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Is Your Student Ready for College?

Andrea Malkin Brenner, PhD

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Raising kids often means getting them ready for what's to come. From the first day of school to their first sleepover, practicing new routines and discussing unfamiliar scenarios before a life transition can reassure children that the unknown isn't totally out of their control.

The need for thoughtful preparation doesn't stop when our teens graduate from high school. I've spent 25 years working as a college professor and administrator, and in both roles have seen the pressures new students face when they arrive on campus unprepared for college-level work and decisions. I've also parented two college kids of my own. What I know for sure is how important it is to plan in advance for the transition. This way, students have honed some "adulting" skills before learning to live with a roommate, adjust to college-level academics, and balance all their new freedoms.

To thrive in their first semester of college, students need more than a shower caddy and extra-long twin sheets. Here are four ways to help your college-bound student prepare to take this big step.

1. Discuss parental expectations.

The college experience is for your students to have, but you still have an essential role to play.

As our students move from dependence to independence, it's crucial as parents to set boundaries, share opinions and concerns, and communicate clear expectations for their behavior. Doing so will not only positively affect their self-esteem but will also reduce family conflict. Disputes can arise from something as simple as differing expectations about how college move-in day will play out, how often you communicate, or who will pay for specific expenses.

Although teens might seem impervious to parental direction, my work with college students has shown that having structured expectations from parents can help first-years navigate the many new campus living experiences. 

2. Explore campus resources to set up a support system.

Adults know that seeking help when needed is a strength, not a weakness. However, high school graduates are intent on asserting their independence. It's hardly surprising that first-year college students often fail to use the resources available on campus (and included in their tuition). You can help your college-bound student by pointing out that these plentiful resources are only helpful if accessed.

Before the move to campus, browse the college website together to explore what's available. Most schools have centers and offices dedicated to health and wellness, career preparation, counseling, academic tutoring, residence life, writing support, disability/accessibility services, academic advising, student-athlete support, a college library, IT, spiritual life, and affinity groups for communities including students of color, international students, LGBTQ+ students, first-generation college students, and more.

Which ones are your student most likely to need? Zero in on a few and suggest they contact for more information by phone or email. In some cases, they should set up an appointment — for example, they'll need to meet in person with staff at the disability support/accessibility office to request needed accommodations. In all cases, it's a good idea to ask questions ahead of time and plan an exploratory walk around campus during move-in.

3. Engage in adult-level conversations.

From professional experience, I know that discussing "adulting" with teens before the start of the fall semester helps students and parents prepare for the transition ahead. 

Some of these topics are challenging. How to start?

First, sit down together to brainstorm a list of experiences and situations that will be new to your student in college. This might include taking care of physical and mental health, safety, money and budgeting, drugs and alcohol, consent and sexuality, Greek life, use of technology, eating, academic study, time management, campus support resources, extracurricular activities, and living with a roommate. 

Next, I suggest parents and students sit apart and each create a checklist of "what I need to learn/what I think you need to learn" for each general topic. Decide who will coach the student on each one (for example, a parent might explain the basics of health insurance, an older sibling might share tips for living with a roommate, a family friend might discuss the pros and cons of joining a fraternity or sorority).

Once the checklists are made and agreed upon, set aside time to have these important conversations. I suggest families with almost-college students schedule an hour a week following high school graduation to dive into these dialogues. The dinner table, car rides, visits to coffee shops, and neighborhood walks are great places for parents and teens to unplug and engage.

Remember that, although teaching will take place, these talks aren't meant to be lectures; it's more like a college-level seminar with a lot of give and take and the expectation that your student is an active participant. Because if you lecture, they will tune out (or skip "class" altogether!).

4. Normalize mistakes and encourage resilience.

Needless to say, your student won't have perfected "adulting" before they get to campus. Mistakes are expected and should be normalized as part of the transition to college. Inevitably, new students will oversleep and miss a class, lose something important, or make a poor or risky social decision during their first semester.

As parents, we can share some of our 18-year-old mishaps and assure our incoming college students that mistakes are part of growing up and learning independence. It's also important to emphasize that professors, academic advisors, and residence life staff all expect first-year students to make rookie mistakes as they familiarize themselves with the demands of college life.

Of course, we know that our teens often act more confident than they really are. It's developmentally appropriate for them not to want to admit there's something they're unsure about. This means that many first-year college students will try to appear cool and collected to their families back home, masking the fact that their transition to college is actually a bit rocky.

Ultimately, as parents, we should teach our teens that learning is gained from making mistakes. Adjusting in the face of adversity and then moving on is a hallmark of being a responsible young adult.

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Andrea Malkin Brenner, PhD is a college transition educator and author who speaks with high school students and parents about challenges related to the college transition. She draws on 25 years of experience as a college professor, the founder and director of American University’s first-year experience program, and the faculty director of American’s University College program. Andrea created the Talking College™ Card Deck, a collection of discussion prompts for college-bound students and their parents, and co-authored How to College: What to Know Before You Go (and When You’re There) — both are available on her website and Amazon.
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