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Articles / Applying to College / Adjusting to College

June 4, 2019

Adjusting to College

Adjusting to College
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For those of you newly graduated, college-bound high school seniors, you're on the verge of a great adventure: higher education. Aside from the fact that most of you will be attending a college away from home, which will require you to deal with the thrill of independence, you'll be entering a completely new academic and social environment that will test your ability to adapt.

Sometimes, the sudden immersion into this completely new realm can be like jumping into a colder-than-expected swimming pool. The shock can be, well, shocking. I've gone through this transition myself and, vicariously, with my two children. I saw the starkly different ways in which my son and daughter handled their transition to college due to the sharp differences in their personalities and temperaments.


I have a favorite saying that has helped me deal with life: There's a big difference between anticipation and the moment of truth. The “moment of truth" is also known as reality. I don't know where I first heard this wisdom. Maybe I came up with it myself. The point is that it's true, never more so than in the journey from high school to college. What your imagination may create in the way of anticipation will likely be miles (maybe even light years) away from the realities you experience on campus. Why is that?

First of all, we have to consider the power of anticipation. What college-bound high school senior hasn't daydreamed about walking on an ivy-covered campus during a crisp, sunny, fall day, headed to the football stadium, a concert or a Nobel Prize-winning professor's class? That's not to mention imagining the parties, new friends, road trips and the other social perks of higher education.

What's in Your Vision?

Among those daydreams may also be an element of escapism. “I've gotta get outta this place," you may be thinking about your hometown. “I can't wait to be away from my parents, who seem to be monitoring every move I make" might be another anticipatory need within your heart. “I have to get some new friends" is also a common desire, especially among those who have recently suffered some kind of embarrassment or wound at the hands of peers.

Thinking back to my own transition period from high school to college, I don't recall having any escapist hopes, but I was strongly looking forward to the independence college offered. Although I was fairly self-sufficient during my teenage years at home, my parents were always there to take up any slack I generated in my life.

We were a classical '50s-'60s nuclear family. Yeah, you might say that we were a combination of Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. Of course, I realize that younger readers probably have no idea what I'm talking about when I refer to Father Knows Best et al. For the sake of simplicity, though, let's just say that those days are long gone in our 21st Century American society.

Ironically (or maybe coincidentally), when I was thinking about the difference between anticipating college and experiencing the reality of college, I happened upon a student-written Huffington Post article, the core of which is described by this comment from the writer: “Looking back on my own freshman year, there are a ton of things I wish I'd known; they would've saved me a lot of anxiety and confusion." Again, we can see more evidence of anticipation vs. the moment of truth (a.k.a. reality). Let's take a look at some of the points the article's author makes, to which I'll add some of my own observations.

The HuffPo's author attribution goes like this: This post was written by Lily Herman, a junior at Wesleyan University. It was originally published on The Prospect, a student-run college admissions and high school/college lifestyles website.

Lily gets right to the point. “… So, college freshmen, here are five things you need to know about college before you head here in three months." Here are Lily's five points with a comment or two from me.

1. The things you love about your college are going to change.

… while I love Wesleyan and would choose it all over again in a heartbeat, the things I appreciate about it now definitely weren't the things I was excited about as a freshman …

Dave says: How true. During my pre-frosh summer, all I could think about was how great it was going to be living and studying among such a tight-knit community like the small student body at the tiny liberal arts college where I spent my first year in higher education. By the end of that first year, however, I had become disillusioned by the way that everyone around me seemed to know what everyone else was doing, both good and bad. It was kind of like a quilting club where little groups would gather to discuss the latest student scandal. It was unsettling. Thus, my anticipation collided unfavorably with collegiate reality.

2. You are naive. But you won't be for long.

… There's something great about not knowing everything. Ask questions, think about things, and never assume anything. Then, when you open your mouth later on, people will actually listen instead of brushing you off with the “Oh, that's just an ignorant freshman" excuse …

Dave says: Yes, indeed. It's hard to gain the respect of crusty college veterans -- be they upperclassmen, professors or administrators -- if you come onto the scene with an attitude of “I know what's best [or what will work] for this situation." I recall one freshman English assignment where we were given specific instructions about what not to write about. Well, I thought that my alleged highly developed writing abilities would allow me to address one of the forbidden topics with such style and rationale that I would dazzle my professor. Wrong! Grade = D. Prof's comment (yes, I can still recall it): “Your writing is somewhat accomplished. Your presumption in writing about what I specifically prohibited, however, is irritating." Lesson learned!

3. College doesn't really start until sophomore year.

… Freshman year of college is almost like a bizarre extension of high school. You change locations and friends and whatnot, but you yourself haven't really changed, and a lot of people just generally still act like they're 15. That's more of a warning than anything else … A lot of people I know (myself included) didn't really feel totally comfortable at college until sophomore year … sophomore year can definitely be very, very different in the best possible way.

Dave says: I proved this contention, but in a different way. I spent my freshman year immediately after high school at a small college. Then I took three years off for the military, during the Vietnam Era. Upon discharge, I transferred to a large state university (Penn State). The lessons I learned at my small college freshman year plus the maturity I gained over three years in the military gave me a significant leg up for gaining an advanced (and practical) perspective to view and execute the remaining years of my undergraduate education. As Lily mentions, the comfort factor increases sharply during sophomore year.

4. You will not magically change overnight; that takes a lot of time and a lot more learning.

… as I sit here going into my junior year of college, I realize the things that occupy my mind now versus what occupied my mind when I was an incoming freshman are infinitely different. That is where the change lies.

Dave says: For me, the biggest changes in my personality occurred in the area of cynicism. When I was a freshman, I was in awe of my professors. They appeared to be the paragon of intellectualism, wisdom and accomplishment. By the time I got to the end of my junior year, I had learned to discern facades from true horsepower, so to speak. I began questioning the philosophical and political positions of some of those who represented academic authority over me. That may be the most important change that happened to me during my college years. In other words, people and things aren't always what they first appear to be.

5. You will still feel lonely, angry, upset and a slew of other emotions in college, and it's not your school's fault.

… Instead of blaming all of your problems on your college, be completely honest with yourself about [whether or not] it is in fact the school or just you. ...

Dave says: I almost quit college at the end of my junior year. My father counseled me against doing that, however. He told me that completing my degree would be an advantage for me the rest of my life. I took him at his word and he was right. I completed my degree and have never regretted it. I experienced emotions similar to what Lily cites and they weighed upon me, affecting my ability to see the finish line.

Looking back now, I can honestly say that these negative emotions had their genesis mainly within my own perspective and thinking. Maybe it was that cynicism working. Some of my angst came from my school, to be sure, but thanks to my dad, I was able to see a reasonable motivation for persevering.

So there you have it -- some thoughts about dealing with the differences between what you're imagining (your anticipation) about college and what will be actually happening there (the reality of the moment[s] of truth). As my dad used to say, “Don't be scared. Be prepared!" Get ready for what I hope will be one of the very best times of your life!

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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