When First Semester of College Doesn’t Go Well: Advice from a College President

What should you do if your student’s first semester did not go as planned?

First, don’t panic. Many students struggle and then use those struggles to flourish. But it is time to have some serious conversations and develop a better game plan for the second semester.

Start by level setting the expectations. When first-year college students struggle, they tend to get into a mindset that everybody is thriving except them. Social media exacerbates this tendency as they watch high school friends at other colleges who appear to be thriving.

When the first semester of college doesn’t go well for your teen, here are things parents can say to help. (Shutterstock wavebreakmedia)

Acknowledge that first semester didn’t go well

Don’t try to convince your student that others are also struggling. Just simply acknowledge that the first semester did not go as planned. Assure them that that is part of the process. Then, shift the conversation to what they need to do differently during the second semester.

Identify what did not go as planned.

First-semester stumbles tend to fall into a few buckets: it was hard to make friends, academics were overwhelming, a co-curricular interest did not work out as planned (e.g., athletics, arts), or they were just plain homesick. Identify the source(s) of the problem. Here is another checklist.

Now, help them build a roadmap that focuses on relationships, experiences, academic success, and fun!

Once they get the relationships right, other pieces fall into place. Discuss simple ways to build relationships with faculty, student affairs staff, and others on campus who are there to support students. Remind your student that the second semester is a fresh start. All they need to do is reach out and ask for help.

Second semester is a chance to start anew

If friends are an issue, encourage them to get active on campus. My advice to students is to get involved in something they are already interested in doing while also trying something new (maybe even something they would have been too embarrassed to try in high school). College campuses are filled with clubs and activities ranging from community service to student government, arts organizations, and intramural sports. The most important thing is to find organizations or clubs that meet regularly. Here is a great guide that you might find helpful.

A job can also be a great way to meet people and have some fun. If they are in a college town, a job at a local store or coffee shop can be a way to meet people. A campus job can also be a way to meet staff who often become mentors.

Build an academic support structure

Academic support structures probably matter the most.

Many of the struggles faced by first-year students are academic. Even the students doing well socially will spiral if they are struggling academically. Make sure your student is fully engaged in classes.

A lot of things happen simultaneously when students dive into their academics. They build confidence, get excited by the new things they are learning, and often make friends in their classes.

Many academic challenges arise from poor time management, coping skills, and basic study skills. Some students will be attending colleges that offer great help. If so, encourage your student to take advantage of it. But far too many students will be on campuses without sufficient support, especially at larger universities.

You might consider finding ways to build a support structure. This can be as simple as proactively reaching out to find tutors before classes begin. There are also individuals and organizations that help. For example, Untapped Learning was started by Brandon Slade and provides mentoring and coaching for college students who are struggling. They also have some excellent resources on their website.

Take care of your health, be honest and give yourself a break

Health matters.

One of the first things students stop doing when they struggle is caring for
themselves — they need to stay healthy to get back on track. Focus on the basics: nutrition, exercise, and sleep. Also, encourage them (if they are open to it) to explore some form of mindfulness. The research on the benefits of mindfulness is clear, and there are many ways to practice mindfulness.

Be honest with yourself and your student about going back.

Some students are not ready to be in college. Have open and honest conversations. If they are ready to put in the work and have a plan, then they should return. If they need to take a semester off and regroup, that’s also fine. The path needs to be one they are ready to own. The goal is to help them flourish and launch into a life! I was moved by this piece by a recent college grad on their gap semester.

And lastly, give yourself a break.

As parents, we want the best for our kids. And we worry when they are struggling. College is a process. A challenging first semester in college can be a positive life-transforming moment.

Take time between semesters to have honest conversations, identify problems, and develop a game plan for the next semester. If it helps, here is some advice I shared with first-year students in August on how to build the roadmap for success.

More Great Reading:

The Three Crucial Relationships to Get Right at College

About Adam Weinberg

Adam Weinberg became the 20th president of Denison University in 2013. Dr. Weinberg has focused on positioning Denison in ways that address the major issues facing higher education in the 21st century, including affordability, career readiness, internationalization, civic education, learning outcomes, and social inclusion.

Under Dr. Weinberg’s leadership, Denison has expanded the curriculum with a new generation academic programs, global programs, and a deepening of the arts, including the construction of the Michael D. Eisner Center for the Performing Arts. Denison’s new programs in Global Commerce, Data Analytics, Financial Economics, Narrative Journalism, and Health, Exercise and Sports Studies are forging new pathways for the liberal arts.

A second major area of emphasis has been career exploration. Denison has launched the Austin E. Knowlton Center for Career Exploration, which is reinventing how liberal arts colleges prepare students for careers and professions. For this work, Dr. Weinberg was recognized by the National Association of Colleges and Employers for innovation with the inaugural 2017 Career Services Champion Award. Dr. Weinberg is heavily involved in national conversations about career preparation through his work with The Council on Competitiveness and The Columbus Partnership.

Previously, he was vice president and dean of the college at Colgate University, where he was a member of the sociology department for more than a decade. A native of Texas, Dr. Weinberg’s passion for ice hockey took him to New England, where he attended Deerfield Academy and Bowdoin College, graduating magna cum laude. He studied at Cambridge University before earning his master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology from Northwestern University. Dr. Weinberg lives on campus with his wife Anne. He has three children and two dogs. (Source: Denison University website.)

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