08/15/2012 11:53 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2012

New Students' Anxiety: Learning Campus Norms

Do you remember your first day starting at a new school? A new job? For some of you these memories might be as fresh as a few weeks ago. For me, it's been a while. But no matter how long it has been since you first entered an institution with set rules, norms, and expectations, the memory of the anxiety is probably still with you.

Each year I volunteer to participate in some of my university's orientation activities before the school year officially begins. And every year I notice students have similar questions -- about the work load compared with high school, what taking exams and writing papers are like at the college level, and what happens if you come to class late. Transfer students will often ask what the differences might be between the school they came from and our university.

Basically, all of these questions boil down to one: what are the unwritten rules here?

The incoming students know the university's written policies (or at least are told what they are or where to find them) but tend to be curious about the informal rules. What do people wear to class? Can we eat during class? Should I have a separate notebook for my labs and lectures? How much reading will there be? Are professors friendly? Will anyone care about me?

When students ask me these questions, I try my best to answer them, although I'm sure it is frustrating when most of my answers start with "that depends, every professor and every class is different." I assure them that within a week or two they will feel like they are veterans here. But their anxiety is not unfounded. It is similar to what sociologist Emile Durkheim termed anomie, literally translated, a sense of normlessness. According to Durkheim, societies that have competing norms or a total absence of norms experience more crime, instability, and a lack of cohesion.

Most of the students I encounter aren't worried that a lack of knowledge of norms will lead to crime and deviance on campus. Rather, they struggle to learn exactly what the norms are so they can conform. On the first day of class, like most other professors, I hand out a syllabus and go over the rules, regulations, and expectations for the course. After a few days of attending classes and living on campus, the same students who were so nervous become confident that at the very least they are learning the norms and expectations of life as a college student.

By contrast, students who refuse to adapt to these norms tend to struggle. Maybe they find less social acceptance if they dress very differently from most other students (on our campus the dress code is casual, with a preference towards any item with the university logo). Students who refuse to do at least minimal work demanded from course syllabi will likely find themselves on academic probation at some point. And students who fail to pay their tuition on time will probably be shut out altogether, or at the very least lose their registration date until they pay up.

We might ponder whether this collective change -- an influx of new students -- could bring about social change. While certainly campus culture and student norms shift over time, it is remarkable how stable they have been. I have been on the same campus for nineteen years now, and have seen some positive changes in work ethic and ability as the university has become more selective. Yet incoming students first want to figure out how to fit in, not how to create change.

There is something reassuring about being in the same boat as other new students who are also unsure about what the campus norms are. A few years ago, the Los Angeles Times reported on a new trend of universities offering mid-year admissions. As college admissions have become more competitive, some schools have started admitting students for the winter or spring rather than the fall.

Some are concerned that these students might miss out on the opportunity to go through the transition into college with their peers, who will be fully acclimated by the time they arrive on campus.

The students who entered in the fall will have bonded with each other, leaving the newest arrivals to fend for themselves. Universities that engage in this practice (including my own) say that these students end up doing very well, having spent the fall semester taking classes elsewhere, working, traveling, or just take the opportunity to become more focused.

The question remains whether these admissions policies designed to create more flexibility also create more anxiety for mid-year beginning students, who might have fewer peers in the same boat.