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Six key areas of adjustment for first-year college students

Laurie Hazard and Stephanie Carter


The first year of college is rich with possibilities for students. From living with roommates to managing their own spending money, each experience during the first year is an opportunity for growth and learning.

There’s actually a psychological process that students move through during their first year which requires them to be willing to change — and which takes time. In fact, experts in higher education have identified six key areas of adjustment for first-year college students. In order to meet a new set of expectations, first-years must adjust their behaviors and mental processes academically, culturally, emotionally, financially, intellectually and socially.

Academic Adjustment

The learning environments in high school and college are different. At the college level, students are expected to take a more active role in their learning than they had to in high school; therefore, they need to think about how they will adjust to meet the heightened expectations of higher education. Successfully making this adjustment means having the ability and know-how to meet the increasing demands of college, and being open to change.

Some academic challenges:

  • Developing self-regulatory behaviors (time management, avoiding procrastination)
  • Establishing relationships with professors
  • Managing assigned reading and workload

Cultural Adjustment

College students interact with others of various cultures, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, ages and physical abilities, in a number of different settings. Some of these situations will be social, others academic or work-related. What these experiences have in common is that they provide opportunities to learn from others with a different perspective. How much a student will benefit from these diverse interactions depends on their ability to adjust culturally. Being accepting and welcoming of differences is one way to embrace diversity in college.

Some cultural challenges:

  • Living and learning with a diverse student body
  • Adjusting to language differences among classmates, roommates and faculty
  • Understanding their own bias-related belief systems

Emotional Adjustment

Students respond differently to new living and learning environments, meaning they’ll have different emotional responses to their first-year experiences. Some will be prepared to handle the stressors of college life more readily, while others may struggle with challenging situations. Successfully making this emotional adjustment means learning how to cope and manage their feelings.

Some emotional challenges:

  • Experiencing homesickness
  • Coping with stress
  • Developing strategies for handling mental health issues

Financial Adjustment

College students need to learn how to independently manage money. For many students, it may be the first time they don’t have ongoing guidance from family about money issues. It can be hard for students to learn how to budget and not be tempted to spend their money frivolously. It’s important for students to adjust to this change sooner rather than later to avoid problems like bank fees or high-interest debt.

Some financial challenges:

  • Developing budgeting and financial literacy skills
  • Understanding tuition costs and navigating financial aid
  • Finding and managing a part-time job while a student

Intellectual Adjustment

In college students have the opportunity to join an academic community. This community includes fellow classmates, faculty and college administrators. During class, students are expected to engage in intellectual discussions with their faculty, raise questions and, at times, even challenge them. In turn, students will be exposed to new ideas and subject areas and career choices that they may have never considered before.

Some intellectual challenges:

  • Experiencing a shift in previously held values
  • Feeling uncertainty about choosing a major
  • Taking calculated risks that move them outside their comfort zone

Social Adjustment

First-year students will be faced with shifts in their relationships, finding a new peer group and handling the pressure of fitting in. Residential students will also have to adjust to a new living situation, which may include roommates.

Some social challenges:

  • Experiencing changes in relationships
  • Developing strategies for living with a roommate
  • Handling social situations involving peer pressure

Throughout their first year, students are encouraged to learn and claim their education in many ways, in the classroom and beyond. Learning involves making connections, taking calculated risks and being open to change. So, how can parents of first-year students help with this transition?

Talk about it!

First, parents can engage in candid conversations with their students throughout the first year, about the habits, behaviors and attitudes that contribute to college success and how to cultivate them. You know your student well, of course. You can help them anticipate which areas of adjustment may pose the greatest challenges and have them reflect on how they might handle these challenges. If challenges have cropped up already, you can help them identify campus resources that address a particular area of adjustment. For example, the campus learning center can support students as they learn to handle a challenging course load; a residential student’s RA (Resident Assistant or Advisor) can help with roommate issues.

Encouragement goes a long way.

Parents can encourage their students to fully engage in their college experience and be ready to operate with a growth mindset. Help your student understand that they will need to make changes and ask for help in order to mature and adjust academically, culturally, emotionally, financially, intellectually and socially. Encourage your student also to be patient with themselves as they cope with these adjustments. It can take the entire first year for a student to build the skills they need to be successful, and that’s perfectly okay!

Laurie Hazard and Stephanie Carter

Read more by Laurie Hazard and Stephanie Carter
Dr. Laurie Hazard and Stephanie Carter are co-authors of Your Freshman is Off to College: A Month-by-Month Guide to the First Year. Laurie, a psychology professor at Bryant University, is an award-winning expert on how students can make successful transitions from high school to college. Stephanie has over 25 years of experience helping college students mediate the challenges of the higher education environment and works with first-years and their parents to insure a healthy transition from high school to college. Both are parents of college students.
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