Much build-up is involved in the process of going to college, starting in high school if not sooner. Students are focused on building academic skills, as well as participating in sports, hobbies, and extracurricular activities in the pursuit of getting into the fill-in-the-blank (best, highest ranked, BIG 10, Ivy League, liberal arts) college or university. In addition, high schoolers are consumed with ACT/SAT test prep, essay writing, college visits, applications, and financial aid decisions.
Finally—congratulations, you’ve been accepted at a college or university that seems like a terrific fit, the finances have been worked out, and you feel excited about your next adventure where you will be spending the next 4 to 5 years! High school wraps up, you move into your dorm room, say goodbye to your family, and wait for your best life to start.
Despite many older people who have wistfully told you that college will be the “best years of your life” and seeing loads of Instagram posts with smiling, partying first year students … you’re not feeling it. You and your roommate don’t get along well. It’s hard going from the predictability of your high school life living in your family’s home to facing so many decisions in a strange, new place. You feel homesick and lonely and also guilty for feeling so bad while being at your top-choice school. People excitedly ask you how college life is going and you don’t want to be honest that you are struggling (and potentially let them down), so you say it is great! Frankly, you feel lost.
If you can resonate with these feelings, keep reading!
Starting college is a major adjustment in myriad ways—and a rich time for psychological development and growth. Quite often while going through life transitions, we have preconceived expectations and hopes of what we hope will happen in our new life. Yours may have looked something like: I moved into my dorm room and formed an easy connection with my roommate, enjoyed my classes, had a large group of friends to eat meals with in the cafeteria, and developed a thriving social life. I studied a lot but work was manageable, and had a great time partying with my friends.
So what happens when your expectations aren’t coming to fruition, or at least aren’t happening right now?
Human memory has an ironic way of preserving positive experiences while minimizing negative, boring, and stressful ones. This cognitive bias is referred to as Rosy Retrospection (see https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/rosy-retrospection/) where after time elapses, we tend to remember fun and happy memories and those hard times fade away. So when your Aunt Jackie reminisces with you about the fun parties and crazy antics she experienced in college, she’s also probably not recalling and remembering the difficult times.
What can you do to ease this transition?
Identify What You’re Feeling
You may be experiencing a wide range of feelings—sadness, homesickness, frustration, anxiety, excitement, confusion to name a few (and you may experience all of these during one day!) Having intense emotional experiences can be overwhelming and at times even exhausting. Checking in with yourself about your emotions, and deciding to accept them as valid and normal, can be a useful tool
Acknowledge Your Vulnerability
Major life transitions can be accompanied with questions and self-doubt—am I ‘doing it right?’ Will things get better? Why does it seem like everyone else is in a better place? During times of great change, many of us may feel vulnerable or helpless and uncomfortable with not being able to predict what may happen in the short or long term.
You may have heard the expression “comparison is the thief of joy.” The reality is that some college students adjust more seamlessly than others. Many factors may go into this such as having close friends at the same college, experiencing a sense of community quickly, or many other reasons. It may feel unfair that you’re having a more difficult time—it’s not fun, that is for certain. Acknowledging your discomfort and owning your own personal experience (rather than comparing yourself to your high school friends) can help.
Name Your Struggle
Be honest with yourself that you’re struggling—sometimes this is the hardest step. It might feel scary to acknowledge that things aren’t going as well as you had hoped. Talk to a trusted friend or supportive family member. It may be helpful to talk to an older friend who has already transitioned to college and seems to be doing well. You’re certainly not alone though in your experience even though others may also be concealing their true feelings or reluctant to share vulnerable feelings.
Remember the Basics
Most new college students are learning more about how to take care of themselves without any family help. This can be hard, especially if you are living away from home for the first time. Things like establishing a healthy sleep schedule, making sure that you’re eating regular meals with a balanced diet, getting fresh air and walking every day may seem rudimentary, but making sure these areas of your life are in a healthy balance can also benefit your mental health. Stress can cause disruptions in eating, sleeping, and energy level, so attempting to establish healthy habits can be useful now and during more stressful times.
Connect with Others
Think about your friendships from high school or earlier—those friendships most likely took investing a lot of time (possibly even over years) and shared experiences to deepen. Researcher Jeff Hall found that it takes on average 50 hours spending time with someone to consider them a casual friend, and over 200 hours to develop a close friendship (see https://news.ku.edu/2018/03/06/study-reveals-number-hours-it-takes-make-friend).
Keep that in mind as you navigate these early budding friendships! So start small—commit to getting to know one hallmate, say hello to someone you sit next to in class, go to one extracurricular meeting. Take advantage of social connection activities that dorms and colleges offer in the first few months, and also know that you may feel uncomfortable or awkward at first.
Therapy Can Help
Most colleges and universities have a counseling center or referral resources for students. Focusing on students’ mental health has increased over the years with more students reporting anxiety and depression symptoms than ever before. It may be helpful to start therapy for additional support and guidance. This may be particularly relevant if you have a prior mental health history (anxiety, depression, eating disorder) and especially important if your anxiety or depressive symptoms feel severe or are impacting your ability to take care of yourself and attend classes.
I’ve been working as a Licensed Clinical Psychologist specializing in college student mental health for almost 20 years. I started my career working in university counseling centers and have spent the last 17 years in my outpatient practice helping many students smoothly make this major life transition with their mental health intact. I’ve worked with undergraduate students for their entire four (or more) years of their undergraduate degree, and have also worked with students just for a few sessions to help with adjustment.
All of the therapists at Mindful Psychology Associates are trained in working with college students and both the typical adjustment issues as well as treating more long-term concerns such as major depressive disorder or anxiety disorders.
By Dr. Jennifer Contarino Panning, Psy.D.
Founder/President, Mindful Psychology Associates PC