When the First Semester of College Does Not Go as Planned

August feels like yesterday and also a million miles away. High hopes, big dreams, and a picturesque vision of college life. And then the reality sets in. It was different than you or your student envisioned, harder than expected, building relationships was awkward for them, newfound independence led them to trouble, physical and mental health issues caused a disruption, they thought they could do it without accommodations, and now they need them.

college boy on stairs
Here are reasons why your teen’s first semester did not go as planned. (Twenty 20)

So now we are here at the end of the semester, and your excited, optimistic first-year student is feeling anxious, depressed, depleted, incapable, lonely, on a leave of absence, or finding your way out of conduct sanctions. You must be the only one…

Three things I know for sure about first-year college students’ struggles

1. Your student is not alone

First-time undergraduate freshmen have a 12-month dropout rate of 24.1% in the United States, according to educationdata.com. I can hear you saying, “Wait, what?! But my student was a really strong high school student with good grades, solid test scores, and friends…” Yes, and transition is no joke for anyone, especially 18-year-olds, post-pandemic, in a new place with new lingo, unfamiliar rules, and a lot of newfound free time!

2. The setback they have experienced this fall is NOT a sign that they CANNOT do it!

However, your student may need a new approach, different strategies, and wrap-around support to re-find their footing!

3. There are a handful of challenges that commonly plague new students

There are likely internal messages on repeat that are chipping away at their self-confidence. As a result, we have to deconstruct those thoughts and rebuild them in a different frame.

The most common issues that first years experience

1. Academic under-performance

Maybe your student expected the same high marks they got in high school, or they are finishing the term with an academic warning or on academic probation. As a result, they may say, “I don’t have what it takes, I’m not smart enough, everyone knows more than I or I worked hard and have nothing to show for all those hours in the library.”

So what now: If your student met their College’s admissions standards, they likely have what it takes. But they may need to engage in new study habits, enhance their executive functioning and organizational skills, learn to take notes differently, or re-think how they manage their time. These are doable and say absolutely nothing about your student’s IQ or knowledge of Intro to Philosophy.

2. Loneliness/isolation

If either challenged your student this semester, I imagine they may be tired of signing up for random events, attending hall programs, and standing at the back of a room on their phone pretending they aren’t entirely alone. Maybe they had a horrible roommate situation or have been rejected from some group they wanted to be part of. All of it has likely led to feeling an overwhelming lack of belonging.

So what now: They may need to re-evaluate how they connected with others, or in a few select cases, they may assess if a different environment might be better for them. It is also helpful for them to define what they are looking for in relationships, where they might be found on campus, and how to make their way into those different spaces.

Most importantly, I sense they feel like the “only one” who hasn’t made friends or isn’t out having the time of their lives every night. Social media and our fear of missing out lead us to these thoughts. The reality is MANY students don’t find their people until the second semester or even sophomore year, and more students than they realize feel very similar!

3. Conduct issues

So your student messed up…maybe they messed up…and now they feel embarrassed or need to walk on eggshells to avoid further issues. They might worry you will never forgive them or that they may have forever ruined their college “record.”

So what now: College is about learning…not just in the classroom, but everywhere, which certainly includes learning from your mistakes. While it may feel like it right this second, this is not the end of the world, and how they respond now is what will truly define them.

That starts with taking responsibility and repairing any harm they have caused. Then, we need to start helping them develop a plan to avoid making the same mistake twice! After that, it is time to help them forgive themselves and start moving forward wiser, stronger, and more caring than before this incident.

4. Medical or personal leaves of absence due to health/mental health and/or personal crisis

If your student is currently at home on leave, you (and they) might not realize it, but they are right where they are supposed to be. However, their brain may tell them, “I am so behind because of this, and I will never catch up. I have missed out on everything.” And honestly, “Am I healthy enough to go back yet?!” I get it. This is not the timeout they imagined, taking them off the meticulously planned timeline they expected.

So what now: Colleges have policies to address these very issues. Priority one is your student’s physical and mental health. Let’s start by talking about treatment options. Then, help them take a deep breath and realize that twists and unexpected turns like this are all part of life.

Taking time to prioritize their health is far more critical than just pushing through. Instead, while they are at home, guide them to consider the most critical steps they need to take in support of their long-term well-being.

