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Survey: Most Freshmen Are Not Emotionally Prepared for College

New polling finds that 60 percent of college freshmen said they wished they had “more help getting emotionally ready for college.”
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High school students spend years taking classes that will help them tackle the rigors of college courses.

But according to a new national survey, most freshmen were unprepared for campus life in one important way: emotionally.

The First Year College Experience survey, conducted by Harris Poll for The JED Foundation, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, and The Jordan Porco Foundation, found that 60 percent of freshmen said they wished they had “more help getting emotionally ready for college.”

Emotional preparedness was a major factor in determining whether a student had a successful freshman year or not. The survey of over 1,500 first-year college students showed that those who felt less emotionally prepared for college when compared to their peers had lower GPAs and were four times more likely (22 percent versus 5 percent) to describe their first year experience as “terrible/poor.”

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Half of the students said they felt stressed “most or all of the time” and more than a third felt anxious or did not feel as if they were “in control of managing the stress of day-to-day college life.”

“We put so much intensity, energy and focus into ‘prepping’ for college by preparing for SATs, taking AP classes and visiting schools, but many of us miss a central part of the preparation project — namely, doing what you can to try to prepare developmentally for life away at college,” said Victor Schwartz, M.D., clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine and medical director of The Jed Foundation.

Adults often tell high school seniors that they are on the doorstep of the best four years of their lives. But over half of all freshmen in the survey said they were having a difficult time making new friends and struggling to feel as though they belonged.

The media has further idealized the college years, leaving teens with high expectations as they leave home. Nearly half of students said college was not living up to that idyllic vision. And more than three-quarters of the freshmen surveyed felt that social media, TV and movies had led them to believe that college would be more fun than they were experiencing.

The majority of college students in the survey recognized that they needed to improve their time management and independent living skills. Parents should step in early to help. “High school parents need to provide their kids with opportunities to manage their responsibilities with increasing independence,” said Marisa Giarnella-Porco, LCSW and President and CEO of the Jordan Porco Foundation. “Resiliency, problem solving, self-advocacy, and time management are only a few of the skills they will need as they move forward past graduation.”

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Parents should also talk to their kids about stress management and coping skills, she said, “keeping in mind that these are all components of developing emotional intelligence. It's a balancing act for parents, not being too dismissive about the stress their teens are experiencing during this time, but also helping them navigate the stress while they are still at home in a way that builds their confidence.”

Give 11th and 12th graders greater independence and teach them more life skills, said Schwartz, such as managing sleep, nutrition, money, time and relationships, living with more diverse communities or simply living with non-family members.

Lisa Heffernan is the mother of one college student and two recent grads. She is a writer and cofounder of Grown and Flown, a site for parents of 15-25 year olds.