Navigating the transition to college

Jan 23, 2024

I’ve helped many students transition from high school to becoming independent, responsible, and passionate college students with clear goals and directions. While different challenges present themselves throughout college years, freshman year from my experience is usually the most challenging one for students academically, socially, and emotionally.

Decades ago, I said goodbye to my parents and flew to the US with my best friend from high school to start a new college life. Even though it was long time ago, I still remember the butterflies in my stomach being on campus and being surrounded by strangers, but having my friend next to me certainly helped ease this transition.

College transition is one of the biggest steps toward independence. Some adapt well in a short period of time, while others need more time and support to truly step out of the comfort zone and embrace everything new.

Various challenges in the freshman year

First year in college often brings various challenges, here are some of the common challenges I’ve experienced with my student clients.

  • Academic

In the “2021 Your First College Year Survey” published by UCLA, it indicated that almost 50% of students experienced some difficulty adjusting to the academic demands, while 30% of them found it either very or somewhat difficult to understand what professors expected out of them.

I remember there was so much reading prior to and after classes in my college years. With English as my second language, I often read and studied till dawn. The workload was serious, and I simply couldn’t allow myself to fall behind.

  • Social

It can be challenging for one to meet new people and make friends from different backgrounds. With everyone’s heads down staring at his/her phones these days, it’s very easy to pass by people without making an eye contact or any meaningful connection.

  • Emotion

Whether it’s being far away from home or sharing a small living space with someone you know little about, feeling homesickness, experiencing academic stress, or living harmoniously together with your roommates could take a toll on your emotion, especially in the beginning.

  • Time management

Unlike high school, no one “runs” your life anymore. You don’t have to report to your parents or teachers, and you get to do what you like, when you like it. However, you may find it challenging to balance among academics, day-to-day activities, and a healthy social life.

  • Finances

College costs money, and it is the perfect timing to step up and start managing your spending however much or little you have. Whether you have a full-ride scholarship, grants or parents’ support, or if you have to work part time to support yourself, budgeting and managing your finances could add on additional stress at the same time.

  • Major and minor

Some colleges require students to declare their major before registration, others allow students to do so at the end of their sophomore year. If you aren’t clear about your study direction, it may be challenging as what classes you would take in your freshman year.

Adapting to college life

Adapting to college life includes getting used to the new environment, meeting strangers, establishing a new rhythm of life, becoming independent, proactively seeking loving and unbiased support from others, learning how to make good decisions that impacts your life long term, and many more. Some may look at this transition just as a way to get a higher education diploma, have fun and make life-long friends. However, if utilized well, your college life can be transformative and equip you with knowledge, experiences, critical thinking, good decision-making skills, and ultimately prepare you to embrace the big unknown world fearlessly with passion and confidence.

Below are some tips to help you get a solid footing on your college transition.

  • Attend orientation or new student events

Almost all colleges offer student orientation programs. If that’s the case for you, attend. Those programs will help you familiarize yourself with the new campus, facilities, and resources. You will also meet other freshmen and start new friendships to go through life with. By taking this effort, you will eliminate much unneeded stress when you start your college.

  • Take a summer class

Taking a summer class may be another great way to ease through your college transition. Under my encouragement, a college client of mine took a summer course before she became a full-time freshman. By doing so, she was able to gain a clear idea about her own academic expectations, familiarize herself with the school surroundings, make a few friends which gave her the competitive advantage to immediately thrive when the fall semester started.

  • Stay on campus housing if you can

Campus housing costs more compared to the off-campus accommodations. Whenever it’s feasible, I suggest staying on campus at least for the first year. This will provide much convenience, flexibility, and accessibility for you to meet others and participate in activities throughout the campus either in a planned or spontaneous ways.

  • Connect with your roommates prior to move in

Before you start college, you will fill out a roommate questionnaire to be paired up with someone you will share the room with, but most likely you won’t meet your roommate(s) until the move in date. Once you receive the information about your roommate(s), connect with that person right away via email, text, or social media. Better yet, take additional steps to meet up ahead and arrange the two families to get to know each other. By being proactive, you will most likely remove possible social anxiety between you and your new roommate(s) and gain a new friend to do things with on and off campus from day one.

  • Join a club or two

Whether it’s student clubs or societies, joining something you enjoy doing will assist you to meet and interact with other students. Meeting and getting to know new people can be an enriching experience. Afterall, isn’t college all about trying and learning something new? If you don’t have a strong leaning toward any activities, just pick one or two and join them, I bet with the right support on your side, it will be a worthwhile experience.

  • Explore different subjects and interests

If your college allows you to claim your major by the end of your sophomore year and if you haven’t decided what your major will be, talk to your academic counselor, professors, or fellow students, and try out different possible subjects and classes. After one year, if you still aren’t clear about your major, find a career coach who can help you sort out and crystalize your options based on discovering your strengths, talents and interests.

