This fall, incoming college students will be packing up and moving to campuses all across the country. Gone will be the comforts of home and, of course, mom and dad. There will be new routines, an increased workload and independence. Some students will adapt easily to the changes while others might struggle a bit. How can you help your child make a successful transition to college? 

“Transition to college is about balancing a lot of things and doing it in a setting that is mostly unfamiliar to the student,” said Amelia V. Noël-Elkins, Ph.D., director of University College at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. “It’s about getting used to new friends and roommates, maybe even for the first time. It’s about being away from your family, or whoever has been your support structure at home. And it’s about trying to manage all these changes successfully when things are moving at you pretty quickly.”

Noël-Elkins said that the key to a successful transition to college life is preparing. “If you don’t, it’s going to catch you by surprise,” she said. “One of the things that's an important aspect of this is having conversations with your family.”

Talk it Out

Conversations between teenagers and parents might not be the most comfortable thing in the world, but it’s important for parents to set expectations before the child leaves for college. “The parents should articulate what their expectations are of the student, how they are expected to behave and the communications they want to have,” said Noël-Elkins.

In addition, she says students should be clear about their own expectations for college and express these expectations to their families. According to Noël-Elkins, a successful transition requires two-way communication.

Parents and students should also talk about finances. “College is a monumental investment for many families,” said Noël-Elkins. “Have a conversation about how college is going to be paid for and where the student’s extra dollars for things like pizza are going to be coming from.”

Adjusting to Roommates

Many incoming freshmen also transition from having their own bedroom to sharing close quarters with someone they’ve never even met. Getting used to a roommate can take time and can come with potential conflicts. “Going back to the concept of practicing this before the student goes to college is important,” said Noël-Elkins. “Have difficult conversations in an environment that’s safe should make it easier for the student to have them with their roommate.”

Noël-Elkins suggests practicing asking such questions as “Is everything going okay with us? Are we getting along? Is there something that I'm doing that's annoying you? Could we talk about this?" “They should learn how to ask these questions in a way that’s cooperative, not accusatory,” said Noël-Elkins.

Handling Homesickness

Part of acclimating to college is simply just being away from home and missing family and friends. “Every student is going to have some bit of homesickness,” said Noël-Elkins. “For each student, it’s about finding the balance of needing to go home to visit and staying on campus. Powering through, developing persistence, and staying on campus and developing a community here is going to be monumental in terms of overcoming homesickness.”

Noël-Elkins also explains to students that when they do go home, it’s not going to be the same. “They have expectations that when they go home it’s going to be the same and give them comfort, but it’s probably not going to happen,” she said. “Their friends are off to college, are working jobs or have moved away.”

To help combat homesickness, students should develop friendships and create their own college community. “They should join student organizations and become involved in academics — these are going to make them connected to the campus,” said Noël-Elkins.

Classroom Challenges

Getting acclimated to college isn’t just limited to making friends and overcoming homesickness. Work needs to be done, and students may struggle with a much bigger workload than they are used to. “With all the excitement, the new friends, and the wonderful adventures of starting college, some students don't realize how fast college classes move and that it’s very different from high school,” said Noël-Elkins. “Those first three weeks of college can make or break a student, so they can't have a take-it-easy approach. They want to get off to a very strong start.”

Time management is crucial. Students must learn to balance work time with much more free time than they had in high school. “There is enough time to do everything they want to do and everything they need to do, if they know how to manage their time,” said Noël-Elkins, who also suggests that students ask their professors for help if they are struggling. “They have office hours specifically to help, but students need to ask for it.”

Expecting that students will need assistance making the transition, many colleges have resources already set up to help. “We start the support with our orientation programs—Preview for freshmen and Transfer Days for our transfer students,” said Noël-Elkins. Students have an academic advisor who is trained to work with first-year students who are exploring their academic skills and talents. “We also have academic help, tutoring, mentoring, and transitional classes to help students get to college and be at college successfully,” she said.

College is an exciting time in a child’s life, but it presents many challenges. It’s important to help your student adapt to the changes so their time at their university is a successful one.

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