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College 101

It’s time to prepare your future collegian for what awaits next fall.

Posted: April 25, 2008 3:29 p.m.
Updated: June 26, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 

If you are the parent of a college-bound high school senior, you've probably spent much of the last two years helping him or her prepare. First there were SATs to ace, then AP exams to cram for, campuses to tour, application essays to write and financing and scholarships to arrange. Now that all the acceptance and rejection letters have come in and you've chosen a school, you can relax and coast until September, right?

Well, not quite.

While getting accepted to the college of your choice is indeed hard, that is only half the story. Once a student gets on campus he or she faces a unique set of challenges and rewards, particularly in the first semesters or quarters. This is why the transition from the security and familiarity of home and high school to the strange new world of the university should be planned and negotiated as carefully as possible, in order to guarantee the highest likelihood of success.

So whether your senior is headed to Cal Arts or to Cornell University, now is the time to start preparing yourself and your student for what lies ahead.

Adjustment pains
Having seen her own two kids and hundreds of her Hart High School students stumble through their first few months of college, Laurie Levine knows a thing or two about why that period is the most difficult.

"You have to take responsibility for getting yourself to class, getting your laundry done and getting your bills paid," said Levine, who is a career advisor at Hart High. "For many kids, for the first time there is no one there to give them daily guidance but themselves."

At first, many students flounder financially, academically and socially as they figure out the right balance of studying vs. socializing, spending vs. saving, and holding onto old friends vs. forging new ties. Grades can slip, debts can pile up and pounds can pile on as students struggle with not only a new environment, but with managing their own lives for the first time.

This crash-course in self-reliance, coupled with to-be-expected homesickness and the growing pains
involved in making new friends and finding a social niche, can drive some students to the edge.

"Getting out of your comfort zone can be a real stress factor," said Levine, whose children both went to universities out of state. "With my kids, there were frantic phone calls sometimes, with them saying ‘I can't do it!' But I told them that if they stick it out, it will be one of the best experiences of their life."

Brian Safdari, owner of College Planning Experts, Inc., a consulting firm that helps families get their
kids into college, said that it usually takes about a year for a student to figure out how to run their life smoothly. This learning curve can sometimes slow down a student's progress toward graduation.

"It takes a while to get self-motivated and to get over the partying," he said. "That is one of biggest
issues in the first year. Students don't realize at first that the workload increases 50 percent from high school to college. That's why it takes an average of 5.8 years to get from freshman to senior year."

One student who successfully made the transition is Philip Lew, currently a junior at Boston University. A graduate of an Antelope Valley high school, he first saw college as an endless party, but once he saw how it was affecting his grades, he pulled himself together in time for the end of his freshman year.

"Management of time was an issue with me. During the first semester I realized if I continued on this track I wouldn't succeed,'" he said. "During the second semester it balances out more. You have to ask yourself, ‘Is this what I'm about, what I want my college life to be about?' You have to have the conviction to go against the norm and tell yourself you'll need to study if you ever want to graduate and get into grad school."

Fostering independence
Both Levine and Safdari recommend that parents try to encourage independence well before the September send-off, if they haven't already.

"Many parents think they only need to register their kids to prepare, but it's so much more than that," Levine said. "Hopefully the preparation has been taking place over several years, but if not, now is the time. Teach your kid to run their own mini-life. Kids need to learn to do things themselves. Parental hovering can be their downfall."

Teaching life skills such as balancing a checkbook, doing laundry, cleaning and time management can help make the transition to college easier.

In addition to these general life skills, there are also some college-specific pitfalls to be aware of.

Safdari warns kids to avoid the ubiquitous on-campus credit card offers, which can lead to serious debt problems before the student has even graduated. And since drinking is a perpetually popular college pastime, parents should try mightily to convey the dangers of alcohol poisoning to their kids.

If your child has never spent an extended period away from home, it may also be a good idea to send them on an summer trip somewhere, if you can afford it. Levine said that taking a tour in Europe with other students or participating in a volunteer project in another part of the country may help them get accustomed to being away from family, sharing cramped quarters with others and making independent decisions.

In the end though, your student will still have to learn through trial and error, by making their own
mistakes. But if he or she has had good role models throughout their school years, hopefully they will
make more good decisions than bad ones.

