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  • Writer's pictureDr. Brian Harke

High School to College Transition, Part Three: Social Challenges

In Part One of this series, I examined the freshman myth, which refers to the overly optimistic and confident mindset that many high school seniors hold about their ability to manage the challenges they will encounter at college. Part two of this series discussed some of the common unrealistic academic expectations that contribute to the freshman myth. This article will examine some of the social challenges that contribute to the freshman myth.

When it is time to apply, many students and parents select a college based on its ranking, available majors, acceptance rates, tuition, alumni, etc. After working so hard just to get accepted to college, few students have thought seriously about the new social structure until they've arrived on campus.In a recent study of high school seniors, nearly 74% of high school seniors did not site the social adjustments related to college as a major concern. Who can blame them? For the past 12 years of their life most high school seniors belonged to a ready-made social community.

As a result, students naturally participated in the high school social community because it was part of the academic plan and experience. Most of the community structure was developed and supported by teachers, administrators, and parents. It has always been there for them and has become an expected part of their academic experience. As such, it is easy to see why high school seniors may be overly optimistic about the social challenges of college.

As I stated in previous articles, according to the U.S. Census and American College Testing Program, nearly 34% of new college students dropped out in the first year because they were over confident, underprepared and lacked realistic expectations about college. It is fair to say that over 70% of these students left because they were not prepared to adjust to their new social environment.

Being overly optimistic and underprepared, many new college students come to campus without much thought about how to enter into college culture and society successfully. The differences between high school and college social environments are significant, so I'd recommend that students develop a plan on how to connect to the new college society.

Thinking about and discussing the particulars may allow new students to adapt more quickly to their new social environment. I'll guarantee that students who do will find friends faster and feel more comfortable with the change in their social setting than those who don't.

A plan should include (a) an understanding of the structure and rules of the new society, (b) a strategy for how to become part of the new social structure, and (c) a vision for what role they will play and/or how they will fit into the new college society.

If you are ready to develop a plan to address the social challenges ahead, I suggest reviewing these points:

Understand the new social structure at college. The best advice that I can give you is to explore, get involved, and take some risks. I'm sure others have said this to you, but here is what I mean specifically.I want you to explore by discovering everything possible about the college to which you are applying or to which have been accepted. Use the internet to check out student clubs and organizations, read about your faculty (don't be afraid to shoot them an email), read about the history of the college, join Facebook groups, visit the campus and find out what kind of services are offered. Talk to current students (tip: most admissions offices have student ambassadors). Get to know the layout of the campus and surrounding community. Figure out little things like where you'd get your haircut, where is the nearest pizza place, or how close is the grocery store? Find out where people go if they want to get off campus. Is there a shopping mall and movie theater near by?

Getting to know the larger college community and its surroundings will help you feel more at home and start to develop a connection to the college's social environment.The next step is a big one: you need to make every attempt to get involved and take some risks to meet new people. Most new students entering college haven't had to work at making new friends for many years. Start with Facebook before you arrive on campus. Most colleges have Facebook pages, and if you search you will find other students from your major, areas of interest, or maybe even a potential roommate. Check out student clubs and organizations and shoot the leaders an email. Start making friends before you get to campus.When you arrive on campus the first two to three weeks of college is like a free pass for making new friends and getting involved in the college community. This may be the only time in college when complete strangers won't look at you like you're crazy if you sit down at their lunch table and strike up a conversation. The same goes for activities, events, classes, etc.

Most new college students are "campus friendless" and they need to make friends just like you do. But someone needs to take the risk and initiate first contact. Why not you? Do some simple things like smile and say hi, introduce yourself, leave your door open when you're hanging out in your dorm room (don't shut people out). Make sure to go to Welcome Week events sponsored by your college. Make sure not to sit in the same seat in class each session. If you do, you'll only meet the people on your left and right. Look for volunteer groups; it is an instant way to get involved and start to become part of your new social structure.

Whatever you do... DO NOT BECOME TRAPPED BEHIND THE ELECTRONIC CURTAIN! Don't spend your free time hiding behind your computer chatting with high school friends on Facebook or playing video games. If you are spending more time in your room with your computer than with people, you will never become part of your college community. It's OK to stay in touch with old friends, just try limiting it to less than an hour a day.

Most importantly, it is OK to feel lonely. It is OK to feel uncomfortable -- I promise you that you are not the only one feeling this way and it will get better. Really!

Understand the structure and rules of the new society. The social structures of high school and college are completely different. In high school it was hard for many students to go unnoticed. You followed someone else's rules and structure. But in college, it is up to you to set the rules for how you fit into the social structure.

In a recent study, 76% of high school seniors thought that they would be treated like a number at college... that they would be anonymous. If you understand that you set the rules for how you interact with the social structure at college, you should also understand that you'll be treated like a number only if you let that happen. If you sit in a classroom and never meet the instructor, you will be a number. If you never join an organization, play recreational sports, or volunteer, you will be a number. The first rule of college culture and/or society is that your experience depends on how much you put yourself out there. If you want to be part of the college community, make yourself a part of it. Remember that no one is going to do it for you.

Social pressure is a big part of the social structure at colleges. It is why there are so many cases of students drinking too much and doing things that are personally or academically destructive. Many students end up doing things they never thought they would.So here's a college social truth: you will most likely do something as a result of social pressure. It's a reality of college and part of trying to fit in. You have to decide how often you are going to let this happen and how badly you really want to fit into a group that applies so much pressure. No one can make you do anything you don't want to do. Remember, the college social scene is a lot bigger than high school, which means there are many more ways to fit in socially. If you get stuck in a rut, change your routine.As one student told me "I got tired of being hung over every Friday morning because I ended up partying every Thursday night. I wanted to fit in and it seemed like the parties on Thursday nights were all that people talked about." "Once I stopped going out on Thursday nights, I realized there was a whole other world of people to chill with... who didn't feel like crap on Friday."

Decide what role you want to play and how you will fit into the new college society.First and foremost, don't believe that it will or has to be the same as it was in high school. You are starting all over. Who you were in high school no longer matters. The best part of this is that there is less pressure to fit in and be someone you're not.

In college you get to dictate your role and how you fit in. Before you get to college, think about who you are and what you like. Look at your personal and academic goals. Think about your core values and beliefs. Go to college with the plan that embraces these things and then be patient. If you stay true to yourself, you will find that others with the same ideals will be as drawn to you as you are to them.

The social structure of a college and how you fit into it is a complicated topic. You'll never be fully prepared for what may come your way. Go into it expecting the unexpected and be comfortable knowing that you will make mistakes and things may be difficult at times. However, if you start a plan and have some understanding before you hit campus, you'll fit in quicker, have more fun and end up with new friends even before you arrive.

I suggest that you think about the questions below when putting together a plan to find your place in the college social community:

1. Have you identified two academic, social, or volunteer organizations that you want to check out when you arrive on campus? Have you emailed the leaders of the group? Most clubs and organizations have events over the summer.

2. What are your personal and academic goals for college? What social or co-curricular activities will help you reach these goals? Are these activities available at your college?

3. What are your core values and beliefs? These often change as we are exposed to new things, but list them out and then look for people and activities that exemplify them.

4. What things did you do in high school that you really liked? Are these things available at college? Have you researched them and found out how to get involved?

5. Have you used Facebook to try to make friends with other incoming students? If not, get online.

6. Have you checked out the surrounding community of your college? Remember, you don't need to stay on campus 24/7. Find off campus places that make you feel comfortable.

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