Making a successful college transition

Dateline, Portland, Oregon--Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D: The college search is over. Now what? Some things to consider about the coming months as everyone waits for college admissions letters.

In the coming weeks yet another crop of high school students will be haunting their email inboxes for news from the colleges of their choice. Parents will be anxiously looking over their teen’s shoulders to see what’s ahead, while at the same time reviewing events of a lifetime. There are likely to be some sleepless nights for all parties. As both a college professor and a clinical psychologist I see this season from a number of angles. And this year, as the parent of a high school senior I have experienced it from a whole new perspective.

There are some things I know for sure: First, each year, literally millions of rising freshmen make it through the gauntlet of the college search and the application process to find themselves at a great school. Colleges are good at this—they know who is likely to find success in their classrooms and a fit in their co-curricular environment, and they use this knowledge to pick the students they will invite to attend. The vast majority of incoming freshmen are happy with their choice, and launch themselves into college with enthusiasm for the challenges that lie ahead.

Secondly, I know there are lots of opinions about what constitutes a “great” college. I am a firm believer that the best college doesn’t necessarily come with a brand name or ivy covered brick. What it comes with is fit, which depends entirely on your student. For a great meditation on this topic take a look at Malcom Gladwell’s chapter on choosing a college in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and The Art of Battling Giants. The gist of Gladwell’s thesis—most people thrive in a setting where they are challenged, but not so challenged that they feel less capable than their peers. Picking a college for its prestige is likely to backfire.

Finally, I know this is a transition for everyone—it isn’t just the rising freshman’s life that is changing. Parents, siblings, sweethearts and friends face transitions, as well.

Parents might find it helpful to keep some things in mind as their children prepare to leave the nest:

  •   As a loving and attentive parent you’ve worked hard to instill values and principles in your teen. Instead of spending the summer on a crash refresher course titled Everything that Matters, consider reinforcing your trust and conveying your belief in your rising freshman. She has spent years preparing for this transition, too.  Remind her how hard she’s worked.  Your faith in her will help her rise to this occasion. Your respect will help her turn to you when she needs advice and assistance.
  •  Remind your teen of the many times she’s confronted challenges and been able to figure them out, and how much she’s learned from things that haven’t gone exactly as she’s hoped. A person who recognizes that failure is a part of learning and growing is less fearful, more likely to try new things, more resilient, and much more likely to find success in life.
  • Recognize that your teen is at a point in life when his peers are central to his sense of self. Understand that this means he'll want to spend every waking moment with friends in the coming months—which means less time for you. This is not a statement about his love, it is a tribute to growing independence, and something to be celebrated.
  • Don’t get caught up in “lasts.” This tends to make things more an ending than a beginning for everyone. And honestly, it isn’t the last time you’ll visit favorite hiking trails, parks and restaurants. Your teen will be back! Try to think of special occasions as an opportunity to share a favorite place and one another’s company until you get to go there again.

At our house we are anticipating the coming year. There’s lots of talk about potential majors, international travel, dorm rooms and roommates, and whether or not down outerwear will be a necessity. And there’s also time to look back, to celebrate strengths and milestones and the resilience that comes with meeting challenges. This year, when I sit with the parents rather than the professors at my child’s college during Convocation I will be filled emotion, with longing and with hope for a bright, new future. I hope I’ll be as proud of myself as I will be of my teen-- and I will be, if only I can take my own advice!