The College Mirage: Helping your freshman navigate the first year

Last year at about this time of year a student came to see me. She was a new freshman and, a week or two into her shiny, sparkly college life she was feeling neither shiny or sparkly. While she was loving college in general, in some ways things weren't working out the way she had expected--her roommate wasn't her soul sister, there weren't endless dates, her class load required a lot more work than she had needed to do in high school, and she was still figuring out how to find her way in this new place. In some ways, the shiny sparkly college life felt like a mirage--one that had been the promised land all through high school and one that all of her friends on social media seemed to inhabit.

photo via

photo via

I've been thinking a lot about college transition and freshman loneliness ever since--as a professor who studies & teaches human development, as an advisor to freshmen students, and as a mom to three college-age students.

We tend to prepare our children for college like getting in is the hard part, the finish line. After lavishing all that energy and attention on those entrance exams, applications, GPA maintenance, extracurriculars, no wonder they internalize the message that once you receive that acceptance letter, you've made it! Everything else will fall into place! Books, tv, movies, social media all highlight and glorify the golden glow of the college years. But, like most things in life, the reality often doesn't live up to the hype. 

Meanwhile, if they want to, new freshmen can manage to keep up the image that the hype lives on, curating photos and posts and emoji-adorned texts to downplay the real emotions and loneliness (or even depression and anxiety) that might be happening beyond the tiny phone screen. 

Just at the point when parents begin to acclimate to their child's absence in the home, across the miles for many freshmen students, the orientation parties and excitement of meeting all these new people wears off. The reality of the academic workload sets in and some students manage this better than others. Some sail through pretty well but many don't want to disappoint their families that their grades are lower than they've grown used to getting in high school or that they still haven't found their tribe.  

Last year, Cornell freshman Emery Burgmann created this video about her college transition for a class assignment on transformation. It's a funny, poignant window into the freshman transition ("I feel like this friendship-hungry gremlin...") and the Youtube comments on this clip attest to how common these feelings are:

We parents are pretty good at prepping our kids' dorm rooms and outfitting them with the school supplies they'll need. Just as important (arguably more so), having family conversations leading up to the college launch can ease everyone's social/emotional acclimation to this huge milestone.  We can paint a realistic view of what this next level of study and life will look like rather than glorifying (or trying to live vicariously). In the months and years leading up to the transition to college, try to have open conversations that are sparked by questions like these:

  • What kind of living/dorm situation will open you up to connecting with others (single occupancy rooms might seem ideal but they can also lead to isolation)?
  • What will you/can you do when you're lonely (because everyone feels lonely sometimes, especially during transitions)?
  • What if you get overwhelmed with the workload?
  • What resources are available on campus for talking to a trustworthy, informed adult?
  • How will we stay connected so you can share your good times but also your struggles?
  • What are the signs you can watch for to check on your emotional wellbeing and mental health?
  • Did you know you can drop a class? Or withdraw from one, even, if things get overwhelming?
  • How will you let me know if you are really really struggling (some families even have a family signal word that means "help!")?
  • How will you navigate roommate differences and disagreements?
  • What activities can balance out your schedule or provide an outlet for stress, anxiety?

If you're the parent of a college student right now:

  • emphasize that friends are made gradually and it's completely normal to feel at sea during a big transition. It often takes years to find your "tribe."
  • just listen, hear, and validate the emotions. You don't need to solve the problems, just be a guide through them. Share your own hard experiences and how you navigated them (but first just listen listen listen).
  • make time to Skype/Facetime/Marco Polo and talk on the phone. Texts are marvelous for check-ins and logistics but can be misleading, minimize, or mask real emotions. If possible build in a set time each week to really connect.

Interested in reading more? Check out:

  • The Real Campus Scourge by Frank Bruni (New York Times). Emily references this article in the video above; it's the article her mom sent her.
  • What Made Maddy Run (by Kate Fagan), a heart breaking and eye opening book looking into the death by suicide of U Penn star athlete Maddy Halloran. For a shorter peek, try this NPR story and this podcast with author Kate Fagan's insights and takeaway messages.
  • Practicing mindfulness has been linked to healthy college transition. Another study here.  
  • Great tips here for college students, including keep your door open and spend as little time as possible in your room--hang out in common areas and study in the library.

What do you wish you knew when you started college? What helped with the transition? What didn't?

Applying Season

This weekend Maddy sent her first of what feels like will be 3469 university applications (but is really more like 8-12, which is typical for her friends in the states). She chose one school to submit her application for their early consideration and the rest will be regular decision, due in December/January. 'Tis the season! 

