Transitioning to College: Tips for Parents

Transitioning to College: Tips for Parents

The transition from high school to college can be challenging for both students and parents. Helping a college freshman think about the changes ahead can help save time, money, and stress. Here are a few easy, but essential steps parents can take the summer before college to help prepare students for autonomy and success.

  • Remind them to check their school email daily, read everything thoroughly, and determine what needs action. Essential communication comes via email, and this typically starts as soon as the student is admitted. In the months prior to arriving on campus, students need to be looking for messages regarding tuition, class schedules, housing, placement testing, student health requirements, and more. Do not assume they are checking this or that they instinctively know what is important. They are likely used to essential details being communicated to the parent and may not realize that they need to read and respond to many communications.
  • Look on the college webpage with your student to identify what campus resources are available. Student services such as tutoring, writing center, health center, etc. will be covered for them in orientation, but it is good to talk through these ahead of time as they will be digesting a lot of information in their first few weeks.
  • Have your student purchase an academic planner and think about how to use it effectively. Help your student develop a success plan, which includes printing the syllabus for each course, writing down due dates, blocking off time to study, and backward planning for significant assignments.
  • Have your student explore the online student portal if available to identify what information they can access such as how to purchase materials/textbooks*, add/drop classes, access financial information, check grades, check their meal plan, etc. *Note, while many universities now provide digital access to texts, research shows that reading academic writing on screens typically results in lower comprehension and retention. Discuss whether renting or purchasing physical versions, if possible, might contribute to academic success.
  • Start thinking toward graduation now. Most schools offer degree plan information online that lays out what core classes should be taken and a suggested order. Thinking about a basic four-year plan (this will be adjusted with their advisor) can help avoid taking unnecessary courses or missing prerequisites – both of which can prolong college and add expense.
  • Discuss course scheduling – for some students, 15 units are manageable; for others, it might be 18. Also, help them think about what time of day is best for them to take classes, study, etc. For example, loading all courses on two days a week might be helpful for commuters, but can be challenging to manage when midterms or assignments fall on the same days.
  • Talk to your student about self-advocating. Many new students are reluctant to take advantage of office hours, reach out to professors, or seek assistance when needed. Reassure them that the professors and staff are there to help, but the student will often need to be proactive rather than passively waiting for academic feedback, assistance, information, etc.
  • Establish medical power of attorney. Students over age 18 need to designate someone (parent, family, or local friend) who can be given access to their health information if they are unable to consent. Forms for medical and mental health power of attorney can be found online and typically require notarization. It may also be helpful to have the student carry a card with contact information and a note indicating who has POA in his or her wallet.

Author: Kristen McLaren, M.Ed. is starting her 15th year in higher education and is mom to a college junior and a graduate student.

The Trophy Generation

The year was 2002. A tall blonde girl with colorful ribbons tied in her hair that matched her jersey stepped onto the basketball court for what would be her first and last season. She “played” in every game, yet never scored a point. In fact, she only attempted two shots and rarely even touched the ball since she would duck and scream every time a teammate made the unfortunate choice to pass it her direction.

“Shoot it! Shoot it!” We screamed idealistically. Game after game. Alas, it was not to be.

If you are expecting a great comeback story or a tale about the triumph of the human spirit, you’ll need to look elsewhere. The truth is, this kid just wasn’t good at basketball and she couldn’t have cared less.

League rules required that each player participate for a minimum amount of minutes per game, so she was guaranteed time on the court. League rules also guaranteed a trophy at season’s end – win or lose – for every player. So the girl proudly stepped forward, posed for the team photo, and accepted her prize.


For what? Attendance? Heavens, give me the trophy. I’m the one who drove her to practices. I’m the one who sat through loss after loss with the forced smile and the “you’ll get ’em next time” attitude. I’m the one who organized the team snack schedule. I’m the one who avoided making eye contact with the parents of kids who actually knew how to catch and throw…Where’s my trophy?!

We’ve all heard the saying “If everybody’s special, then nobody is.”   Well, that’s only partly right; no, everybody can’t be special at EVERYTHING, but everybody can be special at SOMETHING. The key is to find out what that something is. And not all somethings give trophies, but that’s okay.

You see, the ribboned girl who was miserably bad at basketball would have much rather have been home playing piano or reading a book. So, not surprisingly, those are the areas in which she has excelled.  She’s earned numerous awards for music, writing, and academics. But you know what? She tends to question their significance. “Well, there were only ten other entries.” “I don’t think they must have been scoring very hard.” “I’m not really sure I deserved this.”

What have we done? Perhaps the “prizes for all” approach has more damaging effects than we imagined.   Perhaps giving trophies for everything affects our perception of accolades for anything. Maybe those early “wins” designed to spare littles’ feelings have resulted in making them feel that there really aren’t honors to be earned, but rather that every certificate, ribbon, and medal lacks true significance because so many are simply tokens of participation.  Not only are legitimate prizes devalued, but often the work needed to achieve an actual goal is undermined.

I get it. We don’t want six-year-olds to cry. But perhaps we should worry less about hurting their feelings and more about preparing them for life. In the real world you don’t get a trophy for showing up. In grown-up land, you are expected to show up and accomplish things.  In fact, you are PENALIZED for not doing so. Better to learn this lesson early.

I fear that society is already reaping the rewards of the “trophy for participation” generation.

I work with young adults who want to enter the teaching profession. To be fair, some of the twenty-somethings I work with are really, really impressive. For example, I supervised a young man last year who was bright, articulate, responsible, wise … oh, yeah, all while battling leukemia. He never made excuses. He never missed a deadline. He was never anything other than mature and competent.

Give that kid a trophy.

Actually, he doesn’t need one. He’s got something better going for him. He’s earning a living and establishing his professional reputation. How? By being really good at what he does every day. By showing up when others don’t, but not expecting any special recognition for doing what people have been expected to do for generations – their jobs.

Sadly, this young man seems to be a rarity among his peers. It has been my experience that many twenty-somethings expect to be given an “A” for effort… and sometimes not even that. They don’t seem to realize that when they don’t show up, complete the work, meet the deadline, or work well with others, it reflects badly on them and affects other people. They expect to be told “great job” regardless of how many mistakes they make. They want a pat on the back for doing the bare minimum academically or professionally and sometimes even CRY when their errors are pointed out. Seriously.

They seem to believe that “really wanting something” is the same as “really earning something.” It’s not.

We would do well to teach this generation about working hard and that includes expecting failure from time to time and growing from those experiences. And maybe we should think twice about just giving them all trophies so that they will know what it feels like to actually earn something of worth… so that when they do, it will actually have value and mean something rather than just being another mass-produced token of nothingness.

As the old Smith Barney ad used to say, “We make money the old-fashioned way. We EARN it.” Hmmm…maybe they had something there. We can’t afford another entitlement generation. Something’s got to change.

Oh, and don’t be surprised if you see a teacher-of-the-year named “Jake” in a few years. Because there are still good reasons for trophies. I’m okay with that.