The reality of college can be so different from the idealized version our teens imagined starting the day they received their acceptance letters. Clinical psychologist Dr. Sharon W. Jacques discusses six common college myths and suggests ways we can help our students better understand this disconnect.
Six College Myths All Freshman Need To Know Now
1. Everyone is SO thrilled & excited about starting college.
Sure, there usually IS excitement, but just as intense and common are feelings of nervousness, anxiety, or sadness. Maybe you’re well aware of such feelings, or maybe you’re noticing physical signs like unease, your heart racing, nausea, dizziness, trouble sleeping, or headaches. These are possible signs of distress and anxiety, but are quite typical when facing a big life change. You may feel ashamed having such feelings or worries. Actually, most kids heading off to college don’t share these reactions with each other since it’s hard to admit even to oneself, let alone to someone else. Sharing these concerns with someone you trust is often a huge relief, even if it doesn’t change the reality.
Other things that help include reminding yourself of all the ways you’ve coped well with past challenges, new situations and stressors, and hopefully what you gained or how you grew as a result. With all the worry you are feeling now, you may fail to notice the ways that you are resilient, so take stock. Notice what helps you feel stronger under stress and keep these in mind to use now and when you’re at college.
2. Everyone parties at college so I have to too or I’ll feel like an outcast.
Sometimes, in a flurry of activity to distract themselves from feeling nervous, homesick or sad, kids throw themselves into activities that aren’t so adaptive—like partying too much. At many colleges, you’ll find it’s the freshman who tend to do this much more than the older students, and that’s one reason why. The other reason of course, is that it can feel liberating (at first) to do what you want without concern about parents supervising you or restricting your drinking and late-night hours. Just know that many freshmen have no real desire to party a lot and are hoping that there are other kids like them.
To find such kids, go to activities on weekends that don’t revolve around partying. When you’re at a party, look for the kids who are consuming moderately or not at all; they truly exist. And let’s face it, the frat parties often attract those activities, so even which party you choose to go to affects how much you’ll feel like you fit in.
3. Everyone adjusts easily to college.
Again, what you see on the surface is not always what is true. Most kids struggle with the adjustment and just don’t want to feel embarrassed talking about it. Of course, the more outgoing you are by nature, the less stressed you may feel when faced with the prospect of having to make new friends, manage unknown roommates, and navigate a bigger, new setting. But even outgoing kids may feel scared or sad as they leave home, old friends and familiar turf. It’s just a fact that every single kid you will meet is feeling some element of this, to one degree or another. This dovetails into the next, related myth…
4. Friends abound almost immediately at college.
That’s absolutely false. Many kids take a full year or two to find some good friends. You may find acquaintances early on that you meet up with here and there, but we all know the difference between feeling like you have a close friend vs passing time with others.
Connecting on a deeper level with people is wonderful, precious, and, by its very nature, special—so it can’t happen so easily. Some people just make it look easy because they’re outgoing. The world is filled with extroverts and introverts and both types still take time finding their special circle of friends; the introverts just take a lot longer.
If you’re an introvert, don’t beat yourself up: it’s not an indication of your worth, your success in life, or your eventual capacity for close friendship. It just takes you longer to find your kind. Push yourself to get out of your room; use organized activities to structure your social time so you have something to share and talk about with other kids; give yourself permission to feel lonely for a while; remind yourself that you can handle this.
How homesick you feel in the beginning is in no way an indication of how much you’ll end up liking college and forming friendships. Homesickness is normal, no matter how old you are. Expect it; especially at night when you’re drifting off to sleep, walking to class in the morning, or during downtime. That’s why so many kids throw themselves into a lot of activity: it helps to distract yourself from feeling homesick or anxious That’s a really good coping tool that also helps you make connections with other people and more readily find your niche. Rather than frequently calling home, try also confiding in someone at college; this will help you form stronger connections where you are.
6. I’ve got to pick a major asap or my future career is in jeopardy.
Unless you’re going to a specialty school (Engineering, Art, etc), it’s just a fact that kids often have no clue what career path or major they’re going to end up with and many change mid-stream. So relax. Now that you successfully got into college, you have nothing to prove about this. But do seek out a college advisor early on and tell them your situation. Ask them to help you keep an eye on the bigger academic picture and key decision-points along the way.
Though the myths exist and college adjustment isn’t always a piece of cake for most kids, do reach out for help if your moods, anxiety, sadness, or actions worry you. Every college has a counseling center. Tell your parents, ideally, or your doctor. Let some adults help you sooner rather than later.
Sharon W. Jacques, Ph.D., co-founded Psychological Care Associates in 1994 and serves as co-Director of the practice. She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology in 1988 and trained at the Children’s Hospital in San Diego, California and the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in La Jolla, California. Dr. Jacques was on staff at the Gaebler Children’s Center, North Shore Children’s Hospital, and New England Memorial Hospital where she provided psychological evaluation and therapy in primary care settings there and elsewhere since 1991.
Psychological Care Associates, p.c. Arlington, Woburn, Stoneham, Chelmsford & Framingham, MA