Survival tips for the first year of university

How to avoid the perils of the Freshman Myth

By Katrina Rozga, MC (Psych)

Over 30,000 high school graduates will leave Hong Kong this fall for universities and colleges abroad. They will head off full of optimism and confidence. They are certain they will be able manage the academic, social and personal challenges they will face in university.

However, it isn’t uncommon for the experience to be far different from what they expected, and they will struggle in their first year. It’s so well-known, that it actually has a name: the Freshman Myth.

When real-life experiences do not match expectations, young people can become disenchanted, disappointed, stressed and confused. It can lead to social isolation, anxiety issues, depression and, in some cases, dropping out of university. More than one quarter of students in American universities drop out before the end of their first year.

How can parents help their children head off some of the frustration and disappointment that may come with this huge transition? Ideally, it starts long before the university applications are sent out, and continues up to the day they leave.

Here’s where to start, whether you are preparing for an imminent departure or looking to the future:

Give Them Life Skills
Children can take on everyday life skills long before they leave for university. Teach them how to do laundry, cook simple meals, go grocery shopping, and keep their space clean. They should also know how to read a map and navigate public transport. Have them make decisions about their spare time, instead of scheduling them for activities.

Teach Time Management
Many high school programs in Hong Kong are very rigorous, and require students to take on huge projects on top of regular coursework. You may be tempted to support them every step of the way, but it's better to teach them how to tackle these projects. Time management - breaking big projects into small steps, prioritizing and scheduling time for each step - is one of the most important skills they can learn.

Culture Shock is Real
Being a tourist and living in another country are two very different things. To help your child avoid awkward situations, encourage them to learn as much as possible about the country they are moving to. This includes customs, expectations, and cultural norms. Knowing what to expect can be the difference between immobilizing culture shock and get-on-with-it adaptability.

Strengthen Core Values
Talk to your child about what they may face at university, including alcohol, drugs, sex and tough academic and interpersonal issues. These are important conversations to have, as they help your child to think through what they will do before they are faced with a tough choice. These talks are not just about what to do, but also the values that underlie moral and ethical decisions.

Identify Resources
Check the schools website or information packets to learn about the different facilities and programs offered on campus so your child will know where to go for medical issues, academic help, counseling or general questions about the university and student life. Many campuses offer mentors or peer helpers for first year students.

Allow Mistakes
Encouraging and accepting your child’s ability to make their own choices comes with the equally as important realization that they will make mistakes. In order to become well-rounded adults, children need to learn to fail. Let them make these mistakes so they can learn from them. Continue to encourage them to pick themselves up and try again.

The Freshman Myth is a story children should not have to learn the first time they leave home for university. Save them the unhappy ending by teaching them to be independent, resilient and adaptable.

This article originally appeared in the SCMP Education Post.