I have to admit that this is a totally different process than with Lauren a few years ago (though not as different as when I applied and typed each application on a typewriter!). This probably stems from their different personalities, our level of experience with the process, and even their ages at application--Lauren was a barely-17 high school senior during the application process and Maddy is almost 19, thanks to the delay brought by our move to Australia. Lauren looked at her scores and GPA, chose a few schools, and was hopeful of her chances (she didn't really choose any long shots) and she ended up just where she wanted to be. However, I think partly because this was all so new to all of us, she also needed a bit more nudging and reminding throughout the process (read: harassing and non-stop nagging). We didn't do any of it for her; she was the train conductor and engineer of the enterprise but I definitely felt like the guy standing on the platform tapping his foot with a stopwatch in hand. The stakes just felt so high and uncertain! 

Maddy's been approaching it a little differently. She's motivated to blaze her own trail and has been looking longingly at a handful of schools for a few years now. (Let's just go ahead and call it the Gilmore Girls Effect, shall we?) She's applying at a range of schools--a mix of public and private, large and small, selective and less so.

Because of the unknowns related to applying from an international school (not to mention no college admissions counselor at her school), she doesn't really have a real sense of her chances. She's worked hard to put herself in the possible zone but who knows what the admissions offices are looking for or what they'll decide? Not me, that's who. 

Along the way, Maddy found a few resources that were really great in helping her to understand how to put together a college application:

General advice:
Yale has some great resources and advice for applicants to any university:
Advice on choosing where to apply
Advice on putting together your college application

Letters of recommendation:
Maddy found MIT's Guide to Writing Letters of Recommendation really helpful for explaining to her teachers and recommenders what the US admissions offices are expecting and how their letters are evaluated. (In Australia, admission to university is based not on extracurriculars or teacher recommendations but on your ATAR score so teachers don't write many recommendations at all.) She just included a little description and linked to it in her note to her recommenders. A nice email like this sample note to recommenders helped update her recommenders, orient them to the process, and refresh their memories about her contributions and achievements.

College admissions essays:
Khan Academy has a great new series on applying to college. Maddy thought their series of articles and videos on  writing a strong college admissions essay was especially helpful. 

Also, the website Medium has a contest called "Extra Credit" that awards scholarship money for excellent college application essays. They've posted a handful of winners and it's great reading to see the diversity of responses and get inspired for your own essay.

For parents:
Let it go, let it go. (Easier said than done, I know. I should have absorbed this four years ago!) Tufts's excellent admissions blog offers this advice:
"Often our concern, suggestions, insights, and shared wisdom are seen as an intrusion, or provide added stress.  Your daughter needs the independence and the knowledge that you believe she can do this on her own.  Your son will thrive knowing you trust him to succeed. Our job as parents is to support and provide a safe haven for our children in the midst of a crazy, pressure filled senior year.  Encourage your son or daughter to establish an earlier deadline in order to complete the application(s) in a timely fashion so the process doesn’t hijack the entire family dynamic...as parents we need to let our children sink or swim.  The application process is theirs and they will feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment once they have completed the applications and have met the deadline."

More Resources:

  • Most universities use the Common Application, which is a great time saver for the applicant and the recommenders. Still, many colleges either do not use the Common App or add on extra essays or elements. Even if your student won't be applying for a year or two, it's not a bad idea to glance at the applications now to see what's expected. Here are the essay questions for this year
  • NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) has extensive information and advice on the college application process
  • The US Department of Education's College Navigator is a one-stop resource for information about universities and colleges.

Now that I've spent a whole post on college applications, I need to add that I'm actually a big believer in de-escalating the craziness around this process. I remind my kids (and myself) that there are many great places to go and learn and that while we'd be happy for them if they land at one of the places toward the top of their list, what we really celebrate is the work they've put into their education so far and their continued quest for learning--not where they go. I think the philosophy of "fix it and forget it" fits here: Sure, do your best on tests/applications but don't obsess or worry. This application is just a blip in your life. Do it and then move on!


Do you have a child applying for college this year or in past years? What's the experience been? Any advice?

School Disorientation

As an American in Australia, I get a serious case of September envy this time of year. This week my Instagram and Facebook feeds are filled with darling photos of returning scholars--preschoolers to college students--posing in the morning sun with wet, comb-tracked hair, brand new shoes & crispy jeans and basking in that hopeful, heady glow of new beginnings. (No filter needed.) It makes me get all Joe Fox/Kathleen Kelly-ish: I would send you a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address. (Really, it goes beyond the back-to-school photos. See also: apple orchards, fall boots, cozy sweaters, brilliantly colored leaves--on trees or in piles, jam making, garden harvests. Oh, September you are so wonderfully cruel. Please don't stop.)

And then I look out the window, the planet tilts and I am in late winter/early spring, which definitely has its joys and delights but...still.  It's a little disorienting, frankly, and even after two years I have to take a split second to locate myself in the correct season. After all those decades of apple-y Septembers and autumnal Octobers, my seasonal clock is more difficult to reset than my time zone one.  I'm not complaining; it's just so weird. And I think social media makes it more difficult than ever to be here now, with such easy windows into what's going on everywhere else.

