The Emotional Adjustment to College Life

Most students have expectations about what college life is going to be like. We hear stories from family members or friends about how great school can be, and we see shows and movies that portray college life as the best time of your life. These edited clips and memories are not every student’s reality. They also don’t consider the culture of your campus nor are they inclusive of the normal ups and downs students experience as they transition to a new campus.

It’s completely normal to feel nervous or excited to start college. Whether you are living on campus or commuting, the anticipation about what classes will be like and nerves about fitting in or making friends are very real. There is no magic timetable or formula for how long it will take to learn the ins and outs of your new campus or make friends, nor how you should feel by a certain point in time. But there are some predictable phases that first-year students experience. For some, the adjustment to campus life will seem like a breeze; for others, there may be some challenges.

What can I do to prepare myself for this?

Understanding that this is a process and that there will be both positive moments and “meh” moments during your transition can help you to develop realistic expectations for your transition. Knowing how you have reacted to previous stressful experiences can also help with preparation.

What can I expect during the adjustment phase?

A 2015 Harris Poll of about 1500 first-year students identified that being emotionally prepared for college contributes to student’s success during their first year of school. The survey’s sponsoring organizations defined emotional preparedness as the ability to take care of oneself, adapt to new environments, manage negative emotions, and develop positive relationships. Students who felt less emotionally prepared reported lower GPAs and lower satisfaction levels with their campuses and 60% of respondents wished they had been better prepared emotionally for school.

So what does this all mean?

Adjusting to campus and a new environment can be stressful. During times of transition, some people may experience physical symptoms like tension, headaches, or difficulty sleeping. Others may experience emotional symptoms like feeling out of place, moody, or sad. Feelings of loneliness and homesickness are also possible. All of these responses are completely normal.

Researchers have identified a path of emotional responses and experiences outlined by the five stages of “culture shock”. Also known as the “W Curve” the stages outline how transition is filled with “highs” and “lows”. Knowing about these predictable experiences can help you better prepare for your transition.


Culture shock and the transition phase


Honeymoon Stage:
Begins before you arrive. It’s filled with excitement and anticipation. Your new campus feels welcoming and you are energized by the start of something new. Students may begin to feel a little homesick but there are plenty of activities to explore on campus.

Cultural Shock Stage: 
Here you will start to deal with the realities of adjusting to campus life: managing roommates, navigating the dining hall for the umpteenth time, getting acclimated to classes and academic expectations, finding your people, and things to do. Simple things like where to buy groceries for your room or where to get your haircut can feel overwhelming because it’s all new. Students sometimes miss home and may start to feel sad or lonely in this stage.

Initial Adjustment Stage:
In this stage, you’ll start to develop your routines and feel good about yourself and gain confidence in classes and your new environment. You will feel like you’ve got this.

Mental Isolation Stage:
Here, you may feel stuck in the middle. You’ve been away from home so that it is not as familiar as it once was for you, but you are not fully finding campus to be home yet either. You may also be exploring your personal identity, figuring out friendships you want to continue with and which ones you don’t, and finding ways to incorporate your values into your new life at school.

Acceptance and Integration Stage:
You’ll know you are in this stage when you start to feel true connections to campus and to people at school. You miss school when you are home on breaks, and if living on campus, your residence hall may feel just as much like home as the house you grew up in.

(source: Zeller & Mosier (1993) Culture Shock and the First Year Experience)