Should they consider an in-patient or outpatient treatment program? Should they consider taking a couple of classes that will transfer back in? Should they work, seek therapy, or both?! There are a lot of questions to answer, but by just taking it one step at a time with them and helping them lay out a set of goals to make the time away as productive as possible, they will be better equipped to be successful when returning.

Then, when that return time comes, remind them to be proactive about developing a re-entry plan, meeting with resources ahead of time, and putting together a clear communication plan for what to do if/when those concerns creep back up.

5. General lack of direction, motivation, or focus

Uncertainty is no stranger to first-year students. They may question if the school they chose is the “best” one for them. They may feel unsure of what they want to study, pressured because they don’t know what career they want yet, or feel like maybe they would be better off doing something other than college altogether.

These questions can sometimes feel overwhelming and can make it particularly hard to get out of bed, go to class, study effectively, or get quality sleep. Guess what these can lead to…academic underperformance, mental health issues, isolation…and the cycle continues for them.

So what now: It’s time to flip the script and help your student explore their strengths and talents. Encouraging them to find a mentor or coach with whom they can dig deeper into their interests. If they feel uncertain or unmotivated, maybe talk to them about taking a break to try something else.

Life is not linear, nor is it the road to finding the right professional path! That said, college is meant to be a time of exploration and trying different things. Hence, time spent deciphering what they are passionate about and how to organize their college experience around that will be time well spent.

What is next for the student who struggled last semester?

Ultimately, transition is tough, and your student is NOT the only one who experienced these challenges this semester. But now is the right time for them to regroup. I strongly encourage them to pause, reflect on what has happened, and consider these questions:

“What were you thinking when you first realized that things were different from what you pictured?”

“Now that the semester is over, what have I learned or realized about myself?”

“What do I need most to be able to move forward and to feel whole again?”

Once they have answered these, it is time to get after it.

I strongly encourage students to do their best to stay for at least one full first year at their current college before jumping to the big “T.” Transferring is a good option in some situations. Still, before doing that, we need to do the work to ensure they are not just carrying their challenges and negative feelings forward to a new place and risking the start of the same vicious cycle.

It is also essential to ensure your student doesn’t get caught up in a “grass is greener” mentality that causes them to think another institution will be the silver bullet to their problems. No institution is perfect, and most will work very hard to support your student in getting on track…especially if they struggled in the first semester.

Skills, behaviors, and attitudes that will increase your student’s potential for success

Finally, there are several skills, behaviors, and attitudes that students can address to increase their potential for success in the second semester or to support their re-entry following a leave of absence. From executive functioning coaching to psychological counseling support, determine where the challenges lie and start seeking those support services for your student as soon as possible.

In addition, contact your college’s Dean of Students Office, Office of Disability Services, or Academic Resource Center during the break. Request a “re-launch” meeting involving all of those essential resources while you are at home to learn more about the holistic support services they offer that your student has not yet tapped.

Help your student schedule appointments, evaluations, etc., before returning to campus. Encourage your student to name their “top 3” to you (one professor, one staff member, and one student who will be their “go-to’s” for the upcoming semester and encourage them to contact these individuals and establish that relationship right away.

Finally, know this: your student likely feels shame around this semester’s success or lack thereof. Remind them of their ability, their talent and help them reflect on their strengths. Consider an 80%-20% rule of thumb this break. Spend 20% of your time holding up the mirror and asking them tough questions, but spend 80% of your conversations taking a strengths-based approach and lifting them back up…rebuilding their confidence, laughing with them, loving them.

The first semester is challenging, and they can still do this!

More Great Reading:

10 Things Current College Students Want First Year Students to Know

About Allison Williams

I am the Vice President for College Life and Dean of Students at Muhlenberg College and have over 20 years in high education. In my role, I directly oversee all aspects of the co-curricular and residential experience including residence life, orientation and first year experience, health and counseling services, disability services and student support services, student leadership and engagement, multicultural life and a number of other areas. I also serve as the chairperson for the College's CARE team offering direct student intervention and support in times of difficulty and crisis.

Outside of work, I am a proud wife, parent of four children, and the owner of B. Educational Services, LLC offering coaching and support to College students and families in navigating the college experience. My passion is seeing students transform through challenge and grow through difficulty on the path to achieving College success.

Read more posts by Allison

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