Getting into college was the easy part. Staying there is becoming harder than ever, experts say

By Valerie Strauss

However difficult getting into college may have been, it turns out, that may have been the easiest part of the transition to college life, admissions officials say. Inadequate preparation, unrealistic expectations and other issues that college freshmen don’t anticipate can become important obstacles to happiness and success.

With about one-third of undergraduates transferring at one point in their careers and an even bigger percentage dropping out for financial and other reasons, staying in college is becoming increasingly hard for many students.

So what do students and parents need to know to avoid disaster? Here is a piece offering advice from the professionals — counselors and students who have been through the transition process. This was written by Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at the Derryfield School, a private college preparatory day school for grades 6-12 in Manchester, N.H. He has penned a number of posts about college admissions for this blog, including:

[How college admissions has turned into something akin to ‘The Hunger Games’]

By Brennan Barnard

Shower caddy?  Check.  Earplugs?  Check.  Tupperware bins?  Check.  Enough socks and underwear to last until vacation?  Check.  August has arrived and many recent high school graduates are preparing for their first year of college in a few weeks.  But are they truly prepared for what lies ahead?

Immeasurable energy, attention (okay … obsession) and resources are devoted to “getting in” to college.  Throughout high school, students and parents fixate on admission and the “prize” of college, often neglecting what lies between:  the transition process.  For many young people, college represents a rite of passage — the onset of adulthood — which ought to be a time of healthy focus on a major life transition.  Instead, the experience is anticlimactic and often wrought with disappointment, as it is overshadowed by admission fatigue and the acceptance itself.  The hype around selective college admission would have families believe that acceptance is the pinnacle of high school success.  Meanwhile deceptive marketing and promotion provides an unrealistic perception of the endless joy and perfection that supposedly await students on campus.

Heath Einstein, dean of admission at Texas Christian University, said: “In some ways, the struggle to adjust from their cocoons to a new environment are no different from decades past. The difference, though, is that they arrive less equipped to handle independent living.” Further, he said that today’s students have “been so beaten down by the high school experience that they carry with them significant emotional baggage which manifests in unhealthy choices.”

Catherine McDonald Davenport, dean of admissions at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, agreed, saying that  “staying in has become much harder” than getting accepted to college.

Colleges and universities plan elaborate orientations and welcome new students with support and enthusiasm, but this may only skim the surface of what today’s adolescents require to prepare for college life. After all the AP courses are done, athletic competitions are over and activities have faded, what is next?  The best four years of their lives? Perhaps, but having invested considerably in searching for and applying to college, students are left with a void around what to actually expect.

Shane McGuire, assistant director of admissions at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee believes these false expectations can be avoided by more clarity in the admissions process. He wrote,  “Admissions has to be transparent about the good, bad, and ugly at their institutions so students know what to expect and can truly find their right fit.” This gap between marketing and reality is among the most challenging roadblocks to a smooth transition to college.

With transfer rates increasing and student mental health deteriorating, it is prudent to explore the student experience as young people settle into college living and learning.  I asked high school seniors, current college students and admission professionals about the transition to college and immediately common themes emerged.  Here is what they had to say:


Transition anxiety

When asked about their greatest academic concerns in the transition to college, high school seniors cited everything from procrastination and effective time management to worries about large classes and “mean” professors who might weed students out of their intended major. Increased reading demands, workload and insecurity about writing ability also weigh heavily on the minds of college bound students.  The most honest and transparent high school seniors shared anxiety about “feeling inferior to classmates” and “not being smart enough to handle college.”

[Why so many college students decide to transfer]

This fear of not being “enough” was also exposed as students anticipated the social aspects of college. One student shared, “I am worried that I am too introverted and I won’t have time to relax while still making friends.” Another explained, “My biggest concern is that my first impression won’t be the best representation of the type of person I actually am.”  The most significant worries about transitioning to college life are roommate issues, followed by fears of not making close friends, the “hook-up” culture, the party scene and generally fitting in.  One student wrote, “I worry that people will be going out on weekdays and I will have to choose between being with friends and getting my work done.”  Mike Sexton, vice president for enrollment management at Santa Clara University in California counters the anxiety with this message for incoming students: “Be confident. We selected you for a reason. Be humble. We admitted everyone else for reasons, too.  No one knows your past identity and accomplishments and everyone is as smart as you.”


Transition checklist

So, what should students consider as they arrive on college campuses this fall?

