Navigating Change

I know that being a first-generation college student can be scary, because it was scary for me. I was black and from a working-class neighborhood in Chicago, while Princeton’s student body was generally white and well-to-do. I’d never stood out in a crowd or a classroom because of the color of my skin before. But I found close friends and a mentor who gave me the confidence to be myself. Going to college is hard work, but every day I meet people whose lives have been profoundly changed by education, just as mine was. My advice to students is to be brave and stay with it.

Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama hugging graduating student in cap and gown

The transition from high school to college brings a number of changes for students as well as for their families. Support and understanding from family members makes a significant difference as students adjust to the new schedules and the necessary skills that college requires.

College vs. High School

When starting something new, it’s common to compare the new experiences with what you know from the past. Often we find that first-year students focus on how college differs from high school. Here are some common differences:

  • Time Management  alt= " "

    • If you look at the academic schedule of a college student, you might see that they have a lot of free time in their day. A student’s time is not dictated from early morning to mid-afternoon like it was in high school. A first-year college student is likely to have long breaks between classes but may need to be on campus after supper for an evening class. Those breaks between classes can be best used for studying, volunteering for a campus organization, or a part time job on or near campus.

School is full-time. It’s this constant thing and you have to learn things like time management. But with my parents I have certain expectations culturally as the youngest daughter. To be home at a certain time, to help with meals. Things like that.

First-year commuter student

  • Workload  alt= " "

    • Learning is approached differently in college. In high school, teachers told their students specifically what they needed to learn, and much of their school work involved memorization. In college, students are expected to learn by using “critical-thinking skills,” which means they gain knowledge through reading, working through complex homework problems, and then applying and evaluating information on their own.

In high school you can get by with studying for a test the day before and you can still get an “A” on it, but in college you have to be preparing for a week and a half ahead to do well on the exam. It’s a lot more work.

Second-year communications major

  • Grading  alt= " "

    • It is harder to earn A’s and B’s in college than in high school. First-year college students typically earn about one full grade lower in each subject than they earned in high school. Depending on the course, it may be that tests and final exams are the only source of grading in college. They may not even be sure how well they’re doing until the end of the semester. This can create significant stress for students who feel the need to do well, and it causes high levels of anxiety about tests and exams.
  • More Choices  alt= " "

    • College students are given much more freedom to choose their class schedule, who they spend time with, and what goals they have for the future. This can be exciting, but it can also feel overwhelming, as they may not be used to the amount of autonomy they are experiencing. As a parent, you may not understand some of your student’s choices. It can help you and your student if you ask how they made their decision, and encourage your student to get advice from an adviser, a faculty member, or a student who is a year or two older.

College opens up a lot of experiences for students, but only if you really push yourself to gain those experiences.

Study abroad student

  • Resources  alt= " "

    • Most colleges have academic advisers, career counselors, and other experts who can provide advice on a variety of topics. By talking with these support staff, students have more sources of information than they had in high school. Students don’t always think of these resources when they need them, though. Parents can help by reminding them about the resources available on campus and encouraging them to seek advice and connect with people who can help.

Meet with your adviser on a daily basis if you have problems. Well, maybe not daily but weekly. Regularly.

Second-year students, residence hall assistant

  • Tuition and book costs  alt= " "

    • College is expensive, and paying for school can become a significant source of stress for both you and your student. Financial aid counselors can help your student understand all the options available, based on your student’s individual circumstances. Parents should talk openly and often with their student about financial management, the difference between loans and grants, and any possible ways to reduce expenses or increase funding.
    • Note: If you want to talk to a financial aid adviser at your student’s school, your student will need to either be in attendance at the meeting or grant specific permission for you to access his or her financial records.  Click here for more information on FERPA.

I didn’t have anyone in my family who knew the process–anyone who knew about financial aid,  the application process or anything. I had to literally figure everything out on my own.

Third-year student employee, library