Getting the First Year of College Started Off Right

The first year of college comes with a ton of change. Take a look at the dos and don'ts for parents and students and how to balance it all.

Going to college, especially going away to college, can be a huge adjustment for your son or daughter. For some, it may be the first time away from their friends, families and communities.

It can be as easy or as hard as parents and students make it.

To help, we spoke with Brian Flatter, MA LLPC NCC, school counselor for Seaholm High School of Birmingham Public Schools, about how parents and students can make sure to have a successful college year.

Setting your schedule

“I think the most important thing for new college students to consider is making sure that they are properly scheduled,” Flatter says. Most first-year students will think that taking more than the required amount of credits for full time will be fine, when in reality they are probably overdoing it—especially for their first semester.

When I went away to college at Central Michigan University, I remember 16 credits being too much for me. I immediately dropped one of my classes to have the full-time required 12 credits, which was perfect for my first year. 

“For some, there is a tendency to ‘load up’ and tap into their personal ambition, but this can be a pitfall and their grades can quickly unravel with the pressures of keeping up,” he says. “For other students, they choose to take on too little, thinking that they preserve enough time to keep up with studies, while unfortunately providing too much time to procrastinate.”

Managing your time

“I’ve heard from many college admissions officers and administrators that having a balanced approach is the key to success as a first-year college student,” Flatter says. “It’s critically important that students become involved in something other than college courses, whether this is intramural sports, clubs or other student organizations.”

When I was at CMU, I joined a dance team. It made me manage my time better because I would have to get my assignments done before practice. If I didn’t, I knew I would be too exhausted when I got home.

Clubs and sports

There are many athletics or clubs that your son and daughter can try. These will also help keep their grades up because most will have a certain GPA that your child will have to maintain. Some even have study hall hours for them to work on their schoolwork together.

“Division I and Division II sports can be almost another community unto itself,” Flatter says. “For the competitive collegiate athlete, it needs to be made clear that during the school year, in season and off, there are tremendous pressures to perform, train, and participate along with all of the obvious pressures of school.”

This may or may not be what your son or daughter wants. They may not be able to have much social or free time.

“I had a mentor who would advise his student-athletes during the season, ‘you can be a great athlete, an excellent student and have a great social life, but you can’t have all three,'” he says. “This is true — something will have to give, and often it will be the social life.”

Greek Life

It’s important to check Greek Life out even if you’re unsure about it.

“Greek Life isn’t for everyone, it can be very attractive and enticing but if one doesn’t have the ability to set solid boundaries it can be fraught with potential pitfalls,” Flatter says. “However, it can be a fabulous experience and lead to excellent networking opportunities.

“At CMU, all the sororities, fraternities and clubs would be set up in one area to give students a chance to mingle and get a feel for each one. Parents should encourage their son or daughter to try something new, such as Greek Life, but support them as well if it isn’t for them.

Roommates

Choosing a roommate or roommates can be one of the most important things you will do when preparing for college. Should you choose to room with someone from your high school going to the same school or opt for someone unknown?

Sometimes, friends will actually have a falling out after living together since you never truly know how someone actually is until you share a small space, like a dorm room.

College is a way to find yourself and make new friends and connections, so if you are rooming with a friend, try to find a shared room with a couple other people, so it’s not just the two of you. That way you have the best of both worlds — you are making new friends, but also have someone who you’re already comfortable around.

Sometimes you may have to “go in blind” with your roommates. It’s a scary thing to do, but if you think about it, in life, you will not always know or get along with everyone you work with. Living with three strangers of all different personality types really prepared me for my future work environments. I knew how to handle someone who hated confrontation and how to stand up for them and help them stand up for themselves. I also learned how to have patience, due to one of my roommates being super messy.

Homesickness

Every child, even the most independent, will most likely get homesick even if they don’t admit it. Tensions can be high in the dorm room or homework and tests could start stressing them out and they will miss you. Some may even want to come home. Encourage your child to stick it out. If you feel like your son or daughter is feeling down, send a care package to instantly brighten their mood.

Also, try to make a trip to visit them. Just seeing you will help make them feel a little less homesick. Also, a quick shopping spree to get some essentials and a nice dinner will help, too.

Parties 

Have “the talk” before they leave for college. Talk about never leaving your drink unattended, never walking home alone from a party and of course, never drinking and driving or getting in a car with someone who has been drinking and driving.

The scariest part of your child leaving for college is that you can’t protect them like you would if they were still in your home.

“It is important for parents to trust what they know to be true about their children, while keeping an open mind and allow them to demonstrate their independence,” Flatter says. “I always say that parents need to ’embrace every age and every stage.'”

Finding the balance

“College is loaded with opportunity — academically, socially and emotionally,” Flatter says. “I think that it is essential that students take the time to research the opportunities and know what they are getting into on all fronts.”

Having your son or daughter leave for college may be a difficult time for you and your family. Like their parents, younger siblings will have to adjust to not having their big brother or sister home all the time. Encourage young ones to write their older sibling. Parents can always write or text their son or daughter but may want to take it easy on the texts, especially at first.

“It should be the intention of most parents to continue to pull back as their children enter the college environment,” he says. It’s hard adjusting to college life, but it’s something they will have to do on their own.

“I’ve been fortunate in my career in that my entire job is having these conversations,” Flatter says. “I speak to parents, high school students and returning college students and almost always the key is balance.”

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