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The First Year at College: A Parent's Guide

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COLLEGE PREPARED
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You have rallied for your child's success at college. You've bought them books, a new comforter, and a fancy laptop, and you've mailed off the tuition check. So what's your role now? Encouraging advisor. And the best advice you can give is the advice you'd give yourself if you were starting over.

It no doubt is the same advice that many successful people I've interviewed have agreed on -- being more involved in college life, studying harder, taking risks in course selection, making more friends, asking better questions, finding mentors. These insights are apparent only in hindsight, but you can present it as a blueprint so that they can turn their college years into an exuberant and lucky start, rather than cruising through college majoring in beer and complaining about classes. Success is determined by attitude more than major or I.Q.

Make succeeding in their courses a priority. Talk to them about how to study smart -- there's probably a workshop offered through the university. Encourage them to get to know their professors by visiting their office hours or asking questions after class. If they're struggling with a subject, tell them to ask for help or visit the tutoring center. Persuade them to form study groups with other students to help with course content and assignments and build a supportive network.

Let them know that it is critical to participate outside of the classroom, too. They have to join a club, sport, sorority/fraternity, or college publication, which they can find out about through the university website or at the activities fair, often hosted at the student union. Emphasize the importance of making friends by taking the initiative to introduce themselves. Everyone is here for the first time and likely each one is feeling shy and asking your dorm or classmate to grab lunch could result in a lifelong friend. By providing this kind of guidance, you are teaching your child the rites of initiation and the skills of belonging -- underestimated skills for life success.

Some kids will complain that they can't do it, or they don't like it, or they don't fit in -- but don't let them come home too often. You must insist that they participate and give themselves a chance to adapt to this new environment. If they're in great pain, encourage them to talk to someone at the campus health center. Separation anxiety is no light matter. Both of you will experience the weight of it, but it's a necessary part of parenting for you and growing up for them. You need to cheer them on from the sidelines no matter how they react.

You can guide them, but you can't do it for them anymore. Your role now is to teach them how to understand and work the system so that they can begin to survive on their own. You can help them strategize in sticky situations, such as an argument with a roommate or bad grade from a professor, but you won't be able to solve every problem for them. Accept that.

The hard part is going to be getting these messages across when your child is no longer living under your roof. A reasonable request would be to have a weekly check-in by phone. If you're not already comfortable with email and other forms of online communication, this would be a good time to start because this generation is used to sharing information this way. If you're still not getting enough to satisfy yourself, ask them to quickly rate (using a 1 to 5 scale) their friends, their classes, their study habits, and their professors. When the rating falls below 4, it gives you the chance to ask what they might do to raise the score, showing that you'd like them to share things with you without overstepping your boundaries.

Remember that your child is in a developmental stage -- not yet an adult, but growing up. College can really matter. When it seems they are too occupied with their newfound freedom and social life to give you the time of day, continue to coach them as often. Whether or not they'll admit it, they hear you. And you have a lot more influence than you know.

Teach them to make their luck happen.