Adjusting to College

First year college students formulate expectations about college life long before they leave home. Some young adults look forward to college, eager to experience more freedom and adventure. Others may be enthusiastic initially but then discover that the experience falls short of their expectations when they don’t feel happy, comfortable, or secure in their new environment. Still others know that leaving home will be difficult and therefore dread the thought of leaving for college. No matter what his or her expectations, nearly every student encounters obstacles he or she didn’t anticipate during the transition to college. Even positive life changes produce stress, and certainly the changes leaving home demands can lead to feelings of sadness, loneliness and worry. These feelings are typical and part of the developmental transition to college.

Changes to Expect in the First Year of College

Increased Personal Freedom

Many college students welcome the freedom to decide about what they want to do each day. Others may find this freedom strangely unfamiliar or difficult. Freshmen who live on campus may maintain daily or frequent contact with family by way of phone or computer, but they make many more personal decisions and choices than they did in high school.

Increased Responsibility

With increased personal freedom comes greater responsibility for one’s daily schedule. Freshmen must choose when and how to study, socialize with new acquaintances, become involved in activities, budget money, exercise, and make time to eat and sleep. They learn how to balance going to class, participating in activities, completing schoolwork on time, taking care of themselves, and having fun. They schedule classes, buy personal items, make healthcare appointments and ask professors or other university staff for help. Students often need to take the initiative to address their responsibilities for the first time in their lives.

Increased Demand for Time Management

Freshmen typically experience changing demands on their time. Days are less routine and predictable. Some freshmen feel they have no time for themselves because of their multiple obligations. College classes may seem difficult and draining and may involve more hours of studying. However, other students may find their academic workloads manageable, but they may not feel comfortable relaxing in their free time.

Different Surroundings and Relationships at College

Freshmen adjust to new surroundings and relate to unfamiliar people. Their peers may seem very different from family, friends and acquaintances at home. A student may hope his or her roommate will be a close friend and may be disappointed if he or she is not. Freshmen who live on campus learn to negotiate conflicts with roommates. Freshmen must fulfill new expectations from adults at college. For example, a professor typically will not call if a student misses class but will likely grade for attendance. Parents interact less with the university than they did with their sons’ or daughters’ high schools, and students must resolve concerns directly with professors, Residence Life, or other authorities.

Changing Relationships with Family and Friends from Home

As students adjust to freedom and responsibility in college, relationships with parents and other significant people change. Freshmen and their parents may fear losing aspects of their relationships with each other. First-year students may call home frequently especially during their first few months away. It may be very hard to say goodbye at the end of holiday or semester breaks. It may also be difficult to readjust to curfews, chores or care for younger siblings on visits home. Parents also need to adjust during this period. Their children have become independent in some ways but are still somewhat dependent upon their parents.

Many students leave high school boyfriends or girlfriends when they go to college. Students may disagree with their boyfriends or girlfriends about whether it is ok to make new friends or see other people. One or both partners may struggle with feeling lonely, sad, or jealous, especially if one partner seems to be happier and better adjusted than the other.

Freshmen may also find that their relationships with friends from home are different after time away at school. Some students feel closer to and more appreciative of friends at home and may stay very connected to them. Other students find they have less in common with friends from home after they’ve been at school. On the other hand, they may be hurt by their friends’ distance.

What do I do if I’m not happy at college?

You may expect your college years to be among the best of your life. If you feel upset and miserable, this can be a very confusing and scary expectation. However, many students feel sad and scared during the first several weeks of college. You are in a demanding new environment and everything is different, and you may even feel like you’re not supposed to be here.

You may feel you must grow up all at once, which may overwhelm or even depress you. You may feel far away from the people who love and support you. Perhaps you are a student who does not feel homesick but instead feels disappointed in your experiences and personal interactions. If you are distressed you may notice that other students are happy and optimistic. It may surprise you, however, to learn that many other freshmen are scared and sad even if they don’t show it.

If you are struggling with the transition to college, there are some ways you can help yourself adjust:

  • Reach out to others in your dorm. You are probably not the only one who is sad and upset. Your R.A. can help you figure out how to cope. Upperclassmen may also be eager to share their experiences with you.
  • Make an extra effort to take care of yourself. Plan time to rest, eat balanced meals, exercise and avoid the abuse of alcohol or other drugs. Develop a schedule you can manage, and identify an optimal place and time of day for study.
  • If things are not working out as you planned, adjust your expectations. For example, your roommate may not be your best friend. You may need to initiate conversations about conflict over personal space and living habits.
  • Recognize that relationships take time to develop. Most of your friendships from home grew stronger over a period of years. Over time, your surroundings will become more familiar.
  • Seek out resources on campus that can help you both address problems and get academic or personal support. These resources may even connect you with other resources. Explore the organizations, events, and resources Campus Activities offers. You may want to join a fraternity or sorority, or play Club or Intramural Sports.