August feels like yesterday and also a million miles away. High hopes, big dreams and a picturesque vision of college life. And then the reality sets in. It was different than you or your student envisioned, it was harder than expected, building relationships was awkward for them, new found independence led them to trouble, physical and mental health issues caused a disruption, they thought they could do it without accommodations, and now they need them.
So now we are here at the end of the semester and your excited, optimistic first year student is feeling anxious, depressed, depleted, incapable, lonely, on a leave of absence or finding your way out of conduct sanctions. You must be the only one…
Three things I know for sure about first year college students’ struggles
1. Your student is not alone
First-time undergraduate freshmen have a 12-month dropout rate of 24.1% in the United States according to educationdata.com. I can hear you saying, “Wait, what?! But my student was a really strong high school student with good grades, solid test scores, and friends…” Yes, and transition is no joke for anyone, especially 18 year olds, post-pandemic, in a new place with a new lingo, unfamiliar rules, and a whole lot of newfound free time!
2. The setback they have experienced this fall is NOT a sign that they CANNOT do it!
However, your student may need a new approach, different strategies, and wrap around support to re-find their footing!
3. There are a handful of challenges that commonly plague new students
There are likely internal messages on repeat that are chipping away at their self-confidence. As a result, we have to deconstruct those thoughts and rebuild them in a different frame.
The most common issues that first years experience
1. Academic under-performance
Maybe your student expected the same high marks they got in high school, or maybe they are finishing the term with an academic warning or on academic probation. As a result, they may be saying, “I don’t have what it takes, I’m not smart enough, everyone knows more than me or I worked really hard and have nothing to show for all those hours in the library.”
So what now: If your student met their College’s admissions standards, they likely have what it takes. But they may need to engage in new study habits, enhance their executive functioning and organizational skills, learn to take notes differently, or re-think how they are managing their time. These are doable and say absolutely nothing about your student’s IQ or knowledge of Intro to Philosophy.
If either of these challenged your student this semester, I imagine they may be tired of signing up for random events, going to hall programs, and standing at the back of a room on your phone pretending they aren’t completely alone. Maybe they had a horrible roommate situation or have been rejected from some group they really wanted to be part of. All of it has likely led to feeling an overwhelming lack of belonging.
So what now: They may need to re-evaluate how they went about connecting with others or in a few select cases, it is possible they should assess if a different environment might be better for them. It is also helpful for them to define what they are looking for in relationships, where that might be found on campus and how to make their way into those different spaces.
Most importantly, my sense is they feel like the “only one” who hasn’t made friends or isn’t out having the time of their lives every night. Social media and our own human fear of missing out leads us to these thoughts. The reality is MANY students don’t find their people until second semester or even sophomore year and more students than they realize are feeling very similar!
3. Conduct issues
So your student messed up…maybe they really messed up…and nowthey are feeling embarrassed or that they need to walk on egg shells to avoid further issues. They might be worried you are never going to forgive them, or that they may have forever ruined their college “record”.
So what now: College is about learning…not just in the classroom, but everywhere and that certainly includes learning from your mistakes. While it may feel like it right this second, this is not the end of the world and how they respond now is what will truly define them.
That starts with taking responsibility and repairing any harm they have caused. Then, we need to start helping them develop a plan to avoid making the same mistake twice! After that, it is time to help them forgive themselves, and start moving forward wiser, stronger, and more caring than they were before this incident.
4. Medical or personal leaves of absence due to health/mental health and/or personal crisis
If your student is currently at home on a leave, you (and they) might not realize it, but they are right where you are supposed to be. However, their brain may be telling them, “I am so behind because of this and I will never catch up. I have missed out on everything.” And honestly, “Am I really healthy enough to go back yet?!” I get it. This is not the timeout they imagined, and it is taking them off the meticulously planned timeline they expected.
So what now: Colleges have policies to address these very issues. Priority one is your student’s physical and mental health. Let’s start by talking about treatment options. Then, help them take a deep breath and realize that twists and unexpected turns like this are all part of life.
