College prep, for most of us, means taking Advanced Placement courses, studying for the SAT or ACT and then compiling lists of all the clothes, furniture, office supplies and various material comforts we’ll need for dorm life. But, the one thing we don’t prepare incoming college freshmen for is the emotional transition that comes with moving away from home — often for the first time in their lives.
A new study by the JED Foundation, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the Jordan Porco Foundation has found that a majority of first-year students (60 percent) feel they haven’t been adequately prepared, emotionally, for college. Fifty-one percent say they have trouble finding emotional support on campus when they need it. Most troublingly, students who feel emotionally in-over-their-head are more likely to have a lower grade point average and consume drugs or alcohol than their more-adjusted peers.
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“We have this image of college students going off and having just one big grand party,” says Dr. Victor Schwartz, medical director of the JED Foundation. “And that’s what many of them think college is going to be like too."
But, that's often not the case. "It turns out that at least a number of students who are drinking heavily in their first year are actually trying to address feelings of stress and loneliness. They just haven't really thought through and prepared themselves for what it means to be living on their own.”
So, what can these students do? We asked Schwartz — who is behind a new initiative called Set to Go, an online resource to help students, parents and teachers with this issue — for his advice on how teens can ready themselves for the college transition and cope with loneliness or displacement once they get there.
Take on more responsibilities at home
A lot of stress that comes with starting college in a new place stems from not knowing how to do basic life-skills stuff, says Schwartz. Things like being able to whip up a late-night dinner, or do laundry, or clean the bathroom, or manage money. “These things sound obvious, but they’re not so easy or intuitive if you’ve never had to do them before,” he says. “So, parents can begin to try to help their 11th or 12th graders make some more of these decisions, manage some more of these things.”
Know where resources are on campus
Once you do arrive on the campus of the college you choose, take time to learn where the basic human services are — and where the support services are. “For the first time, students will be largely responsible for their own medical and mental health care, and getting a handle on the kinds of services available and where they are will help manage some of the stress,” says Schwartz. “Particularly if a young person has a history of medical or mental health issues, there should be a plan that's worked out with their at-home clinicians as to how care will continue.”
Moving away from your friends and family can contribute to the overwhelming loneliness that first-year college students can feel. Which is why they need to put themselves out there. “There’s so much information online for students to find out about about clubs that may be in their particular area of interest,” says Schwartz. “Many schools will do a club or activity fair early on in the first semester or sometimes even during orientation."
He adds that it's important for incoming students to make every effort to attend — and participate in — orientation. "It's a chance to really begin to meet some people and find out where the important resources that you may need on campus are.”
Realize that your feelings are normal
Everyone goes through periods of transition, and it’s OK if these moments end up being rough. “Emotional challenges and developmental challenges are all good things,” says Schwartz. “We actually grow through managing and learning how to manage challenges. ... I t’s one of the most valuable things you will experience when in college. It sets the stage for how you’re going to adjust to new jobs, to moving to new communities, to new relationships, so we shouldn't look at this as bad.”
And, if you do need to ask for help, there's no reason to feel ashamed. “Sometimes it's hard, and people need to use some judgement about when to get some help and support. Getting help and support is good judgement; it doesn't mean that you are weak and have screwed up.”