Current college students reflecting on their initial months as first-year students identified a range of ways they wish they had approached the transition differently.  Many lamented the imbalance between socializing, studies and sleep as they acclimated to increased independence and the excitement of new friends and opportunities.  Others would have connected with professors and other support systems earlier in their college experience.  What follows are some considerations and best practices for transitioning to college from veteran students and those who guide them:


Sign me up

Students who actively engage in campus life in and out of the classroom are those who are happiest with their college experience, least likely to transfer and more likely to graduate.  Whether through an intercollegiate or intramural sport, a club or a social group, creating connection early in college makes all the difference.  It is easier to join activities from the start and ease off if it gets to be too much than not to do anything and try to join established networks once they have formed.

One college student advised incoming students to “make an attempt to get further involved right away.”  He wrote: “I wish I had really explored the options for clubs on campus. The club fair usually happens early in the year, and I wish I had taken the time to truly explore what the offerings were instead of defaulting to clubs that were similar to what I did in high school. Although I joined some different clubs in my sophomore and junior year, I wish I had known about them earlier.”

Want to learn more?  The National Survey of Student Engagement releases an annual report each November, which highlights the important issues of retention and engagements.



No matter how much time or effort was taken in finding the “right” college, chances are there will be some disappointment or something lacking at a student’s chosen college. The myth of perfection and the trap of entitled thinking can quickly derail the college experience.  Often students (and parents) get upset because they didn’t get “the best” residence hall, their exact desired schedule, or because they cannot pick their roommate nor have a car on campus. Life comes with disappointment, college is a good time to practice resilience rather than transferring because of “Goldilocks  Syndrome” and everything not being just right.

Jason Honsel, director of College Counseling, at St. Andrew’s School in Delaware warned: “Don’t expect everything to be perfect. You will have good days and bad days, great professors and mediocre ones, good friends and lousy ones. Push yourself to connect with your faculty. The students who are willing to meet with faculty and ask for help and support are often the happiest and most successful.”


Dr. Who?

Speaking of faculty, whether you come from a small secondary school where teachers went by their first names or from a larger high school, make an effort to know your professors and teaching assistants.  Be a self-advocate from the start — even if you are in a huge lecture class, use office hours and other invitations from faculty to make yourself known and connect directly.  One college student warned: “There is absolutely no handholding. No professor will check in on you, nor will your peers. If you want to do absolutely nothing, you can do absolutely nothing.”  She writes, “I knew about this going into college, but it is another thing to experience it first hand. You will do poorly if you let yourself do poorly. That having been said, if you reach out to professors or peers, college is extremely manageable.”


The ‘best’ four years

Students have no doubt been regaled with stories about the magic of the college years.  While college is rich with opportunity, learning, exploration and growth, Texas Christian University’s Heath Einstein, said, “The greatest myth is that college is the best four years of their lives.”  He addded, “If this is true, then they’re in for very depressing lives.”

Kate Jacobson, associate dean of admission at Franklin & Marshall in Pennsylvania said that students “have preconceived notions from various sources (movies, books, social media) about what college “should be.” She added:  “They expect college to be so many things in different realms (academic, social, etc) and if the college they chose doesn’t seem to fit their expectations right away, they often lose interest in trying to succeed.”

Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech added: “People constantly tell kids this prior to going off to school. Then, when transition is hard and inevitable bumps occur, they question if they’re doing something wrong, or missing out, or perhaps chose the wrong school. The truth is college years are not the best of your life. They’re just incredibly unique. There’s a big difference.”


Grade point awareness

While most students need an adjustment period to college-level learning, this is not permission to aimlessly drift.  Some students shrug off low grades as an inevitable consequence of the transition but it can be difficult to repair a low grade point average and it is important to proactively ask for help and establish support systems. One college student advised, “Get into a better routines from the start. It took me a long time to break bad habits I made freshman year.  College is fun but remember your academics. Don’t let your freshmen GPA come back to bite you.”


Major concerns   

Many high school seniors worry about entering college as an undecided major.  They wonder if they are putting themselves at a disadvantage.  Matthew Cohen, senior associate director of admissions at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., encouraged students not to create pressure to figure out the rest of their lives in the first year (or even four) of college.  He said, “People change careers and situations several times through life and many of those changes are unrelated to college majors.”  A current college junior agreed: “Keep an open mind about what you will study….I had it set in my mind that I wanted to do accounting, and it turned out I hated it.”


