For many students, starting college marks their first experience living away from home. This transition often presents unanticipated challenges, and students may suddenly find themselves balancing newfound freedoms with additional responsibilities. With minimal supervision, they will be expected to meet high academic expectations while also taking on day-to-day tasks that were previously handled by a parent or guardian.
While growing pains are natural when adapting to a new environment, knowing what to expect can make the process more manageable. To address some of the most common difficulties students encounter in their first year, we reached out to Lauren Cook, a clinician working at the University of San Diego's Student Counseling Center, for tips on how to navigate the first year living on campus.
Cook holds a master's degree in marriage and family therapy from the University of Southern California and double-majored in psychology and communication studies while an undergraduate at UCLA. She currently travels to colleges around the country speaking about mental health, positive psychology, and well-being.
Tip List for Managing the College Transition
1. Give yourself time to figure things out
On academics: Even if you go in with a selected major, the average college student changes their major about four times. Many students underutilize their campus' career center, so make a free appointment and work with someone who can help you understand your goals and interests. This will help keep you grounded as you determine what you want to study.
On making new friends: Going to college is like starting adult kindergarten. You often don't know anyone else, and it can feel overwhelming to find the right friends. Be patient throughout the process and even if it feels scary, try to put yourself out there. Go to the activities fair on your campus and see what interests you — this is a great way to meet new people.
2. Realize it's OK to feel homesick
It's completely normal to long for home when you go to college. Perhaps you are missing your family, friends, and/or partner who may be an hour away or across the country. Find ways to continue communicating to ease the transition. You can FaceTime them as you walk to class or text them when you have a few free minutes. Just because you go to college doesn't mean that you have to leave your support system behind!
3. Call home regularly
Determine with your family how often they might be hearing from you, especially if you think you won't be calling often. Many find that checking in with their family at least once a week is helpful. This gives your parents an opportunity to get an update while giving you the freedom to not check in daily. That being said, if you want to call on a more frequent basis, talk with your family members about what's a good schedule so that no one feels flooded with calls. Some families and students talk throughout the day, each day; you just have to figure out what is a good balance for you.
4. Get involved in something you find interesting
Getting involved in a club, student organization, or another group is imperative! Be sure to go to the activities fair on your campus so that you can learn more about everything offered. In fact, on some campuses, they have student experts who can give you tailored recommendations based on your interests. The key is to not stay sitting in your dorm room by yourself. Find your community as soon as you can. Although it can feel nerve-wracking and awkward, the transition to college will feel that much easier when you've connected with others who share similar interests with you.
5. Find out what resources are available to you
It can feel overwhelming to sort through all of the resources that are available to students. Attending orientation will be the best way to familiarize yourself with everything that is available. Taking time to meet with your academic advisor will also be invaluable as you navigate the first few weeks. Lastly, don't underestimate the power of social media, as Instagram and Facebook provide frequent posts about clubs, sources of support, and tools that you can use for your success.
6. Communicate openly with your roommates
Whether or not you got to choose your roommate(s), go into it with an open mind. Be open to the possibilities — this may be a person who becomes your best friend, a person you have some difficulty with, or a person you simply cohabit with. Take time to get to know your roommate and what their preferences are. Having a meeting at the beginning of the year to discuss how you'd like your living situation to be will help clear up any miscommunications that might occur later in the year. And if you start having real difficulties with your roommate, you can always work with your resident assistant (RA) or connect with the student housing office.
7. Get enough sleep!
Getting eight hours of sleep should really be a priority. Even though you may be tempted to pull an all-nighter, studies show that students tend to perform worse on their exams when they have not gotten enough sleep. It's also ideal to set a regular sleep schedule where you try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. Your brain and body will thank you when you've made your sleep a priority.
8. Eat responsibly and know where to go if you get sick
College is often the first time when you are given free rein with your meals. You can eat whatever you want! However, with that freedom comes some responsibility. You want to ensure that you're still getting enough vitamins and minerals and consuming enough water. So while the buffet options are really exciting at first, remember that you should not consume every meal buffet-style. Eating healthy portions throughout the day will help you feel in balance.
Before the school year starts, be sure to walk to your student health center so that you know where it is on campus. This is a place you can go if you're feeling sick and need to see a doctor. If you're feeling unwell (whether that applies to your physical and/or mental health), there are clinicians on campus who can treat you and help you feel better.
9. Discuss how to handle domestic chores
When you first meet your roommates, you'll want to discuss how chores will operate in your dorm. Everyone should take equal responsibility and you should determine how you will communicate with one another if someone is not doing their fair share. If doing chores is hard for you to remember, set reminders on your phone. It's important to know that you are in a shared living space and the level of cleanliness impacts more than just you.
10. Attend class regularly
One of the worst habits students fall into is not attending class. This is one of the biggest mistakes and one of the easiest to fix. They say that success is 90% showing up and this is true when it comes to college. There is a significant difference in grades between students who attend class and those who don't. Therefore, attending class should be your first priority and you'll want to make sure that you allocate plenty of time in your schedule for this. Being in the classroom will help you feel like you're keeping up rather than falling behind.
11. Do what you can to stay safe
Every student should have the school safety and security numbers in their phone, ideally before the first day of class. It's also helpful to text others when you're walking, especially at night, so that people know where you are. Walk with another person when possible and if you ever feel unsafe, reach out to campus security as they are often the quickest to respond.