Real Fears of Incoming First-Year College Students: What Parents Can Do

By Shanley, Mary Kay; Johnston, Julia | Parenting for High Potential, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Real Fears of Incoming First-Year College Students: What Parents Can Do


Shanley, Mary Kay, Johnston, Julia, Parenting for High Potential


College acceptance letters in hand, seat deposit mailed to the final choice, graduation glee, and finally gone is the worry about your college-bound student. Au contraire. Your teenager's fears about getting into college are now being replaced with new fears about actually going to college. And, as you know, when teenagers have angst, parents experience angst as well.

Such college-bound fears are common fodder for graduating seniors heading off on the adventure of a lifetime. But like so many other situations in the world of gifted students, their fears may be more intense, deepseated, and challenging. As a parent, you already know that, but what you may not know is what those new fears are and how you can be supportive.

In interviews with 175 college students throughout the United States for our book, Survival Secrets College Students, young people talked, sometimes painfully, about what they wished they'd known ahead of time and what they would tell a younger sibling going into the first year of college. Their tips, stories, and common-sense directives about fears and how they dealt with them can serve as a blueprint for your child as he or she heads off to college - and as a guide for how you can support your child's transition to independence and adulthood.

FEAR #1

What if I Dont Have What It Takes?

So far, your child has been at the top, or near the top, ofthe heap. Beginning in kindergarten, gifted students often are big fish in a little pond, receiving everything from smiley faces to A's with precious little effort. But now, facing college, they sense they're about to become little fish in a big pond. One parent recalls a presentation for incoming freshman and their parents at Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA. "The students in this freshman class were in the top 4% of their high school graduating class," the speaker said. "But here, only 4% of all our freshmen students will be in that top 4%."

The reality of such math can cause gifted students to wonder about their ability to do well in college. "When I first got here, I thought they all were so much smarter, more hard working," Erin Pirruccello, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, told us. "In calculus class I thought everyone was getting it and I wasn't. I was scared but I found out later everyone else was just as clueless."

Like Pirruccello, gifted students do successfully compete academically but first, many must develop study skills, learn to manage their time, and quite simply, get (and stay) organized. As Niki Gangruth, St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN, said, "The difference between high school and college is a big shock. In high school, maybe you'd put in a couple of hours the night before the test and do fine." Gangruth's wake-up call was a D on her first psychology test at St. Olaf.

Bryn Rouse, University of Montana, Missoula, had all five classes on her first day. Afterwards, she cried, fearing she couldn't handle college. "The next day," she said, "I wrote out a weekly calendar for each class and followed it."

So, what's a parent to do?

* Encourage the development of study skills, time management, and organizational skills throughout high school. Students can learn time management skills by joining extracurricular activities. Not just any activities but those that demand energy, lots of time, and personal commitment. Encourage your child to consider classes and activities such as debate, mock trial, newspaper, music, theater, or an individual or team sport.

* Suggest taking a hands-on class like woodworking or car repair either at school or through community education or community college. Such classes teach practical problem solving and develop self-sufficiency. After all, how many students can change a car tire, check the oil, or understand the check engine light? These are all skills your child will unpack at college and release you from managing your child's life.

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