Out with the old, In with the new

College is an opportunity to branch out socially and personally.  While you do not need to forget long established friendships, be aware of relying on what is comfortable.  Matthew DeGreeff, dean of college counseling and student enrichment at Middlesex School in Massachusetts recommended that students “make an effort NOT to wear high school gear, put out pictures of a high school crew or sweetheart, or talk constantly about the glory days.”  He said: “Be open to new folks, listen to their stories, and don’t box yourself in by your previous life. These subtle messages from your clothes, images, and stories send messages and may turn away folks whom you really want to know or relationships that you want to forge.”

Franklin & Marshall’s Jacobson said that students may not feel connected with other students and form friendships quickly. She said: “It takes time and effort to meet and make new friends. Students have to be vulnerable and put themselves out there to make meaningful connections with other students.”

A current college student agreed, advising first year students to “make an effort to meet new friends.”  He wrote, “I wish I had not been so connected to my high school ties. I made the unfortunate decision to stay strongly connected to a few high school friends, and didn’t allow enough time for my new experiences in college.”

And as Georgia’s Tech’s Clark warned: “Don’t trust social media. Everyone else is going to post their best day, their best looking new friend, their most fun first week or first semester experiences. They’re questioning things too. They’re struggling to fit in, find friends, rebuild a community, etc. #fakefreshmannews.”


A melting pot

Perhaps a stew is a better metaphor for the richness of backgrounds and experiences that arrive on college campuses each fall.  College admission offices go to great lengths to build a diverse campus community of individuals who will challenge each other and hopefully broaden perspectives.  While they can try to bring these multiple voices to campus, it is up to the student acknowledge and embrace it.  First students must examine their own identity, privilege and world views and only then are they able to seek out and understand the experiences of others.  For some, a college community is a foreign environment and worlds away from their home reality.  Others have lived sheltered lives surrounded by people who look, talk and act like them and have never had to confront difference, struggle, bias or hurt.

College can be an ideal opportunity to engage in honest and difficult dialogue about institutionalized prejudice around issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability and many other areas that may or may not have been part of a young person’s previous experience.  These conversations can be messy and heated but are a necessary part of living in community.  Santa Clara University’s Mike Sexton warns students not to stereotype anyone. He wrote: “The diversity of backgrounds everyone brings to a community is amazing, you just need to take the time to learn it. One common comment I hear of freshmen is ‘people are so different here than home.’ The truth is, people are different at home too, you just know those people and feel comfortable around them.”


You are not alone

After the novelty of orientation and the first days of college wear off, students can feel isolated and homesick.  Sexton advised: “There are others on campus having the same experiences. Talk with them. Don’t deal with situations alone.”

Susan Tree, co-director of college counseling at the preK-12 Westtown School in Pennsylvania, said she tells students to “learn quickly to use your time well and get the support you need.” She added: “Start building your ‘team’ of advisors and supporters early — they are there to help you be successful and happy. You are in class fewer hours than in high school but there is much more academic work expected of you outside of class. Fewer assessments give you feedback so it is harder to know how you are doing.”

Georgia Tech’s Rick Clark added: “One of the biggest struggles I see students face is their own ego and confidence. Many have always been the smartest in the room. They were the tutor in high school and academic success came relatively easy. When they get to campus and are surrounded by a bunch of other top 5 percent students, they can question their identity and place. The humility to reach out early is understandably hard but absolutely essential.”

Deb Shaver, dean of admission at Smith College in Massachusetts, urged students not to wait to ask for help for academic, social or health issues.  She said: “Students who form a relationship or connection with an adult other than a faculty member retain at a higher rate: get to know the people at your work study job or at the library or in student affairs. There are so many resources at college. Learn to take advantage of them; you just need to ask.”

Most college campuses have mental health counseling and psychological services that are free and anonymous, allowing students to begin to understand themselves apart from the family system.  For a powerful story of one student-athlete’s struggle in transition, read: “What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen,” by Kate Fagan, ESPN commentator and journalist.


Roommate wanted

Many students are coming to college from homes where they have had the luxury of their own room most of their lives.  It can be a challenge to adapt to living with another individual, especially a total stranger.  Middlesex School’s DeGreeff said, “The biggest myth is your roommate(s) or hallway mates will be your best friends forever and that there is a need for an immediate and tight relationship.”  He said that “students forget how socially engineered many of the living arrangements are and that relationships take work and time and common experiences to forge.” Be patient, manage expectations and communicate openly.

