Preparing Emotionally for College is Essential: Here’s Our Go-to Checklist

During these unprecedented times, the transition to college is likely to be an emotional rollercoaster for both new and returning students – exhilarating, yet daunting and overwhelming at the same time. It’s more important than ever to stay on top of your emotional well-being. For many students, this will be the first time back on campus for in-person learning and around large groups of people after an extended period of social isolation. It’s important to understand that the emotional effects of the pandemic may linger and how that can impact your back-to-school transition.

There is great freedom in college, but also a lot of stress. In addition to making checklists of what you need in your dorm room, take stock of your own emotional readiness for in-person campus life. The passage from high school to college or virtual college to in-person college requires not only academics and time-management skills, but also emotional problem-solving skills to manage the ups and downs of college life.

It’s Okay Not to Feel Okay

First semester is likely to be a very fluid time socially. Everyone is trying to figure out where they belong and who they're going to click with. Recognize that's what everyone is experiencing and you're not alone in your feelings. You're more than likely not going to have an instant connection with the first dozen people you meet. You and your roommate may not end up being friends, but it is still a time to learn how to live with others despite your differences.

College is also an opportunity to redefine yourself. Tired of your childhood nickname? Change your name. Try new activities. Talk to lots of different people. It’s exciting to experience new things and put yourself in new situations, but it’s also anxiety-provoking at the same time.

Here’s the thing: You can be excited and looking forward to college while also feeling scared and anxious. You can feel comfortable and uncomfortable emotions, all at the same time, and that's completely normal.

It’s okay not to feel okay. However, it becomes concerning when those feelings interfere with other areas of your life, like sleeping, eating, relationships, and your general ability to function.

Checklist for Emotional Well-being at College

Emotional Health

Get to know your own emotional health and when you need to ask for help. Signs that you may need support include:

  • Sleeping too little, or too much.
  • Loss of appetite or frequent stress binges.
  • Drastic mood swings.
  • Feeling overwhelmed and hopeless.

Develop strategies for self-care. What works best to calm you when you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed? Is there a particular song you like to listen to? Do you like to go for a walk or run? Is there something you like to touch or smell? Start thinking about how to create these opportunities in your new environment.

Start “coping ahead.” This involves playing “what if” to prepare ahead of time to handle a potentially emotional difficulty. What might you do in these circumstances if:

  • You are feeling really depressed?
  • You get a bad grade on an important project or test.
  • You experience a break-up in an important relationship.
  • You notice re-entry anxiety related to the pandemic.

Know what supports are available for you. Part of “coping ahead” is investigating ahead of time what resources are available to you and to your friends. These can include:

  • Peer support networks, in whatever form that takes at your school.
  • Your dorm’s Resident Advisor (RA).
  • Your residence director or perhaps house faculty.
  • The school’s Counseling Center.
  • Your sports coach.
  • A faculty advisor.
  • Spiritual or pastoral care advisors.
  • The school’s health service.
  • Your parents, grandparents, relatives, old friends – either locally or online.

Academics

Emphasize academics. Prioritize the areas that are important academically, but also make time for activities and self-care. The purpose of college is to get a degree, and success at college means keeping academics a top priority, but outside activities may help you meet like-minded people. Plus, you might discover an activity you love doing so much it takes your life in a totally new direction.

Allow yourself time to adapt academically. It’s not unusual to receive a poor grade on an early paper or test. It may be helpful to meet with a professor or teaching assistant early in the class to ask about what supports are available to you.

Prioritize structure and accountability. There's so much independent work, and at college it is the student’s responsibility to keep up.

  • Class only meets a few hours a week, and not every day. A loose rule of thumb is that the college will expect 2 to 4 hours of outside work for every hour of class time.
  • Establish a realistic schedule and stick to it.
  • Regular hours, the same time every day or every week, help you stay on track.
  • Find a quiet place to study:
    - Dorm room.
    - Library.
    - Lawn area outside if nature gives you a boost.
  • Reach out for study resources:
    - Use office hours with the professor.
    - Visit the Academic Success Center for tutoring or mentoring support.
    - Create an informal study group with others in your class and hold each other accountable for the work that needs to be done.
  • Athletics programs often require freshmen to participate in a study hour or a study hall a couple times a week to keep them on pace academically. If you aren’t an athlete, you can still follow the same principle.

Campus life

Set boundaries for yourself. A boundary can be as simple as what time you want to go to bed, or it can involve more complex social situations. What are you comfortable doing? What makes you uncomfortable? How do you handle someone who is trying to push beyond your boundaries?

  • Be mindful when you’re navigating the social scene. Too many are tempted by the opportunities for non-stop partying in college, only to find themselves flunking out after a single semester.
  • Always attend social events with a friend or a roommate and prepare an exit strategy in advance for when a situation becomes uncomfortable or unsafe.

Pace yourself. Don’t overextend or over commit, especially in those first few weeks. We’ve all been stuck at home for the past year and half, so there may be a temptation to try and do it all.

Take it slow on big decisions. You're already undergoing a significant transition in your life. Be cautious about making any major decisions or commitments.

  • It might be tempting to get involved in a serious romantic relationship. It might alleviate some anxiety about being in a strange new environment, but is a serious relationship the best choice long term?
  • Take it slow and evaluate whether your decision is to avoid being uncomfortable.

Good Self-care

Take care of your body. Your mood and emotional well-being are closely tied to your physical well-being. A well-balanced body brings a well-balanced mood.

Exercise regularly. It reduces stress, boosts energy, and keeps the body in top form.

Practice good sleep hygiene. Go to bed and wake up at as consistent a time as possible. Sleep is one of the first things stressed-out college students sacrifice. All-nighters don’t help you get good grades.

Eating habits also affect mood. The college years are when most eating disorders develop. Good nutrition is important for mental, physical, and emotional health.

Practice mindfulness. Take a moment to notice how you feel, right this moment. Are you tired, hot, numb, anxious, happy? You can do a quick mindfulness break by just asking yourself, “What do I see right now? What do I smell right now? What do I hear right now? What do I taste right now? What does my body feel right now?”

Practice self-compassion. Let’s say you are disappointed about your grade on a test, or mad about a situation. Remember it’s an opportunity to learn, but don’t beat yourself up. It’s about progress, not perfection.

Be mindful in your use of technology and social media. Social media can be a great way to stay connected with old friends, but not to the extent that you miss opportunities to build new connections and friendships in your new setting.

Communicate with those back home. Establish the expectations your parents, guardians and other family members have for how often they want you to communicate – daily, weekly, biweekly? This will help you create balance, so you have time to unplug and unwind in a healthy way.

Conclusion

It's normal to feel both excitement and a bit of anxiety, maybe a bit of homesickness, even sadness, when leaving to go to college. It’s okay to not feel totally okay.

However, if hopelessness sets in, and your internal narrative starts to tell you “I'm a failure. I can't make this work. I'm embarrassed,” it's time to seek additional help. It’s not a sign of weakness to seek emotional support. It’s a sign of strength when you develop self-awareness and learn to be patient and kind with yourself and prioritize your emotional well-being. Then the enjoyment of independence and adulthood can truly begin.

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