By Shelley Murphy
“College is the best four years of your life.” This time of year, well-meaning adults recite this mantra as they lend support to anxious high school seniors sitting in college limbo waiting for that thick envelope or welcoming text from their coveted college.
But those words meant to encourage can also place high expectations on a teenager. The transition from high school to college is exciting but alarmingly stressful, as revealed in a recently published report examining the emotional toll teens face their first year of college.
Last October, Harris Poll in partnership with The JED Foundation, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and The Jordan Porco Foundation released the results of a nationwide online survey of 1,502 college students evaluating the freshman year experience.
The statistics are troubling: a whopping 87 percent of students felt more importance was focused on being academically ready for college rather than emotionally prepared. Emotional preparedness is a significant indicator of first-year college success. The study defines emotional readiness as: “the ability to take care of oneself, adapt to new environments, control negative emotions or behavior and build positive relationships.”
I count myself among the parents equating college acceptance with college preparedness and admit I didn’t equip my boys emotionally for their freshman years. The last student readiness event I attended took place in a pre-kindergarten classroom, and it did little to help me or my kids on their first days of school.
On his first day of kindergarten my older son and I walked hand in hand toward his classroom. My son, who was born four weeks early and has been trying to get away from me ever since, saw the kids in the classroom, dropped my hand and ran inside—he hasn’t looked back since.
My younger son, on the other hand, arrived two weeks past his due date and took his time separating from my side those first few days of school.
Fast forward 15 years and I’m at a freshman college orientation listening to university officials tell parents to expect the first year to be an emotional rollercoaster and that parents should ride out the highs and lows from afar.
The university’s advice sends a mixed message as half of surveyed students (51 percent) felt it challenging at times to find emotional support at school.
Asked further about seeking support, many students reported turning to friends or family, but a staggering 65 percent of students said they kept college struggles to themselves. Instead of having the time of their lives many are suffering in silence, scared of the social stigma. One in four freshmen admitted to feelings of loneliness and one in five reported feeling depressed all or most of the time.
I’ve known exceptional, college-curriculum capable kids with the highest of test scores and GPAs who’ve returned home after their first semester. It’s heartbreaking to see a student accepted by the college of their dreams only to withdraw after a semester or two.
Popular culture and caring parents commonly paint a portrayal of college life as fun and exciting. These depictions contribute to almost half (49 percent) of students agreeing that the college experience fell short of their expectations. Not surprisingly, this led 45 percent of students to say, “It seems like everyone has college figured out but me.”
When 60 percent of freshman surveyed say they wish they’d received more help to emotionally prepare for college, it’s time to take action and acknowledge that for some struggling students the emotional hurdles can be greater to overcome than academic obstacles.
The study shines a spotlight on the enormous importance of emotionally preparing high school seniors to become college freshman.
One of the most difficult moments of parenting comes when a child leaves the nest for college.
But, parents can help kids fly by encouraging their feelings of optimism and confidence while discussing fears and anxieties before they pack-up their bedroom belongings.
College may, or may not, be the best four years of life but college can be an experience of a lifetime.
Shelley Murphy has lived in San Clemente with her husband and for the past 17 years, where she raised her two sons. She’s a freelance writer and contributor to the SC Times since 2006.