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Answers to Your College Questions

My new college freshman had a tough first semester academically. What can I do to help her get back on track?

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Mother-youngdaughter-teendaughterThe first year of college can be overwhelming. First-year students are facing a lot of new things and are forced to separate from familiar territory. They have to make new friends, learn new spaces, live or hang out with different people, eat unfamiliar foods, discover new ways of learning, and follow new rules. That is a lot of new at one time.

Many studies show that freshman year is the time when students are most likely to drop out of college, and many consider transferring (though most don’t). There are various factors at play: many students are dealing with homesickness—missing friends, family, and the familiar—while others struggle academically or socially. But this is just a part of the college experience. Typically, by second semester, they surface just fine.

Remember that college is meant to be the transitional point for students to go from being the responsibility of others to being responsible for themselves. Parents, teachers, coaches—someone always told students what to do and when to do it. While there are rules in college, students suddenly are expected to figure things out for themselves. They are now obliged to find help if they need it. There are no curfews or bed checks. No more babysitters!

If your student is coming off of a tough first semester, try reminding them of the following realities:

1. They’re not alone.

Each student brings different skills and experiences to freshman year, but all students are insecure. Some act with bravado, as if they know it all. But perhaps the majority of students just become quiet, figuring that if you don’t ask questions then no one knows how much you don’t know.

This method doesn’t usually work, because students won’t learn if they don’t ask questions—and there are so many questions to be answered in this new environment. They tend to sit in class or participate in other activities, collectively clueless and likely to remain so because no one has the guts to fess up about feeling lost.

2. They were accepted into college for a reason.

I have seen many students become intimidated by their classmates during their freshman year. This intimidation may keep them from getting the help and support they need. Just remember, every student was accepted into their school because they met certain standards within a reasonable range.

3. Everyone needs a support system.

Most importantly, every person needs to find someone—it may be a dean, a professor, an advisor, a coach, or even an upperclassman—who they can talk to on campus when they are lost or confused. Upperclassmen are great mentors because they have recently been there and can discuss what they did to find their way. They may be able to recommend professors or advisors who they found especially helpful.

Giving encouragement is the most important thing that a parent can do to help their child transition through a challenging freshman year. Leaving school should not be the default. It is costly and does not teach a student how to overcome life’s challenges. The survival skills learned when dealing with the trials of college will help them handle challenges for the rest of their lives. The good news is that college is meant to be both supportive and forgiving. The student just has to access that support.

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Dr. Marcia Y. Cantarella has held positions at Hunter College, Princeton University, New York University, and Metropolitan College of New York during her distinguished career as a dean and vice president of student affairs. Through her expertise in delivering student services and strategies, she has enhanced the academic experiences of and outcomes for generations of students. She is now president of Cantarella Consulting in New York City where she works with colleges and organizations on issues of higher education pipelines, access, diversity, and student access.


Cantarella is the author of I Can Finish College, which you can find in the College Countdown bookstore.

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