What parents should do to help students prepare for the first year of college

As the school year begins to wind down, high school seniors – and those who care about them – typically have their eyes on two prizes: getting into college and graduating from high school.

While both milestones are worthy of celebration, there’s much more that students and parents should do after those two milestones are reached.

That’s the message of our new book, “How to College: What to Know Before You Go (and When You’re There).” The recommendations in the book are based on two decades of teaching and designing programs for thousands of first-year college students, such as “The American University Experience,” a course that helps new students adjust to university life.

We also spoke to college faculty and staff about the many ways that new students arrive on campus underprepared for their first semester of college and incorporate tips from college students about what they wish they had known when they first arrived on campus.

Knowing what to expect can make a major difference in a student’s psychological well-being. Many first-year college students report feeling “stressed most or all of the time,” regardless of where they go to college. A national survey of first-year college students conducted by the JED Foundation, which studies college students’ mental health issues, found that students who feel emotionally unprepared for college were more likely to report poor academic performance and negative college experiences.

In recognition of how stressful the first year of college can be, here are five things that we believe can help ease the transition.

1. Make it OK to ask for help

While new college students may be intent upon gaining independence, it’s important to stress that knowing when to ask for help is actually a sign of maturity. Along those lines, it’s important to encourage students to seek out the various resources that might be available on campus, such as a counseling center, financial aid office or wellness center. Students who need it should also seek out academic support and tutoring programs. There are also programs to support students with disabilities, as well as diversity and inclusion programs for students who may not feel welcome on campus.

Students should be encouraged to research the support systems that exist on campus before leaving home instead of waiting until they arrive.

2. Develop empathy

Parents and soon-to-be college students should discuss the time when the parent first left home and what the challenges were. By discussing what worried or excited the parent the most, and what the parent wishes they would have known before moving out, the parent and student can develop a better understanding and bond over the similarities and differences of their experiences, regardless as to whether the parent attended college.

3. Discuss your expectations

The way that parents communicate their expectations can affect college students’ self-esteem.

In our book, we suggest several prompts for things to discuss that range from personal safety to religious observance away from home. Other topics include how often parents and their children who are in college will communicate with each other, to how the student should obtain health insurance and budget money.