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When the First Semester of College Doesn't Go As Planned...What's Next & How Parents Can Respond

You are your college student began the semester with high hopes and optimism for their success. However, if your student's reality was different than they (and you) expected, you are not alone. College can present many obstacles that your student may not have anticipated such as challenging roommate(s), difficult courses, less than friendly professors, feelings of loneliness or mental health struggles.

Now that the semester is over, you and your student may be wondering what's next and how you and your student can create a new path forward to a more successful semester.

We Offer This Important Advice:

1. You (and your student) are not alone

According to recent data, between the fall 2021 and fall 2022 semesters, 28% of first-year college students decided not to return to college. The gap between high school and college expectations can be large even for students who performed quite well in high school. Even if your student's social media feed doesn't show the reality that many college students are facing, high school athletes, scholars and valedictorians can struggle with the college transition - your student is not alone.

2. Struggling in college is normal - it is NOT a sign that they can't "do college"

Many students perceive their semester struggles as an exception to the norm and believe that 'college is easy for everyone else but me.' This is simply not true! We believe that ALL college students will struggle at some point in their college career. It's HOW your student handles their obstacles that ultimately determines their success. Expecting your student to 'just try harder' may not lead to change. Your student may need a new perspective, strategies, and supports. Remember, success can happen by working smarter, not harder!

3. Depersonalize failure

Students feel the weight of a difficult semester long after it's over. Many students are embarrassed or ashamed of their challenges this semester which has most likely resulted in your student lying to you (their parents) about red flags that you probably suspected were happening. These red flags include oversleeping and missing classes, not turning in assignments and low exam grades. When you asked about these red flags, your student probably told you "Everything is fine" - until it wasn't. Students feel defeated and often need hope to try again next semester.

College struggles fall into 4 main categories

Our experience as executive functioning coaches has demonstrated that college students tend to confront four main barriers. Check out this blog article for more details about the reasons behind struggles in the college transition.

1. Increased academic demands of critical thinking & writing

High school courses (even AP classes) can pale in comparison to the challenges of college lectures and comprehensive exams. Many families tell us about their previously successful high school student who had a harsh awakening in college when their student realized their study strategies (or lack thereof) didn't quite cut it in the college classroom. Your student is not alone. Students don't know what they don't know and their high school study and academic skills work in college - until they don't work anymore.

2. Executive functioning weakness

We've written many articles about the importance of executive functioning skills in college academic, residential and personal success. Read more here and here. This is our area of expertise and we're happy to recommend tools and strategies to help your college student build their time management, planning and task initiation skills.

If your student struggles to turn in homework on time, spends a lot of time playing video games, or doesn't remember to check their email, executive functioning skills may be at fault.

3. Inability to ask for help

I highly respect students who want to be independent and commend them for their determination. However, even with this "I can handle it!" attitude, when students encounter difficulties in college they need to be able to identify who and how to ask for help. Teachers or parents may have regularly checked-in with students in high school to see if help was needed but students need to identify their own 'red flags' in college. Can your student identify when learning new course material requires more studying or a tutoring appointment? Can your student compose an email asking to visit a professor's office hours? Remember, knowing your student needs to help is Step 1. Actually asking for help (in writing or in-person) is Step 2.

4. Conduct or roommate issues

College is about learning…not just in the classroom, but everywhere, which certainly includes learning from mistakes outside the classroom. Your student may have had a difficult roommate, felt isolated and like they didn't belong on campus or made poor or impulsive choices that led to a conduct violation. It may feel like the end of the world right now, but how your student responds to their setbacks will truly define them. This includes taking responsibility for their choices and developing a plan to avoid making the same choices and mistakes again in the future. This may include discussions about communication and problem solving with roommates, finding a new roommate, joining clubs and activities on campus or connecting with a campus counselor.

The Cycle of Struggle

Your student may have experienced challenges in one or more of the areas above. Even one challenge or setback, depending on your student, can feel overwhelming and can make it hard to wake up, get out of bed, go to class, focus and take notes, and have quality sleep. This is the cycle of struggle…sleep disruption, academic underperformance, mental health issues, turning inward rather than asking for help, feelings of anxiety, sleep disruption…and the cycle goes on and on.

What is next? How can I help my student?

Each student will meet the challenges of college in different ways and their ability to cope and adapt to change will be as individual as they are.

The college transition can be difficult and ANY student, regardless of their year in school, may experience setbacks. You student is NOT the only one who struggled this semester. Remind your student that there is hope and that NOW is the time to make a plan!

Skills, behaviors, and attitudes that will increase your student’s potential for success

From executive functioning coaching to connecting with a counselor on campus, determine which skills or areas of challenge (above) affected your student the most and start creating a plan of support as early as possible before the next semester begins.

For example, if your student needs to brush up on their study strategies or writing skills, have your student visit their university's website and locate their campus' tutoring, writing or academic support center. These offices usually offer free workshops, tutoring, and academic coaches to help students thrive academically. If you are concerned that your student may not initiate these supports or take advantage of their offerings, a 1:1 college coach may be an appropriate first step to provide guidance as your student builds these skills for success.

If your student has a diagnosed disability, encourage them to connect with their campus' Office of Accessibility to register for accommodations. Accommodations can provide the needed extended time on exams, copy of lecture notes or assistive technology that your student needs to succeed academically. However, the accommodation process in college is much different than in high school. This article provides details to help you and your student navigate the accommodation process.

Lastly, we recommend that parents focus on their student's strengths as you work together to create a plan forward. Your student most likely recognizes that they could have done better (even if they don't admit this to you) and probably feels ashamed or embarrassed. Most students tell us that they don't know why they struggled but feel like they disappointed their parents. It's important for your student to recognize their strengths and the areas where they succeeded even if it was waking up for MOST of their classes, sharing living space with another person, talking to a counselor even a few times and doing laundry (we hope more than once!).

Consider the 80-20 rule - Spend 20% of your time reflecting and asking your student the tough questions, but also spend 80% of your conversations using a strengths-based approach and reminding your son/daughter that you love them, share stories of your own college struggles and tell them that you will figure out their next steps together.

We're here to walk alongside both your student and you as you decide what's next in their college journey.


Are you interested in creating structure and accountability for your student's next college semester? Do you know that 'something' needs to change but aren't sure exactly what your college needs to be more successful? Reach out to us for a free conversation about your student's struggles in college. We know it's difficult to watch your student struggle - there is hope. We look forward to talking with you!

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