The Transition from High School to College: What the Future May Hold


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 continues her series that walks students and parents through what the future may hold with Stages 3 and 4 -- The First Term and The Honeymoon.  Her previous post on the first two stages in "The Transition from High School to College" -- The Summer of Transition and Separation Anxiety -- can be seen here


Stage 3:  The First Term


Depending upon students’ high school preparation and the level of academic rigor at the college, the freshman college curriculum can be anywhere from slightly to moderately stressful.  Even if students are well prepared, they often worry that they are not and that college will be MUCH harder than high school.  In some cases, they are right!  This seems to be particularly true when it comes to the standard of expectation for writing assignments.  Students who are accustomed to receiving A’s and B’s on their essays may feel devastated when they get a C or D on their first writing assignment. 


It helps to be prepared for this possibility, and to have a strategy in mind in case it happens.  Every college has a Writing Center on campus, which is available to all students.  When a student receives a lower grade than anticipated, the Writing Center can provide assistance.   Professors may offer students the opportunity to re-write an essay in order to get a better grade, and the Writing Center can help a student accomplish that. 


It is wise for students to avoid taking too many courses or enrolling in too many advanced level courses during the first term -- and many colleges will restrict them.  Overall, it is better to err on the side of caution and take, for example, 13 units instead of 16 units until students know how well they can handle the workload.  They should also take a balanced curriculum; that is, only one course that involves extensive reading and/or writing or only one science class that requires a lab.  Advisors can help students make these choices. 


In addition to these academic expectations, meeting roommates, learning the ins and outs of campus bureaucracy, and gaining an understanding of social expectations are part of the first term.  It can feel overwhelming in the beginning, particularly for students who typically have difficulty with transitions.  Orientation programs are sometimes optional for students, but it is very important to take advantage of them.  Students will meet with advisors, pre-register for classes, learn their way around the campus, and gain other important information BEFORE classes start. 


Stage 4: The Honeymoon


Many first-year students are anticipating that they will be enthralled by everything they see.  This is actually a good way to begin a college career because there are wonderful things to see and experience, although they may not happen immediately.  But it is exciting for students to experience the independence of being “on their own,” living in a dorm, able to get up and go to bed when they please, and eat whatever they want whenever they want.  Whoopee!  It helps, however, if students are realistic as well as optimistic so that they are not disappointed when college life isn’t all they had wished for during the first few weeks. 


The honeymoon stage is also a time when many college students experiment with alcohol, drugs or sexual activity.  It is naïve for parents to expect that students will not engage in these behaviors, but it is important that students understand the concepts of choice and moderation, and recognize the consequences of their behaviors.  For example, some colleges have zero-tolerance policies when it comes to smoking marijuana in the residence halls.  It is helpful to have discussions about college regulations and consequences of risky behaviors BEFORE students leave home, even though this can feel uncomfortable to parents and students alike. 


Next month, Jane McClure will be back with more on the next two stages in "The Transition from High School to College" -- The End of the Honeymoon and The Grass is Always Greener.


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.


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