encourage your student to work on improving their college experience.

When all else fails, transferring or taking some time off might be the best solution. Keep the lines of communication open and remember that, in the end, learning how to “figure things out” is as a much a part of a college education as what happens in the classroom.

Marlene Kern Fischer is a wife, mother of three sons and a newly gained daughter, food shopper extraordinaire, blogger and college essay editor. She recently published her first book, “Gained a Daughter But Nearly Lost My Mind: How I Planned a Backyard Wedding During a Pandemic.” A founding contributor at Collegiate Parent, her work has also been featured on Huffington Post, Grown & Flown, The New York Times (Modern Love), Kveller, Her View From Home and The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Find her on Facebook at “Thoughts From Aisle 4.”
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4 years ago

Question: I am a First-time college parent with a student who attends a private college. My student was accepted to several many universities, but chose a private school featuring smaller classes. My student completed the first major week of tests and was greatly surprised by one of the classes where the professor tested on things that were not in the syllabus, not discussed in class, not in the book or on the study guide. He is a visiting professor filling in for a professor on sabbatical. The class has all freshman and the teacher struggles to teach the material so the students understand. this is a fundamental class for my student. What is the parent's role in this situation? So far I've just listened and offered advice.

Regina Walker-Wren
Regina Walker-Wren
4 years ago

I greatly appreciate this article as it has provided confirmation that my husband, daughter and I are not alone! Our daughter, and only child, is a freshman in college and, so far, this first semester has been challenging for us all!

Throughout high school, my daughter was a highly successful, nationally-awarded artist and filmmaker. During this time, we enjoyed many competitions, screenings and art related events as a unit. While we are extremely proud for her to have the opportunity to attend college away and pursue a major that can only grow her talent and development as an artist, we are all feeling cutt-off from each other. We miss each other tremendously and We are questioning whether she is settling in as a result of her texts/Face times/ & phone calls where she is crying on the other end and second guessing her decision to go away to school and room with a total stranger, and having had a number of "figure it out" by herself experiences already.

It is our greatest hope that in time, we will all experience a more encouraging transition and realize that we must give ourselves permission with whatever time this major adjustment takes. Even though we are constantly having the term, "empty-nesters' hurled at us, it's okay that we aren't yet rejoicing about our daughter having left the nest! Heck, even our dog is still trying to figure it out!

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