College Confidential

Your many questions answered by students, parents and advisors. 

web-college.jpg
Illustration By: Greg Mably 

The campus tour and website cannot prepare college-bound teens (or their parents!) for everything, so we’re giving you the inside scoop on the most pressing freshman-year concerns.

How to Share a Room with a Stranger

Your child’s relationship with his college roommate may be one of the most important of his freshman year. It may also set the scene for how he feels about college during those first months. Whether the pairing was a random match or the roommates chose each other, remind him to embrace individuals from diverse backgrounds and encourage honest communication. Also stress the importance of setting boundaries and expressing when he’s not okay with something. 

“Try to be as open-minded as possible when living with someone you haven’t met before. Everyone can teach you something if you are willing to learn,” says recent Syracuse University graduate Sarah Bigman. “My roommate was from China and she had to quickly get acclimated to not only U.S. culture but ‘college culture’ as well. She had so many questions, many of which I immediately brushed off, since my only priority as a freshman was to check out the frats and make new friends. One day she asked me, ‘Why do you wear makeup every day?’ My only response was ‘Because...it makes me feel pretty.’ She asked, ‘Why does it make you feel like that?’ I had no answer. From that moment forward I took her questions seriously. We were from two different parts of the world, so naturally we butted heads on certain topics (especially whether it was okay to have boys in our room). But at the end of the day I wouldn’t have changed it for anything. She taught me so much simply by trying to learn. We ended up teaching each other a lot during that one year, and she is one of my closest friends today. Keep your mind open—that’s what college is all about!”

On dealing with practical grievances, like a sloppy roommate, Syracuse University rising senior Lindsay Dubourdieu Ortmeyer says, “Speak up. The other roommates and I were mad about cleaning up her mess, but the onus was partially on us for not making it clear to her that her style of living was unacceptable. After all, if someone doesn’t know she’s causing a problem, she can hardly be held responsible to fix it. My advice would be to calmly and definitively state the issue: ‘I know we all have messy moments, but right now it seems like a lot of the stuff in here belongs to you. I know we’d all appreciate living in a clean and beautiful space, so let’s all make an effort to keep our messes at bay and see if it gets any better.’ ” By talking about a team effort as opposed to attacking the one person, generally you get a better response.

How to Chart the Right Course

In college your child has much more freedom in course selection, so this is the perfect time for him to start exploring interests and building a skill set for his career. “Today’s students, especially those who are beginning at a university, are very worried about the practicality of a major. I tell them they need to start off doing things they are very interested in and that they have a track record of doing well at,” says Claudia Scott-Pavloff, assistant dean at Miami University in Ohio. If your child is still concerned about the usefulness of the major she is interested in, suggest that she tap her resources and ask how she can use that area of study in her chosen field. The university’s career services and professors are good sources for insight. Whatever course she does choose, gently remind  her when she’s registering for classes to be prepared and to keep her graduation requirements in mind.

With your child’s newfound major, help her understand that equilibrium is key; it’s not wise to enroll in too many important classes at once. Advise her to take a mix of courses that she needs and others that may be fun and interesting. “As an engineer, I found it crucial to find balance in my schedule. Every quarter I tried to take an elective that would provide a refreshing new perspective and a break from my challenging and problem-set-heavy classes,” says Michelle Ferber, who graduated from Northwestern University in June. 

Another perspective: “It’s important to explore our interests, but I also think it’s dangerous to be patently lackadaisical and laid-back about college courses. You have a limited time to be a student with access to so many resources and people,” says Camille Lynn Wright, a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis

How to Connect Successfully with Professors and Advisors

Professors are not there just to lecture; they can be among a student’s greatest resources. They are good for offering insight into a particular field as well as recommendations, and are overall great connections for your child. College students should build these relationships early and maintain them long after the course ends, not just when they’re struggling in class. If your child is shy, approaching a professor at the end of class or emailing are other smart ways to build relationships. “Professors want engaged students who contribute to the learning environment, not only by asking questions and providing answers, but also by looking attentive and laughing at our jokes,” says Northwestern University assistant professor of instruction James Hornsten. Showing up ready and curious is a also a huge plus. “The students who leave the biggest impact on me are those who come prepared, have thoughtful questions, are not afraid to ask questions or afraid to think about things in a different kind of way,” says Marietta Collins, PhD, an associate professor and a clinical psychologist at Emory University who is also the parent of a college student.