Check out “The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College” by Harlan Cohen.  It is a candid and useful guide to all things college transition.  Mom and dad, there is also a parent edition.


Oh, and parents….

Speaking of mom and dad, this can be as much — if not more — of a difficult transition period for you as well. Talk to your children about your expectations and ask them about theirs.  At the same time, let students figure things out on their own and don’t be upset when your child gets busy.  One college student wrote: “The less you hear from your children, I’d posit the happier they are. When I was miserable, my parents heard from me everyday, sometimes twice a day. When I was happy, it was every couple of days.”

Lauren Lieberman, director of college counseling at Shady Side Academy in Pennsylvania said, “Parents need to prepare themselves for the unhappy calls at the beginning and be ready to listen without offering to help make a transfer happen the next day.”

Another college student advised parents to “stay involved with their child’s life during college and to try to be an open resource for them without any judgment. She wrote: “Your child is an adult now and they may make many mistakes in regards to many things, but they should be able to confide in you in all regards. Most first year students feel homesick. To have parents that are willing to listen and not add extra stress to their child’s problems will truly help their child succeed. Your child may not be as responsive as you would want them to be, but it is important to keep checking in and asking how things are going. Once your child sees that you aren’t judging them or have a “childlike” view of them, they will begin to open up. It will take some time, but this communication is vital and will truly have a lasting impact on your relationship with your child, especially when the anxiety and stress of school starts to creep in and your child needs someone to turn to.”


Last words of wisdom:

As students finalize their packing, bid farewell to high school friends and try to convince mom to stop crying, here are some parting thoughts on a healthy and smooth transition to college:

Vanderbilt’s McGuire said, “In high school, there are a lot of extrinsic factors that motivate students — parents making sure you get up in the morning and get to school, teachers that take attendance and stay on you about schoolwork, and even school officials that make sure you are going to classes and getting involved in things outside the classroom. Students are held accountable. In college, many of those extrinsic factors and accountability measures go away. Students have to decide if they are going to get out of bed in the morning and go to class. Many college classes don’t require attendance, so students can just skip with no “consequence.” Days are less structured, and students have more freedom to decide if they are going to immerse themselves academically, socially, etc. If they haven’t found intrinsic motivating factors or have no idea what really motivates them in general, that can be a big struggle for many as they transition to college life.”

Mike Geller, New England regional director of admissions for The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. suggested this: “Be mindful and think about what you want to get out of your education. College is not just a stepping-stone to grad school or the workforce, it is a time to really explore what kind of person you want to be in the world.”

Scott Chrysler, academic dean and college counselor at Episcopal School of Acadiana in Louisiana warned, “Anything in excess is bad — sleeping, eating, partying, studying, exercising, etc. Learn moderation and balance.”

Moira McKinnon, director of college counseling at Berwick Academy in Maine advised: “Be ready to ask for help, from many different sources. Make friends with your resident assistants, your teaching assistants/professors, and the dining hall staff. Do not skip class. Be comfortable with discomfort, and seek out the unknown. Join at least one club or team in the first two weeks to start building a social network and a schedule beyond the academic day. Get a job, on campus if you can: studies show working 10-12 hours a week leads to higher grades, graduating on time, and building a network for your resume.  When you are feeling lonely, don’t go on social media to connect with all your high school friends; instead, go down the hall and make friends with someone new.”

And some final thoughts from current college students:


“Make decisions intentionally and thoughtfully. I sort of lost my direction during freshman year, and instead of reflecting I just threw myself really hard at anything and everything I could.”

“You need about six canisters of Lysol wipes for your dorm room. You will never use the miniature ironing board. Vacuum your rug weekly. Nap often. Be nice to your parents the summer before — they are as anxious as you are but they’re also sad.”

“Don’t rush. Take your time enjoying your first year of college as you make the proper adjustments.”

”Keeping an open mind is the biggest thing I’ve learned. Everyone wants to have a plan that sounds good in their head, but may not be what they wanted to ACTUALLY do.  It is kind of a weird concept, but I fell victim to this idea. Focus on simple success freshman year, don’t over think it.”

“Take care of yourselves mentally, physically, and spiritually. You will get through it all because there are resources to help you. Don’t feel like you are alone. Beware of Imposter Syndrome. You are where you are for a reason. Know that who you were in high school is completely different from who you are and will be in college. No number or GPA defines you. Lastly, remember your privilege and know that many people have not had the opportunities that you have had. Learn and work to create an equitable society where everyone has the same chances to succeed as you have had.”

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