The Advice You Shouldn't Give To College-Bound Teens (& What to Say Instead)

“College is going to be the best four years of your life!”

Or so we well-meaning adults so often tell teenagers. A lot of that has to do with the benefit of hindsight (Can anyone really, truly appreciate what it means to be able to take all your classes after lunch until they have to be in an office all day?) But how helpful is it really? Common advice like Stick to a schedule!” “Get out there and meet people!” “It’ll all be fine!” might sound good, and have good intentions behind it, but it might be oudated, vague, or just simply not true. But of course parents want to say something, so what kind of advice should they be giving? 

Kelly Radi, author of Out To Sea: A Parent’s Survival Guide To The Freshman Voyage, says that first parents need to change how they’re giving their kids advice. While very direct advice (“You need to do x”) may have served you and your kid well the first eighteen or so years, college is a time where they will transition into becoming an adult. Radi recommends parents seeing themselves now in a mentoring role, rather than in an advising one. It also means leaving the actual decision-making up to your child. College, after all, is just like any other part of your life — it’s going to be different for each person. What works for one student isn’t going to work for another. The best advice will provide guidance but leave the ultimate choice up to the student. Here are some common pieces of advice we give incoming freshman, and what parents and loved ones can say instead: 

Instead of: “Get out there and meet people!”
Try: “What are your magnets?” 

Jamie-Lee Josselyn is an advisor as well as the associate director of recruiting for the University of Pennsylvania recruiting program. She also was a college house fellow for several years in one of Penn’s largest freshman dorms, so she has given her fair share of nervous freshman advice. One thing she likes to emphasize when giving them advice about meeting people is to think about where their “magnets” are, or activities, clubs or events that will draw like-minded people together. It can be a club sport, center on campus, or volunteer program, but whatever it is, it will give new students a chance to meet people that they will have a chance of seeing again, and who likely have an interest in things they are interested in. The great thing about Freshman year is there are ample opportunities to try out different “magnets,” and not everything has to be a long-term fit. 

Instead Of: “Make sure you stick to a schedule!”
Try: Discussing the importance of sleep

“College doesn’t taste, smell, or look like high school,” says Radi. That means the kind of schedule that your child lived by might not work so well then, either. But imposing routine on a college campus might be ultimately a losing battle. Yes, some students will thrive and enjoy sticking to a 10 p.m. bedtime, but others might find they love doing homework until the wee hours of the morning. Rather than advice about early bedtimes that will fall on deaf ears, Radi recommends discussing how important sleep is, especially in college. Maybe your child will opt for mid-day naps to feel energized, or opt out of morning classes altogether if they know they’re a night owl. By focusing on how important sleep is, they can make decisions that prioritize it, even if they aren’t the exact decisions you’d want them to make. 

Instead of: “Make sure you go to office hours!”
Try: “By the end of your first year, you should have two adults on campus who could advocate for you.”

Josselyn also passed on some advice that is a bit more helpful (and widely applicable) than simply telling your student to go to office hours. It’s actually a piece of advice she got from her own college advisor. Not every class is going to be something a student is super engaged with, and not every student is going to make academics their focus on campus. Instead, by simply saying a student should have two adults who are familiar with them, you are giving them motivation to try to make two deeper connections. Those two adults could be from work study jobs, campus centers or groups, or both professors. The idea here is making it achievable (not everything a student does is going to be something they throw themselves into), but with real benefits for them as well. A “campus adult” can be a resource, as well as someone who can provide letters of recommendation down the line. 

Instead of: “You’ll be fine” or “Maybe you’re not ready!”
Try: Validating their concerns 

Right before leaving for college, a student, even if they have been super excited up until that point, might get really really not excited to leave home. It’s tempting to simply tell your student, especially if you went to college yourself, that it will all be fine. On the flipside, if a student is really anxious, Radi has even seen a parent worried that maybe her daughter wasn’t ready and needed a gap year or semester off. “Its emotional for parents and students,” she sympathizes. But rather than rush in with grand statements or actions, she urges parents to instead validate their child’s concerns. “Explain that everyone handles this stress differently, take a deep breath, take a long-term look at their career aspirations, even if it’s scary right now,” says Radi. You can also assure them that you’ll be there for them even if you may be far away. If you need to take more concrete action, she recommends thinking about ways you can help out with pre-college to-do lists and dorm supplies so you can make sure that their space feels comforting and familiar. 


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