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How to Steer Your Own Ship: Advice for College Freshmen

Let’s face it. For college-bound students, senior year is all about getting in to college. So much time and energy and effort go toward college visits, choosing where to apply, completing applications, and then waiting.

Once students are accepted, it’s all about figuring out which school has made the best offer and which school will be “the one.” By the time they proudly don a t-shirt bearing the name of the college they will attend at the end of their senior year, everyone is ready to celebrate at graduation.

Then, the flurry of getting ready takes over. Before you know it, it’s move-in day. Suddenly we are lugging boxes and bags up flights of stairs, meeting the roommate, reminding them to call or text, and prying ourselves away.

Leaving home for college is a high stakes affair. College comes with colossal expectations that our teenagers will take ownership of their academic performance, career path, and social and emotional growth. While they’ve spent their lives up to this point preparing for this transition, they’d benefit from a few reminders as they embark on their voyage. These three tips will help them navigate the choppy waters they will inevitably encounter.

Words of Wisdom for Your College Freshman:

1. The first semester of college may be hard.

If, in the odd moment when they let their guards down, one of my children confided that they were nervous, I was quick to counter their negative thoughts. I pumped them up with positivity and exclamation points. College will be like camp with a little bit of homework! You will meet people who will be your friends for life! You’ll never want to come home!

This strategy backfired big time. The truth of the matter is that there is plenty to worry about and their experiences may not be seamless. By telling them that everything is going to be fine, I inadvertently put more pressure on them. Then, they worried even more when their first days are not perfect tens.

I learned this the hard way with my middle child. Like so many of us, we had focused our energy on the college application process: choosing a school that he thought was a good fit, filling out the application, sweating through the wait, feeling the joy when he was accepted, and then talking about how much he would love college life.

Guess what? Turns out he had a really tough first semester. Most of his friends were together at a different school so they had a built-in social network. He saw their posts on social media, and they all looked they were crushing it. He missed the window where you could walk up to anyone and introduce yourself so he didn’t find his people right away (in truth, he didn’t find any people).

He was lonely.  And he felt worse because his experience didn’t match his expectations. We spent a lot of time on the phone that first semester talking about it and recalibrating. One Friday night, we face-timed for over 100 minutes (I am not sure I had a conversation that long with him the whole of his teenage years).

Thankfully, he not only survived, but he ended up thriving. He returned second semester with a whole new approach and has never looked back. Even better, he uses what he learned from his first semester to put himself out there when he’s in a new situation.

And we learned, too. When my third child was accepted to college, we immediately began the conversations about how she would love college, but that she should expect to have some difficult moments. That it was completely reasonable to have some bad days, and that we would be there when she needed us. That it might take a little time to make friends and that in the meantime, she would sometimes feel lonely.

2. Sometimes, it’s okay to feel stressed.

No, really. We often feel like stress is debilitating, which inevitably leads to negative results. But research shows that if we change our thinking about stress, then the tension we feel can be positive. In other words, our sweaty palms and pounding hearts are our body’s way to prepare us for whatever lies ahead. Biologically, stress results in more oxygen going to our brain so that we have the energy and the courage to walk into that classroom, introduce ourselves to someone new, or try out for a lead in the play.

Clearly, there is a difference between this stress that, if approached positively, revs us up, and the kind of anxiety that is debilitating. But if we panic at the first sign of pressure and then focus on avoiding discomfort, we miss out on the opportunities that help us trust ourselves to handle an awkward, new, or uneasy situation.

My daughter, who has never shied away from an adventure, tends to get very nervous before she begins something new. She will shut down and get quite cranky before bursting into tears and confessing that she feels apprehensive. Then, we talk about what’s making her stressed, and I remind her the stress she feels is normal and helpful.

This strategy was essential in the month before she began college. We reminisced about the other times when she has felt the same way. And we focused on how she ultimately ended up having wonderful experiences or solving her problem or passing a test. It still wasn’t easy for her, or for me. But it reframed her “pre-game” stress as a necessary part of how she adapts to new situations.

3. Check your email.

It might seem silly, but this reminder is important too. There are few things that cause more stress than missing a deadline your first year at college. Colleges use email to communicate matters big – tuition and financial aid information – small – campus activities that may be of interest – and in between – where there will be free food. We parents don’t get this information so it’s up to our kids to get into the routine of regularly checking their email.

My children, who have grown up with cell phones and computers, still did not make checking their email a regular occurrence when they were in high school. Of course, they knew how to enter the college portal to find out if they had been admitted. But then, for some reason, they thought they were done and they could enjoy the rest of their senior year of high school.

I suppose it’s reasonable to expect that they would just show up at college and everything would be ready for them. Why not?

My oldest son worked at an overnight camp the summer before his senior year. And to his credit, he did embrace the philosophy of being unplugged. However, he also missed several emails from his advisor who then assumed that he was not interested in any support as well as the window during which he could select and register for his courses. He ended up signing up for classes in the car on the way to school.

And so began the list I made of what I would discuss with my next child about college.

By design, college is a time for our children to become the captains of their own ships. And while we want them to set sail with as little interference as possible, being prepared with some realistic advice will help them weather the storms with confidence.

Jody Podl

Jody Podl is a teacher at Shaker Heights High School.