"Kids learn that they have to fall back on their foundation," Levine said. "They are not challenged as
much when they are in the home as they are when they're in college."

Be informed, be prepared
The summer prior to matriculation, there are ways that you can familiarize your student with the college experience in order to de-mystify and prepare.

If you will be living on campus, most universities will put freshman students in touch with their future
roommate(s) well before the move-in date in order to allow them to get to know each other.

"Take advantage of college reachout to get to know your roommate in advance," Levine said. "It gives you a little familiarity with the person."

If your child has trepidation about sharing living space with a stranger, this can only be remedied by
jumping in headfirst. It's hard to prepare someone for that experience unless they have previously shared a room with a sibling, for example. But remember that it's all about compromise, and be prepared to not like your roommate.

Another idea is to take a tour of the campus if you can. Try to find out where the dorms are in relation to the lecture halls and mess halls, and where the administration and other offices are. If you have a class schedule already, make a dry run to see if you can easily locate all the classrooms.

If you live across the country from the campus, it is especially important to prepare. According to Safdari, the psychological adjustment to college can be harder for the 20 percent of students who choose attend a college that's over 300 miles from home, than for those who stay local.

"You can't come back and visit as easily, so you have to rely more on phone contact and be more disciplined about taking care of yourself," Safdari said.

Even if you can't afford to visit the campus in advance, there are still steps you can take to get ready. Most schools have a wealth of Web-based resources such as maps, course descriptions and even online forums to discuss issues and make connections with students, alumni and faculty.

Lew suggests asking the school to put you in touch with currently-enrolled students who can give you the scoop on what campus life is really like, so you are not entering cold turkey. He said that it is also a good idea to learn about your future professors, such as where they come from and the nature of their research.

Weather woes
For those who will be attending schools in the Midwest or back East, it's particularly important to not underestimate the impact of the difference in weather.

"All students are affected one way or another by going to college, but the ones who are not accustomed to cold weather are often the hardest hit," Safdari said. "They often make the decision of what college to attend based on statistics and studies but don't think about the environment."

Endless months of frigid winter, with days that sometimes have little sunlight, can be hard on those
accustomed to year-round balmy weather. Many students report sinking into a mild depression during the first term.

This can largely be avoided by preparing carefully for the deep freeze. Start by buying climate-appropriate clothes such as a winter coat, long underwear, snow boots, gloves, scarves and hats. Try to find out what indoor amenities are available in and around the university, such as a fitness center or a local movie house. That will ensure that your student stays busy and engaged, even when it is blizzarding outside, rather than hibernating in their dorm room.

Toto, I don't think we're in high school anymore

After academic adjustment, navigating the social environment of college is the biggest challenge students face. Trying to make friends and find a niche can be daunting, because new freshman don't always realize that the social and cultural dynamics of college can be very different from high school.

"It was intimidating at first - I was isolated," said Lew. "On Day One I was literally in culture shock
because everyone thought differently, had different values and came from different backgrounds."
At first Lew, who is African-American, said he did what seemed intuitive at the time, which was to seek out others with the same racial background. He was also hesitant to venture away from the orientation group he had been placed with in the first week.

However, when he found that this was not working, he branched out and exposed himself to new groups and activities until he found a place where he fit in.

"In times of fear and stress we tend to cling to things that are familiar, but we should look at our
values, hobbies and activities," he said. "Be ready to meet anyone and involve yourself in as many clubs and organizations as you can. The identity that you create for yourself as a high school senior will go out the window. Then you can start developing relationships with people who can offer you more as a person."

Whether it be through a fraternity or sorority, a sports team or a volunteer club, eventually you will find friends with whom you share interests and a common goal, though they may be different from the people you would have hung out with in high school.

According to Lew, the key is to stick it out and give it time.

"You make your most consistent friendships in the second semester of your freshman year or the first semester of your sophomore year, after you settle down more," he said.

Avoid senioritis
Finally, parents and students alike should not forget that it is important to successfully complete the last semester of high school. Though colleges only consider first semester senior year grades when deciding on admissions, the second term grades can have consequences, too.

"During senior year, many students get senioritis," Safdari said. "But second semester can be very
important. If you got a scholarship but get bad grades, you could lose it or the college could rescind
the admission offer."

To contact College Planning Experts, call (661) 295-9946.

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