3 Things Every Teen Needs to Know Before Starting College

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 3.49.20 PM Photos courtesy of Julie Zeilinger

Edit note: The following is a guest post by Julie Zeilinger, author of College 101: A Girl’s Guide to Freshman Year and a member of the Barnard College class of 2015. She is also the founder of the Fbomb, a feminist blog for teens and young adults.

From the time I was a high school junior until days before I left for my freshman year, the adults in my life all wistfully parroted similar versions of the same sentiment: “College will be the best four years of your life!” And while I’m sure their motivation in telling me this was pure, I soon found that college did not quite live up to the idealized picture they painted. My freshman experience was full of new emotional, physical, and psychological challenges—challenges that I did not feel prepared to handle.

In retrospect, overcoming those obstacles undeniably made me stronger. But as I grew older and (relatively) wiser, I began to wonder: What if the adults in my life had engaged me in a dialogue about the many college-specific roadblocks that I would face? Would I have been better able to fully focus on the best parts of college that first year—instead of largely being overwhelmed by the difficulties? It was this experience that encouraged me to write College 101.

And while the guide is written for rising freshmen, it’s also a vital tool for people like you (the adults in their lives!), giving insight into what’s ahead and how you can offer them support. So here are three of the most essential conversations parents should have with their teens before they leave for college. If there’s a rising freshman in your life, I highly suggest that you bring up these topics sometime this summer.

1. Tell them: Embrace “disorientation!”
Thinking back to your own orientation may solicit memories of lame icebreakers and mind-numbing information sessions on things like “Fire Safety” and “The Do’s and Don’ts of Registration.” But despite its boring façade, orientation is probably the most crucial period for getting off on the right social foot in college. In fact, it’s one of the only times that it’s socially acceptable to be endlessly outgoing. So encourage your teen to put aside the remnants of her “cool” high school senior persona and meet as many people as possible. It can change the entire tone of that first semester—and perhaps even all four years

2. Teach them: Day-to-day financial decisions matter … big-time.
Many students get so caught in the monstrosity of their impending student loans that they forget (or never realize to begin with!) that future financial security isn’t just about big-picture debt—it’s also about smart, daily practices. So show your teen how to create and stick to a budget. The two crucial steps to share:  (1) Determining how much money they can comfortably spend every month; and (2) Figuring out what percentage of that money can they allot for each expense, from food to movie tickets. This—along with the equally important message that credit cards aren’t magic money—is crucial for developing long-lasting financial skills.

3. Remind them: College doesn’t have to be (and won’t be) perfect.
Young people often view the college experience as another step in their quest for perfection. We enter with insurmountable expectations of having an idyllic, sibling-like relationship with our roommate; of meeting a simultaneously intellectually stimulating yet romantic and compassionate partner; of finding an intellectual passion that will reveal a fulfilling life path. We struggle alone to create an experience that doesn’t exist, instead of banding together to embrace the one that does. So that’s why it’s crucial for the adults in freshmen’s life to emphasize the fact that college does not have to be a perfectly wonderful experience—that there will be highs and lows; good grades and bad; fulfilling relationships and disappointing ones. If we take the pressure off of these four years to be perfect, we can embrace them for what they are: unique, educational and individually fulfilling.

Now it’s your turn: What do you wish you knew before you started freshman year? And how are you preparing your teens for the social and emotional changes they’ll encounter in college?