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Sending a Child or Grandchild to College? 8 Ways To Help Them Adjust

A longtime college professor offers tips on what first-year students need to do to succeed, and how family members can help from the sidelines

By Jon Friedman

Is there a more stressful time in the lives of teenagers — and their parents — than the day that a freshly minted high school graduate goes off to begin a new life at college?

And you parents and grandparents? You have a stake in all of this, too, of course. You rack your brains asking, how can I help?

A family dropping off their adult children at college. Next Avenue, advice empty nesters
Encourage your kids (or grandkids) to gain real-life experience by running for student office or working for the campus newspaper, in preparation for a future career  |  Credit: Getty

I have some ideas. I know the drill. I understand what it takes for a first-year student to achieve success in — and out of — the classroom.

For openers, remember, parents, college represents a serious adjustment to a first-year student's ego.

I have been teaching courses for incoming students at Stony Brook University in New York, in journalism and other subjects, for the past nine years.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. I can remember the anxiety and excitement that I felt as a freshman at, yes, Stony Brook (feel free to cue the theme song "Welcome Back" by John Sebastian).

To this day, many of the kids whom I met on my first day of college are still close friends. And I will always cherish the books that I was assigned to read in English 101, such as Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."

Time for an Ego Adjustment

For openers, remember that college represents a serious adjustment to a first-year student's ego. Right away, there is a crushing loss of status. Your children and grandchildren need to remember that they are still cool.

Only a few months earlier, the now-lowly first-year student felt like a big-shot high school senior. These erstwhile machers (Yiddish for 'influential person') must recognize, overnight, that they are anonymous first-years, mere numbers on a university's computer print-out document.

They are crouching uneasily at the bottom of the ladder while looking up at the haughty sophomores, juniors, seniors and, not to mention, graduate students, that they hope to become, in time. Their older peers seem to know every angle.

Meanwhile, the poor parents of the incoming students must stay behind at home. They can only hope that things are going swimmingly for their kids. Oh sure, a text can ease a mom and dad's nervousness. But let's face it: not for long.

My Rules for Success

On to my eight rules for a successful transition to college:

1. High School is Over

To hammer home this point, I have a first-day ritual. I stand in front of the classroom and make a point of elaborately counting, one by one, the number of students.

If I have, say, 18 students, I proclaim that my goal is to hand out 18 grades of A's. Wowie, zowie, does this bulletin ever get their attention! Their faces perk up. Then, I lower the boom — and bring them back to reality.

"But you won't let me do it!" I declare. "Some of you will come late to class or miss whole sessions. Others will hand in assignments late. And the rest of you miscreants will do a half-ass job in general. So, I won't be able to give you an A. And it is all your fault."

They understand by now what I'm getting at. The smart kids nod in recognition.

What can parents do? Impress upon your kids (or grandkids) that they are on their own but that you are always available for chats and to give emotional (if not financial) support.

2. Treat Your Classes Like a Job

During your summer job, what might have happened if you came to work late, or not at all, or sleepwalked through the day? You'd have probably gotten fired.

Likewise, school demands your attentiveness. Prioritize. You should treat college classes like a job. Come to class on time. Meet deadlines. Have a good outlook. Finish your work for the day before you go out partying. Don't get yourself so zonked that it impairs you the next day. Getting an 'A' in a class is more important than setting the frat record for Most Beers Consumed at a Kegger.

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What can parents do? Make a habit of subtly monitoring your kid's academic journey. Know what classes they are taking and ask them to follow up in detail when you text or speak with them.

3. Participate in Classroom Discussions

Professors remember the name of kids who speak up in class — and we give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes time to enter the final grades. Your participation shows us that you care about the material, that you're ambitious, and worldly wise. And yes, it makes us professors feel good that our lessons are getting through to a student. Also: Sit close to the front of the classroom. You'll be noticed more easily.

What can parents do? Make a point of asking your kids if they are speaking up in class. Impress upon them how important this task is.

4. Chat with the Professors During Office Hours

When you will need a professor's recommendation for graduate school, a year abroad or a job, a teacher will remember that you came to see him or her during the office hours. You made the effort to show that you were interested in the course. You will make a positive impression. You will be memorable. You will count for much more than a name on a seating chart.

What can parents do? Gain an understanding of your kids' professors. Ask your children to describe the professors and their teaching methods — and this way the students will embrace the idea of speaking with the teachers.

5. Treat Your Initial Quizzes and Exams Seriously

If you excel right away, you will know you are on the right track. You will understand that you are studying properly and correctly. You are spending the right number of hours and you are doing it right, whether you're studying in your dorm room, your parents' home or in the library. If you flub the first few tests, you will likewise recognize that you have to change how and when you're studying.

What can parents do? Crucially, parents and grandparents can quiz the students on how they are doing in their classes. Stress to your student how important it is to get off to a strong academic start.

6. Have a Full College Experience: Join Clubs and Play Sports

College should not be ALL ABOUT studying and pursuing excellent grades. You will not be rewarded just because you spent marathon hours studying. You have to make time for good clean fun, too. I urge you to have extracurricular activities. Join clubs and engage in intramurals. Push yourself to meet strangers and make friends. The people you meet in college may well turn out to be the best friends you have for the rest of your life.

Stress to your student how important it is to get off to a strong academic start.

What can parents do? They can encourage their children to get involved in college life and not settle for perfunctory answers that they are studying hard and enjoying their classes. Ask specifically how your kids are spending their non-classroom, non-studying free time.

7. Don't Make Excuses

I am not too sympathetic when lazy students plead their case for an extension. Yes, COVID has changed the rules of campus life and we must all be sympathetic to someone going through an extraordinary time. But I don't have time for someone who is trying to take advantage of my good nature. Fool me once …

What can parents do? Hold your children accountable. Yes, be sympathetic to normal growing pains. But if your kid gripes that the alarm didn't go off before class, that's your cue to step in and say they should be less careless.

8. Prepare for Your Chosen Career

If you want to be a journalist, for instance, join the school paper or magazine or radio/tv station. Get your feet wet by training in a non-pressure packed setting. If you want to be active in politics later, try your hand at it in school. Run for office. Manage a friend's campaign. Seek internships on and off campus while you are a student. The campus town is rich in possibilities.

What can parents do? Push your kids (or grandkids) to want to gain real-life experience while they are college students. Encourage them — dare them, even — to overachieve and excel.

Bonus Suggestion: Take a Public Speaking Class

Even if it's given on a pass-fail basis, this course might well wind up being the most important one you took in college.

Students spend so much time on their darned cell phones, they sometimes do not understand how to communicate by talking out loud. You want to excel at a presentation? Or talk to a professor? Or ask someone special out on a date? Well, then, you had better learn to project self-confidence when you open your mouth.

College is full of possibilities.

It is what you make if it.

And that, my friends, is the ultimate lesson.

Jon Friedman 


Jon Friedman has been teaching classes geared to freshmen, and other courses, at Stony Brook University since January 2014
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