The Transition from High School to College: Before Students Leave Home

The transition from high school to college, particularly for students who leave home and live in campus residence halls, is a challenge for nearly all students. However, some students find it more daunting than others.  Experienced counselors, both in high schools and on college campuses, have learned to recognize the stages that most students go through, beginning at the end of senior year, through the summer after graduation, and continuing through freshman year of college.  But most students have only a vague idea of what this transition will be like and are therefore stunned by the challenges they encounter.  First generation students, in particular, are likely to encounter surprises because their parents, having not attended college, haven’t had discussions with them about what to expect.

Today, educational psychologist Jane McClure begins a series that will walk students and parents through what the future may hold.


Many years ago, I read an article in a college admission journal called “Ten Steps in the Transition from High School to College” which was written by R.  Fred Zuker, Ph.D, a dean of admission at a selective college.  There was common sense and wisdom in the article, and the steps reminded me of stories I had heard from many of the students I counseled.  While some of these steps were easily navigated by savvy students, for many knowing about these steps in advance can make it easier for them to adapt to college life.  Today, the first two steps in the process are addressed, both of which occur before students leave home.

Stage 1:  The Summer of Transition

The days after graduation are filled with satisfaction and nostalgia.  College-bound students anticipate the challenges ahead, but their expectations of college life may be unrealistic.  Students often experience conflict with their parents during this summer.  From their point of view, they will soon be on their own, able to come and go as they please, eat when and what they please, go to bed and get up whenever they want.  Parents, on the other hand, worry that their children are asking for complete freedom without accepting the responsibilities that go with it.  And they may also believe that teens should abide by parental rules as long as they are still living at home, which often means being home by a certain hour, pitching in with chores, and spending time with family members before leaving for college.  But teenagers usually want to spend much of their time just hanging out with friends. 

Yet hanging out all summer often leads to trouble, including too much partying, sleeping until noon, and lots of conflict with parents.  So it’s a good idea to discuss parental expectations and student desires before the summer begins, which will require compromises.  Some suggestions?  Getting a job – full time or part time - will enable students to earn some spending money to help pay those college costs and will provide some structure to their time.  Or taking a course in writing at a community college or through an adult education program can also be helpful to a student who lacks confidence in college writing skills.  Settling ahead of time on curfews and other family responsibilities will also help the summer to pass more smoothly.

Stage 2:  Separation Anxiety

Many students manage to avoid the reality of their impending departure until they begin packing the boxes bound for campus.  They may not worry at all during the first two-thirds of the summer, then start to feel panicky during the last two weeks as they begin to acknowledge the approaching separation from family, friends, home, and the support of the high school environment.  Acute separation anxiety may occur when the day of departure arrives if students have been in denial most of the summer.  I understand this stage with particular poignancy because I was completely oblivious to what it would feel like to leave my home and family – until the very day arrived!

If you are one of those students, here is my advice.  Students need to begin to “leave” psychologically as soon as the graduation celebration subsides.  That means June, not mid-August.  You need to consciously and deliberately start thinking about what it will be like to wake up in a dorm room, perhaps one shared by a student you have just recently met.  Your favorite breakfast foods might not be available and the campus environment will feel, well, “different” in the beginning.  You won’t have a posse of best friends surrounding you as you walk to class.  There will be a sea of new faces, and you will gradually establish friendships as the weeks go on.  If you think about this and walk yourself through all the new experiences that you will soon be confronting, you will be preparing yourself for the emotional consequences.  You will be ready for them and better prepared to cope with them.  So think about what it’s going to be like, and talk openly with friends and family members about your feelings – your hopes and your fears.  


Next month, Jane McClure will be back with more on the next two stages in "The Transition from High School to College" -- The First Term and The Honeymoon.  


Jane McClure is a Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP 1605) and educational consultant whose work has focused on college counseling and psychoeducational evaluations.  McClure was a partner at San Francisco’s McClure, Mallory, Baron & Ross for more than 20 years. Previously named Educational Psychologist of the Year by the California Association of Licensed Educational Psychologists, McClure recently received the WACAC Service Award from the Western Association of College Admission Counseling. For the College Board, she has presented workshops for guidance counselors related to counseling college-bound students who have learning disabilities and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and worked as a consultant on issues related to services for students with disabilities.

Add comment