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Preparing for the First Semester Away at College

Tips for first year collegeIt’s the week after Labor Day. Most parents of college students have dropped off their teenager at school – perhaps helping with the move-in, checking out the facilities, and leaving with a quick, hard hug, fighting back tears. At least I know that’s how it has worked with my first oldest children, currently a junior and a freshman in college.

What words of advice can we give our kids, particularly those starting their first year in college, most likely their first time away from home for nine months? As a college consultant, I have tried to think of advice to my students heading off to college that doesn’t sound forced and generic: “Good luck! Have fun! Study hard!” etc.

The plain truth is that the first year is often not 100% as smooth as we hope it will be, and that’s OK. My friend and colleague, Jeff Levy, who I met through the organization Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), recently wrote an essay (yes – we write blogs that are like essays!) on this very subject. Jeff is an independent educational consultant in Los Angeles, with two daughters, one a recent college graduate, and one in her sophomore year. I think the essay speaks genuinely to every parent who has experienced this separation from their child. When I read it, it made perfect sense that as a parent and as a college consultant, I should let these kids know that it is normal to miss home, feel slightly adrift, and take time to form new relationships. Jeff has kindly agreed to share his piece as my guest blogger.

Preparing for the First Semester Away – Guest Blog written by Jeff Levy, College Consultant

“I’m not happy here. I want to come home.” These are not the words a parent wants to hear two weeks into her daughter’s first semester at college. But this transition can be so much tougher than anyone expected.

A few years ago as a new independent educational consultant (IEC), I made a mostly unconscious decision to emphasize the positive in my work with students and to rarely, if ever, dwell on the negative. While having coffee with a former client during her first summer home from college, I asked her a question: “Was there anything we didn’t cover in your counseling program that you wished we had?” She said yes, that she could have been better prepared for how difficult her first semester turned out to be. By the end of her freshman year she had become very happy at college, but during those first weeks away from home it was she who had said those tearful words to her mother.

Her simple suggestion landed like a punch, and I realized that up to that point I had short-changed my students by focusing exclusively on finding great colleges and “getting in” while practically ignoring everything after that. Since then, I have made “Preparing for Your First Semester Away” the theme of my final session with clients. These are some of the ways I suggest that students can survive the emotional roller-coaster of that first difficult semester:

Be easy on yourself.

This is a huge transition in your life. There may be times when you will feel lonely or overwhelmed. You may think that you’re the only one feeling this way, but I guarantee that many new freshmen are having exactly the same thoughts. Share your feelings with your roommates or classmates—you may be surprised at how supportive they are and how these new friendships can get strengthened in the process. And if these feelings of loneliness persist, make an appointment with a campus mental health counselor. This is exactly why they are there, and students tend to underuse this important resource.

Get to know your academic advisor.

Your advisor is an expert in helping you figure out the best courses to take and in helping you get into those courses that are over-enrolled. Introduce yourself before registration if you have the chance. Check in several times during the first few weeks to guarantee that you are enrolling in the courses that make the most sense for you.

Register for more classes than you will take. Shop around.

Even if you plan on taking only four academic classes your first semester—a wise choice in most cases—consider registering for six. Use the first few weeks to shop around. You may discover that a few you thought would be great are flops, and that one or two you weren’t sure about are actually terrific. Keep the best, and drop the rest!

Don’t overload your schedule with Intro classes.

Research shows that students who start their college career with classes they want to take—not necessarily the ones they have to take—are happier with their choices. Take several prerequisites in areas you think you may want to major in. But if possible leave some slots open for classes that just sound great! Many students discover new academic passions by choosing courses exactly in this way.

Find your study partners.

Students who study in groups learn the material better, faster, and have less difficulty in class. And it’s another way to make friends. So be proactive and invite a few new classmates to study with you after one or two of your most difficult classes. If you find that you’re falling behind, instructors have office hours exactly for this reason. Don’t wait to get help…speak to your instructor.

Leave time for activities outside of class.

College is not just about academics. It’s also about doing other things you love and finding the right balance in your new life. Whether it’s singing in an a cappella group, playing intramural flag football, or organizing around a campus issue, get active! This is a great way to meet people with similar interests. And these clubs and teams make campus life fun for everyone.

Keep some of your favorite comedies loaded on your laptop.

Laughter may be the best antidote to depression. Keep some of your favorite funny movies or comedy shows handy as comforting sources of fun and laughter. There are days when watching Friends or Galaxy Quest may be exactly what you need!

I am always available for a phone call or e-mail.

You can always call or e-mail me for any reason at all. I will never consider it an imposition and will always welcome your reaching out to talk. Also, my motives are a little selfish. I try to stay in touch with former clients in order to stay current with what’s going on at various colleges and to refer you as a resource for future applicants. So please let me know your new e-mail address once you’ve got it!

There is probably little we as IECs and parents can do to make this transition to adulthood any easier. But we can help a little by acknowledging that for many new college students it will be difficult, that there is nothing weird about feeling a little overwhelmed, homesick, and scared. In fact, it would be weird if they didn’t!

Jeff levy college consultantBio of Jeff Levy

I have been working as an independent college admission consultant since 2007, based in the Los Angeles area. Though there are no licensing requirements within the profession, I have received a Certificate in College Counseling from UCLA by successfully completing its two-year program. I am a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and an associate member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). Along with credentialing, training, and professional networking, I believe that counselors should bring the wisdom of life experience to their work with students. I have spent over 30 years in the film and television industry primarily as a Gaffer and Director of Photography, observing up close nearly every conceivable path to creative and professional success in my work with directors, actors, writers, producers, and other craftspeople. I am passionate about helping students imagine their own paths as well. My wife and I have two amazing daughters—a high school senior and a college junior.

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