  • Utilize school resources

From academic tutoring to study groups to professors’ office hours to residential advisor support, and even to mental health services, colleges offer a great number of resources to help your transition and growth. I spent one year with one English student tutor for my writing skills. I gave him full credit for being able to write the way I do today. He was patient and nonjudgmental toward this foreign student, and he used graphs, charts, and pictures to help explain the beauty and power of being a good writer. Thank you, David!

  • Manage your time and money

If you have much free time on your hands, managing and utilizing this most precious asset in life wisely is going to be crucial. Establish a good routine to balance among maintaining your academic competitiveness, attending social events you enjoy, spending time with friends, staying connected with family, and maintaining your physical/mental well-being. On top of that, eating and sleeping well are just as important for you to function at your best.

Managing money is another crucial and required task, as you may be responsible for paying bills on your own. How do you manage your finances while maintaining good and meaningful friendships? How can you take the first baby step toward having a budget mindset so you can be financially balanced or even financially stable and strong?

  • Manage your stress and practice self-care

College transition involves all of you mentally, physically, and emotionally. Stress, doubts, and fear could creep in if you don’t pay attention to your own well-being or if you don’t have a trusted support system to rely on. Be aware of the need for self-care, apply some self-care techniques, don’t solely rely on yourself, but reach out to your close friends, parents or people who are invested in your success and well-being for help if needed.

  • Allow yourself time and space

Self-care 101, don’t pressure yourself to perform at your 100% capacity once you enter into college, but give yourself time and space to maneuver through your freshman year. People said it may take somewhere between three and nine months to feel comfortable in a new setting. Whether you need 3 months or 3 weeks, don’t be hard on yourself, rather, take your time and you will come out the other end very well.

  • Embrace diversity and have an open mind

I always see college as a big melting pot with people coming from different cities, states or even countries. It provides a new world of opportunities to embrace and appreciate different backgrounds, languages, cultures, perspectives, or traditions that are different from your own. This is a great opportunity to engage your mind with things that are unfamiliar to you, think and analyze what’s in front of you objectively and critically, and build a worldview of values while expanding your global connections which may last you a lifetime.

  • Limit your visit home

If you are far from home, homesickness will hit you sooner or later. From my own experience and what I’ve observed from my college clients, I recommend not to rush home on the weekends or the first long break; rather, stay put. It takes time to build your muscle of resilience and adjust to a new environment, so getting a little bit uncomfortable will get you far ahead in the future. Everyone is different but keep it in mind that it usually takes about 3-6 months to get through the adjustment.

  • Becoming Independent

Whether it’s you proactively meeting new friends, doing your own laundry, deciding what classes to take or what clubs to join, college is a place for you to become independent, mature, and ready for the world. Inevitably, it’s also time to stretch yourself and start taking personal responsibilities for your action and decisions. Yes, you may make wrong or even bad decisions, but gaining the ability to analyze, learning from mistakes, and adjusting on how you think and act will turn you into a strong and solid decision maker for your own life.

  • Call for support

Things could happen, and frustration or emotion could get in the way. When it happens, reach out to others for help; may it be your school counselors, parents, high school buddies or even me. What you experience during this college transition isn’t unusual, and it has happened to many other people, too. So, reaching out to those who have your best interest at heart and who you can communicate effectively with will truly help you become successful in this new phase of your life.

  • Stay focused and organized

In my coaching career, I’ve seen students letting themselves go in this total freedom, resulting in falling behind academically, losing interests in what a college life could offer, or just simply quitting before they even started. Being academically competitive obviously isn’t the only reason for being in college, and not everyone is going to be at the top of the class. However, deepening your subject knowledge, obtaining a degree and related experience, and making connections with others should be your minimal expectations for putting yourself through the college. If you are slipping from this original intent, be sure to make the necessary change, engage with me to reignite your focus and passion, then come back and stay focused to reach your college goals.

  • Consider a part-time job, volunteer, or internship

I did a few on campus part-time jobs while in college. Whether it was working at the cafeteria, bookstore, gym, or the residential hall, those experiences gave me the opportunities to get out of my comfort zone to meet and interact with strangers, gain some work experiences, but ultimately, they helped build my self-confidence. Nowadays, colleges post a lot of job and internship opportunities, take advantage of that, and start building your resume and become someone with character, commitment and sense of responsibility.

No one college experience is the same, neither is one’s pace while adapting to a new college life. So, be patient with yourself. It’s a journey and there will be bumps here and there, but keep an open mind and embrace the newness and challenges with excitement and expectation. I believe you will learn, grow, and mature, and you will meet a lot of good people and make friends along the way who will shape and enrich your life.

About Faye Weng

Your Online Life and Career Coach

Faye Weng is an expert life and career coach who works with clients to take back control of their lives by rediscovering their passions, living/working with a clear purpose, and becoming people who can positively impact the communities around them. As your life and career coach, Faye will help you minimize noises and distractions, focus your effort and attention on the right things, execute a clear plan of action, and celebrate alongside of you when each milestone is reached. Click here to book a complimentary session.