At this time of year, most university students are facing mid-term exams and managing the various challenges of university life. Many will spend lots of time talking about being stressed, tired and overwhelmed. That is normal – college is challenging and there is an inherent vulnerability in learning that makes many people feel uncomfortable. Life outside of the classroom can be challenging too. Many students struggle with worries about paying for college and related expenses, making friends, feeling lonely and homesick, and feeling overwhelmed with being independent. Making things even harder, there is a culture on campuses and on social media that pressures people to look like they’ve got it all figured out when lots of people don’t! In one recent survey, almost half of first year college students reported that “it seems like everyone has college figured out but me.”
In addition to the common challenges of university life, inside and outside of the classroom, a significant portion of university community members also struggle with mental health, substance use problems and eating concerns. Students managing these conditions pro-actively can and do thrive in college. However, it may also be necessary to seek additional on or off campus mental health support services or explore a leave of absence.
This month, we asked two of our specialists at The Dorm to share some of their guidance on how to navigate common challenges in college.
Q1: How do I know if a student is ready for college?
Dorm Academic Advisor: Students need a level of academic, social, emotional and independent living skills to be successful in college, especially if they are going “away” to school.
Questions you should ask:
- Do they have the academic abilities and behaviors to work independently at school?
- If they need support services, do they have the ability to ask for and get the help they need?
- There are a lot of things to do at a college other than studying and going to class.
- If they are going to college away from home, are they able to make pro-social and healthy choices while living in a dorm?
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- Can they get themselves out of bed and to class?
- Will they do their homework and study, if no one is over their shoulder?
- Will they get out of their dorm rooms, get off their devices and make some friends?
- If challenges arise and things don’t go as planned, do they have the resiliency to keep going and right the ship?
Now, of course, they don’t need to be perfect. Any and all
Q2: What are some things to keep in mind when preparing to go to college?
Dorm Clinician: I often remind incoming students that they will be making adjustments to most areas of their lives – changing where they are eating and sleeping, changing who they hang out with, changing their schedules and work routines, changing their self-care routines – that’s a lot of change. This opens opportunities to explore who they are and how they want to be in the world, but it can also be very difficult. As students and their families prepare for this huge transition, it is important to talk about how to manage this change and any supports necessary. This is especially important if the student has struggled with a pre-existing mental health or medical condition. Families should consider the type of care that has helped the student thrive in their preparation for college and discuss setting up ongoing care close to campus. NAMI and The Jed Foundation have developed a thorough and helpful guide to starting this conversation as a family.
Dorm Academic Advisor: Before they go away to college, students should have the opportunity to test the waters to see how well they do when they have to live and make choices fairly autonomously. Summers are a great time to do this through semi-structured travel experiences, jobs or internships away from home or in a pre-college program or course where they have to live for a few weeks on campus. These experiences are invaluable at helping them to not only prepare for the independence they will have in college but at giving parents some indication of their level of readiness for full-time academics.
When looking at colleges, choose those that fit your academic, social and life goals for this particular time of your life. Don’t choose a college based on a perceived reputation or name recognition. It’s important that you attend a college that will challenge you academically and socially but not so much that you become overwhelmed. Find a school where you feel like you fit in, in a place where you want to live and learn.
If you don’t feel you are ready, it’s ok! God willing, life is long…college will be there for you when you want it. There are plenty of amazing and worthwhile things to do to get better prepared. Gap years are becoming increasingly popular and for good reason. They can help you develop the skills, self-awareness and direction you will benefit from in and after college.
It’s also okay to ask yourself; do I even want to go to a university or college or would I be better served and happier at a vocational school, joining the armed services, or getting a job? College isn’t and doesn’t have to be for everyone. Again, later in life if you change your mind or have a reason to attend, a college education will be there for you when you are ready and if you want it.
Q3: What tips do you have for success while in school?
Dorm Clinician: Bottom line – go to class! Several studies have shown that students who attend most or all of their classes are almost guaranteed to pass the class, regular attendance is the biggest predictor of academic success.
In addition, most universities have a variety of academic, emotional and social supports to help students be successful. Universities are very invested in student success and many students and families are surprised with the level of support the school is able to provide, once you start to look for it. Identify a few supporters on campus and ask them if they know of anyone who might be of help for a specific concern. Asking a resident advisor, academic advisor, or even a new friend about places they have found support can help navigate sometimes complicated university systems and help you feel more connected at the same time!
Many schools have a student success office that can help with a variety of problems that complicate a student’s ability to thrive at school. Even if there is a limit to the level of support offered by a university office (such as short-term mental health support in a counseling center) it is still a good idea to ask that office to help you get connected to resources off campus.
Dorm Academic Advisor: Stay on top of your school work and learn to balance work and fun. If you need help you must be able to self-advocate and get the support you need. Don’t be discouraged if you struggle – focus on picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and carrying on.
Q4: What if it doesn’t work out? How do I know when it might be time to take a leave of absence from school, or change directions?
Dorm Academic Advisor: If life at college has become unhealthy, it’s time to take a break.
- Have the academic, social and emotional pressures become so unbearable that they are leading to anxiety, depression, extensive drug and/or alcohol issues and eating concerns?
- Are these issues to the point where your mental and physical health is in jeopardy?
- Have you tried but exhausted all on-campus and local resources?
If you can say yes to these questions, then it’s clearly time to step away and get help. Most colleges are very understanding if you communicate with them about what you need. They will grant you a leave of absence or a medical leave of absence if you ask for and qualify for one. These can be for one semester or potentially longer as needed. But it is imperative that if you want to hold your spot, you communicate with them throughout your leave.
Dorm Clincian: Stepping away from school for a leave of absence or medical leave happens more often than we think. Universities have policies and procedures for these absences because they understand that a variety of conditions and circumstances can lead to the need for a break. Students often hesitate to take advantage of this process because of shame, or fear that it will negatively impact their future goals. I encourage students to look at this another way – taking care of yourself to ensure that you will be successful is empowering and demonstrates a self-awareness that will serve you well beyond your university years.
Q5: What is it like to return to school after a leave of absence? What tips do you have to get back on track after returning?
Dorm Academic Advisor: If you want to return to college you have two choices: go back to the school you left or transfer to another. To help you decide which is the best option these are some questions to ask:
- If I go back to the school where I was, is that the best place for me?
- Do you think it is likely that I will fall in with my old friends, behaviors and patterns?
- Is it really possible for me to make a positive change and stay on track there? Or is it better to get a fresh start at a new school?
If you think it would be a better idea to transfer, here are some things to consider:
- What were the factors that led you to your struggles at your previous school or schools?
- Were the academics too rigorous? Or too easy?
- Did the school have the support services that you might have benefited from? Did you use them if they were available?
- Was it the right social environment for you?
- Too big or too small?
- Too warm or too cold?
- Too urban or too rural?
- Now that you’ve had some experience picking and attending a college, what are the things you want or need at the next school?
- What do your college transcripts look like? If you have a number of failing grades or incompletes you may need to go to a community college, take classes as a non-matriculated student or do some online classes to get your grades up to be accepted to another college or university.
- Do you feel that you are able to be successful at college on your own? Or do you think you would benefit from a higher level of support such as The Dorm?
Dorm Clinician: One way to work through the choices Jeff talked about is to take the Right Fit Quiz. Set To Go also has a wealth of resources to help students set themselves up for success and flourish while in school. In addition, if you’ve attended treatment during your leave, you may be eligible for reasonable accommodations through the disability support office at your school.