Helping College Freshman Cope with the Transition

Heading off to college is a significant time of transition for teenagers. The prospect of living more independently can be exciting, and many teens look forward to the increased freedom of living on campus with less supervision from parents. However, it can also be difficult to adjust to living in a new place away from one’s usual support network. It can take time to make new friends and begin to form a new support system to help cope when things are stressful. Away from the structure and familiarity of high school, the unique academic and organizational challenges of college can feel overwhelming at times. It’s not uncommon for freshmen to worry that they’re not up to the challenge and may not truly belong in college.

Carol Dweck (author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success) and colleagues have researched potential interventions to challenge students’ ideas about their intelligence or capabilities. Dweck has explored how encouraging a “growth” mindset rather than a “fixed” mindset can lead to increased happiness and success. According to Dweck, a student with a fixed mindset believes that his or her basic abilities are fixed, unchanging traits. In contrast, a student with a growth mindset believes that abilities can be developed through effort and persistence. Adhering to a fixed mindset can contribute to stress during the transition to college, as freshman who struggle initially may feel that they will never get better at handling the college workload.

In a recent study, Dweck and colleagues demonstrated that students benefit when they are taught that many students experience challenges when transitioning to college, and that early difficulties do not indicate permanent struggles (Yeager et al., 2016). The researchers showed high school seniors short online exercises explaining how intelligence is not “fixed” but can grow through hard work. The students who completed the exercises were then more likely to remain in college full time during their freshman year.

What can parents and students learn from these findings? Parents can talk to college-aged students about how many freshmen have some trouble adjusting and may doubt their capabilities. Students themselves can learn about the growth mindset and remind themselves that the first few months of freshman year are not necessarily reflective of the next four years.  And, of course, if students continue to experience stress and anxiety that is interfering with their functioning, they can seek out support and mental health resources through their university counseling centers.