Here the kids are no longer basking in that clean slate, new beginning glow (that wore off back in February).  The pencils, figuratively and literally, are no longer new, no longer in bouquets, and rarely sharpened. There's a lot of homework and studying happening (and yes, a little stress) around here as the kids are midway through their third term of the school year. Maddy's life is particularly filled with studying and deadlines as she zooms toward her final IB testing in November. The International Baccalaureate program has a lot of positives but it is definitely rigorous and demanding. And because of how the Australian schools grading systems are set up, Maddy won't have a GPA when she applies to universities in the US; instead she will submit her IB scores, which are mostly comprised of the test scores she receives from comprehensive exams at the end of this year, covering two years' worth of content. But no pressure, ha!

(Here's a little bit more about the IB system if you're curious.)

While I'm vicariously living the back-to-school, early autumn bliss through my US friends, Maddy's FB feed is filled with all of her high school friends' posts about leaving for college, their new dorms and roommates. This would have been Maddy's life right now, too, if we hadn't snatched her off to Australia, where the class of '14 graduates in November rather than June. Instead she has an extra five months of school and will start university a year behind her US cohort. Secretly (or not so secretly) we're glad to have her around for this bonus Maddy time but I know it's not easy for her to see everyone else moving on into their exciting new lives and opportunities. But she's been a good sport.

As with most things in life, though, there are tradeoffs. When the northern hemisphere is shivering in January tundras, we will be basking in beachy sun. And Maddy just found out  that she was chosen for the UN Youth Australia delegation to the Middle East, something she definitely wouldn't have been able to do if we hadn't come here. As you can imagine, Maddy's thrilled. It's the light at the end of the IB tunnel for her. As you can also imagine, I am equal parts excited and nervous for her, my protective mothering activated by all the news of violence and unrest in the region.

Shhh, mother bear. It'll be fine.  And, hey, look! Is that a daffodil coming up?

A spoonful of sugar. . .

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Okay, here's some launch business for you.

Two days ago I got a call from Jordan, my oldest daughter, who is a freshman in college several states away (BYU. Go Cougs!!). She reported that she'd woken up with a crick in her neck. Well, we Texans call it a crick. Others might possibly use the term "sprain," "strain," or hey, even "pain." At any rate, a crick is a super painful little malady. I know because I am the queen of cricks. I've gone entire MONTHS without being able to turn my head from side to side. This makes changing lanes super dangerous. 

I digress. Not only did Jordan have a crick, but she had stiffness and pain through her shoulders and partway down her back. As the day progressed I received more texts and calls from her -- the pain was increasing and she was becoming semi-hysterical (sorry Jordan!). She was laid up. Flat out. Can a 100 pound, nineteen-year-old throw out her back? Really?

I instructed her to take some Naproxen Sodium (Aleve), which she didn't have handy in her dorm room. She did have ibuprofen, so I told her to take that and work on procuring the Aleve. But because she doesn't have a car, AND it was getting late, AND there was no Naproxen Sodium at the little "store" at her dorm . . . she was out of luck. So there she was, writhing in pain. And here I was, wringing my hands and racking my brain for ways to help her. And guess what? I couldn't. I could only offer my sympathy -- which was exceedingly heartfelt and ultimately useless. [To make a long story short, she was moderately improved enough the next morning to walk herself to Walgreens. She now has a testimony of the power of Naproxen Sodium.]

So, here's my launch advice, and it's two fold:

  1. Teach your teens about how to take care of themselves when they are sick or injured. Make sure they know about what over-the-counter drugs are appropriate for various ailments. Especially talk to them about hydration and what types of foods/liquids to partake of when vomiting. I wouldn't say my girls are clueless about this stuff, but I now realize I need to be much more specific.
  2. Put together a comprehensive medical kit for kids who are leaving home (grad gift anyone?). When we moved Jordan into her dorm we made sure she had her inhaler (and an extra), some ibuprofen, and benadryl. Who knew she had the back of a 60 year old? You can google "medical kits for dorm rooms" and a bunch of different lists come up (not one of which included Naproxen Sodium). Here's what I came up with (feel free to add on in the comments section).
  • Ibuprofen and Naproxen Sodium
  • Benadryl (for allergic reactions)
  • Cold medicine (day and night formulas)
  • Flu medication (something that addresses fever, aches and pains, and cold symptoms)
  • Thermometer
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Cortisone cream
  • Band aids 
  • Ice pack
  • Heating pad

Luckily, I was able to talk to Jordan and consult with her regarding her best course of action. However, she will be leaving in June to serve an 18 month mission for our church in France, during which time we can only e-mail once a week. I'm planning on putting together an industrial-sized first aid kit to send with her, AND I'm going line all of her clothes with bubble wrap. She'll be fine! No, really. She'll be FINE!