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The beginning of the academic year is a time of major transition, regardless of which school you’re at or which year you’re going into. Summer is over, and you suddenly have to get back into academic mode, negotiate the balance between work and play, potentially handle new living arrangements, and restart your social life. Can we say “stressful?”

Below, a recent graduate reflects on what that transition angst feels like, and our counselor suggests resources and strategies that help.

Student perspective

Maria Yagoda is a graduate of Yale University in Connecticut.

Will I make friends? Will I succeed academically? Will I keep up with my fitness goals? How will I handle online classes? These are just a few of the perfectly valid concerns that may be messing with your mind, whether you’re new to the school or returning. Transition angst is common—and unpleasant.

On my fourth (and last) first day of school, I found myself still nervous. My summer had been slow, easy, and fun. Back at school, the old anxieties were waiting for me. “What had I been doing for the past three months?” I asked myself, as my friend showed me photos from her internship at the United Nations. I barely had time to unpack before my first astrophysics lecture (sure, I’d put off my math requirement until my final year). I was trying to understand dark energy while dealing with dark energy of my own.

Those people who don’t seem nervous? They are

Most students are overwhelmed by this influx of academic and social obligations. (Even a lot of the people who seem to have it together. Trust me.) I found that the best way to deal with it was to get outside of my own head.

Finding someone even more nervous than you

This I knew for sure: A new student would be feeling at least as unsettled as I was. So I sat down next to a girl who was eating alone in the dining hall. She was reading a book and eating cereal, just as I had done before I had friends to hang out with. We chatted for an hour about our town, our classes, and all the amazing cereal options, and then I took her to our local ice cream shop. I wasn’t so nervous anymore, and neither was she.

From carefree to overwhelming manageable

The transition between summer and school doesn’t have to be a dramatic leap from carefree to overwhelming. It took me a while to learn this. As a freshman, I’d signed up for 15 clubs and an ambitious course load, partied routinely, and burned out quickly.

By my fourth year, my transition strategy looked like this:

  • Do something fun outside of school once a week. Especially in those early days before midterms and term papers, hike in the park, find a new restaurant, or enjoy a show at a local theater.
  • Study a little every day, even if the big test isn’t close.
  • Eat ice cream (or your favorite treat) every week.

That was my plan. What’s yours?

Counselor perspective

Peter Welch, MA, is a wellness educator and counselor at the University of New Hampshire Health Services. He manages his own stress by getting outdoors and painting in watercolor.

Transition anxiety

Summer is over. Your mind may be reeling with what just happened (summer job or internship, time with family and friends, relaxation and fun) versus what’s coming now (gearing up for classes; getting into the study mindset; finding a balance between school, work, and play; adjusting to new living arrangements; your social life). You’re in transition, and it can feel daunting.

Reorient and redefine yourself 

Transition involves an inner reorientation and self-redefinition that enables you to handle change, says William Bridges, author of Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2004). For most students, it’s important to actively and intentionally commit to this process.

Here’s what that looks like:

1. Remember, you’re not alone

Many of your peers are also trying to find their way. Help each other.

Maria Yagoda (see above) reached out to a new student, showing empathy and self-awareness. Both of them were reorienting and redefining themselves. Maria’s actions and good intentions were successful for both students.

2. Talk

Transition tends to involve anxiety. Giving voice to how you feel helps you better understand your own experience. Talking with a trusted friend or family member will help you feel connected and understood.

3. Listen

Ask yourself what’s challenging, then listen and look for the answers. Keeping a journal can give you valuable insights.

“I find talking and listening are always helpful! Once you get things into the open, you realize that there are actually less things to worry about than you thought and that you now have more brain power to tackle them,” says Tiffany K., a fifth-year undergraduate at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.

4. Look after yourself

For many students, self-care is difficult. It means paying attention to your needs and then finding some activity or experience that helps you feel better—like taking a nap, exercising, getting outdoors, enjoying a meal with friends, or reading your favorite book.

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5. Befriend your resources

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, this is a good time to reach out to your college counseling center or health center. They get it, and they have resources to help you.

Most importantly, give yourself time to reorient to your new world. Redefining yourself is a process—and an integral, recurring component of a full life.

Being proactive in identifying and accessing other campus resources may help you take charge and get connected.

Transition strategies

  • During the first week of classes, introduce yourself to your professors. This will make it easier to ask for help later on.
  • Talk with your roommate(s), if you have any, about what each of you needs for successful cohabitation. Start with what’s working (e.g., hanging out after a long day) and what may be a deal-breaker (e.g., being the only one who cleans the bathroom).
  • Visit campus offices that support your academic success, like the writing center, tutorial assistance, and your career office. Locating them now means you’ll access them more easily down the line. Think of this as academic insurance. “If this is your first year, take a tour of the campus and find out exactly where your classes will be—a lot of anxiety can occur in the first week because of feeling lost and not knowing where to go, so make the campus familiar,” says Delaina E., a first-year student at Boise State University in Idaho.
  • Join a student organization on an issue or topic that you’re passionate about or wanting to learn about. You’ll meet like-minded peers and perhaps develop friendships. Doing the opposite can help as well. “Once you’re more comfortable in your new setting, you could attend events with people who don’t share your views so your comfort zone grows gradually,” says Lindsay M., a second-year graduate student at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada.
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Article sources

Peter Welch, MA, wellness educator and counselor at the University of New Hampshire Health Services.

Bridges, W. (2004). Transitions: Making sense of life’s changes. Da Capo Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.