How to Take a Seat

What does seat choice say about a student? Professors weigh in:  “I try not to read too much into an individual’s seating choice, because students may have compelling reasons to sit in particular places. For instance, a student may want one of a limited number of left-handed desks, need to arrive late or leave early due to an interview or exam, prefer to stretch out into an aisle or an adjacent desk, or choose to sit by a friend who has already chosen a location. That said, students who sit in the back of a large auditorium generally seem less engaged than those who sit near the front, perhaps because it’s harder to see and hear, or because there are more potential distractions in their field of vision. If you are indifferent between various seats in the room, try to sit closer to the front.”—Assistant Professor James Hornsten

“A student sitting in the front row will be more attentive and more engaged. This has been researched. Regardless of where you sit, be alert, attentive, engaged and intentional in your learning experience. Do not check Facebook and just sit back. Participate! Given a choice, sit where the professor will see you and where you will see and hear the professor well. Sit where you’re going to pay attention and be able to participate.” —Catherine Daniélou, PhD, senior associate dean for Undergraduate Academic Affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Alabama at Birmingham

How to Stay Centered

College comes with its fair share of stressors. In addition to balancing one’s classes, work and social life, having to adjust to a new environment and social situations can create extra emotional wear and tear. Here are some dos and don’ts to maintain equilibrium.

Do listen to your son or daughter. Sometimes in our rush to help them solve their problems, we occasionally forget to really home in on what our children need from us. 

Do remember that your role has changed. Instead of being the manager in your student’s life, you are now a consultant. In this new role, encourage your child to be mindful of his or her priorities to ensure that various commitments do not overlap. “When students come to college, they may be eager to overcommit their schedules. There are new activities, organizations, a social life, a new city to explore and generally a new way of learning and studying to figure out. It’s important for students to learn early how to prioritize and manage time,” says Katy Redd, assistant director for prevention and outreach at the Counseling and Mental Health Center, University of Texas at Austin

Don’t let the student get overwhelmed. Talking to your college-bound teen about balance and time management will go a long way toward helping her manage a challenging schedule. 

Don’t let your child hesitate to ask about the university’s counseling options. According to the director of Georgetown University’s Counseling and Psychiatric Service, Philip W. Meilman, PhD, “Realtors say the three most important things are location, location, location. I would say that the three most important things with regard to mental health are that if a student is running into trouble, yell for help, yell for help, yell for help.”

How to Meet the Rainbow

College brings together people from all walks of life, often different from ours. Talking across differences means having open and honest dialogue in order to share and learn about diverse experiences. Kyle Clark, associate director of the University of Texas at Austin’s New Student Services, advises students “to seek to understand and to be understood. The idea is that you want to be open to listening to other people tell their story—and then be willing to share your own story—and to do so in a respectful way.” College is a time for young people to learn and engage with others. The experience can be uncomfortable, but encourage your child not to run from it. These conversations can be eye-opening, as University of Georgia senior Mason Gepp found. “I wouldn’t say that my perspective had completely changed, but a conversation with a friend who lived in a poorer part of the Latin American community in Athens [Georgia] shed light on some important issues surrounding immigration reform in America. While I knew the issue was complicated, I had never before heard primary accounts from [people] who had faced certain situations with authorities because they were from Mexico.”

How to Know When to Step In and Step Out

This generation of college parents is more connected and has greater access to information because of technology and social media. You have a better ability to solve problems and be involved, but remember that your child needs you in a different way now. Don’t be a helicopter parent and another source of stress. Just assure your child that you are a mere phone call away

One mother’s take:

“Letting go is not easy. I remind myself that this opportunity is what’s best for our child and that what we ultimately want is for them to be independent and happy,” says Marcie Ferber, parent of a recent college grad, a college junior and a high school senior.

One recent graduate’s take: 

“My family is very close, so for the first few weeks, not seeing them every day was strange and sad, but we managed to stay in touch. Now I call my parents every week to find out what’s going on back home, to let them know what’s happening in my life and sometimes just to talk,” says Daniel Wilco, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

How to Keep Our Children Safe 

At college parties, there is a high probability that alcohol will be present, so talk to your child about drinking responsibly and being vigilant. Running the risk of a terrible hangover is not students' only worry: They have to raise their awareness about issues like date rape, drunk driving, alcohol poisoning and potentially disrespecting their classmates and themselves.

Make sure you impress upon your college-bound teen the importance of staying true to himself and not succumbing to peer pressure. Georgia State University senior Daniel Gilstrap advises incoming freshmen, “Don’t do anything that you aren’t comfortable with.” Remind students that partying isn’t the only option on Saturday nights. There are plenty of activities, from local movies and plays to a game night in their residence hall. “I realized pretty early on that most frat parties were not remotely amusing for me, so I stopped going to them and found other ways to experience the nightlife and have fun,” says graduate Daniel Wilco.

How to Reinvent

When kids go off to college, no matter what kids were labeled in high school—the geek, the jock, the awkward kid—they can reinvent themselves. “There are no pre-existing cliques, so you’re allowed to hang with whomever you want,” says Mary Elise Grassmuck, 23, a recent graduate of Trinity University. “I went from being kind of quiet to having an extensive network of friends and acquaintances and being president of my sorority. You can literally be whoever you want to be.”