Taking time to prioritize their health is far more important than just pushing through. Instead, while they are at home, guide them to consider the most critical steps they need to take in support of their long term well-being?
Should they consider an in-patient or outpatient treatment program? Should they consider taking a couple of classes that will transfer back in? Should they work, seek therapy, or both?! There are a lot of questions to answer, but by just taking it just one step at a time with them and helping them lay out a set of goals to make the time away as productive as possible, they will be better equipped to be successful when returning.
Then, when that return time comes, remind them to be proactive about developing a re-entry plan, meeting with resources ahead of time and putting together a clear communication plan for what to do if/when those concerns creep back up.
5. General lack of direction, motivation, or focus
Uncertainty is no stranger to first year students. They may be questioning if the particular school they chose is the “best” one for them. They may be feeling unsure of what they want to study, pressured because they don’t know what career they want yet, or feeling like maybe they would be better off doing something other than college altogether.
These questions can feel overwhelming at times and can start to make it particularly hard to get out of bed, go to class, study effectively or to get quality sleep. Guess what these can lead to…academic underperformance, mental health issues, isolation…and the cycle continues for them.
So what now: Its time to flip the script and help your student start exploring their strengths and talents. Encouraging them to find a mentor or coach with whom they can dig deeper around their interests. If they are feeling really uncertain or unmotivated, maybe talk to them about taking a break to trying something else for a bit.
Life is not linear and neither is the road to finding the right professional path! That said, college is meant to be a time of exploration and trying different things, so time spent deciphering what they are really passionate about, and how to organize their college experience around that will be time really well spent.
What Is next for the student who struggled last semester?
Ultimately, transition is really hard and your student is NOT the only one who experienced these challenges this semester. But now is the right time for them to regroup. I strongly encourage them to pause, reflect on what has happened, consider these questions:
“What you were thinking when you first realized that things were different from what you pictured?”
“Now that the semester is over, what have I learned or realized about myself?”
“What do I need most to be able to move forward and to feel whole again?”
Once they have answered these, it is time to get after it.
I strongly encourage students to do their best to stay for at least one full first year at their current college before jumping to the big “T.” Transferring is a good option in some situations, BUT before we do that, we need to do the work to make sure they are not just carrying their challenges and negative feelings forward to a new place and risking the start of the same vicious cycle.
It is also important to make sure your student doesn’t get caught up in a “grass is greener” mentality that causes them to think another institution will be the silver bullet to their problems. No institution is perfect, and most will work very hard to support your student in getting on track…especially if they struggled in the first semester.
Skills, behaviors and attitudes that will increase your student’s potential for success
Finally, there are a number of skills, behaviors and attitudes that students can address to increase their potential for success in the second semester or to support their re-entry following a leave of absence. From executive functioning coaching to psychological counseling support, determine where the challenges lie and start seeking those support services for your student as soon as possible.
In addition, contact your college’s Dean of Students Office, Office of Disability Services, or Academic Resource Center during the break. Request a “re-launch” meeting involving all of those important resources while you are at home to learn more about holistic support services they offer that your student has not yet tapped.
Help your student schedule appointments, evaluations, etc. before they return to campus. Encourage your student to name their “top 3” to you (one professor, one staff member, and one student who will be their “go-to’s” for the upcoming semester and encourage them to contact these individuals and establish that relationship right away.
Finally, know this: your student is likely feeling shame around this semester’s success or lack thereof. Remind them of their ability, their talent and help them reflect on their strengths. Consider an 80%-20% rule of thumb this break. Spend 20% of your time holding up the mirror and asking them tough questions, but spend 80% of your conversations taking a strengths-based approach and lifting them back up…rebuilding their confidence, laughing with them, loving them.
The first semester is hard and they can still do this!
More Great Reading:
10 Things Current College Students Want First Year Students to Know