Want a Successful College Transition? Develop Positive Coping Skills in High School.

Winston Churchill said, “Success is walking from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” For young adults transitioning from high school to college, this simple advice may not be so easy to follow because many of today’s incoming college students lack coping skills – the ability to productively respond to change. It is typical to assume that coping skills impact the transition to college across the board – academically, mentally, socially, and developmentally. 

What is alarming is that, while today’s incoming freshmen are smarter and have shinier resumes than ever before, research shows they lack coping skills. Positive coping skills are critical to the college transition, and universities are stepping up with original initiatives to help. For high school students who saw their academic, standardized test, and summer extra-curricular plans wiped out by the pandemic, the case for coping – and Churchill’s advice – is timely. 

What is “active” coping?

Active coping employs problem-solving behaviors to manage or avoid stressors and activities that target psychological well-being. Examples of active coping include exercising, meditating, asking for help, developing organizational skills, and seeking peer support. Without active coping skills, behaviors like drinking distract from underlying stressors, disguising themselves as “escapes” and “quick fixes.” Bottom line: Incoming students must be able to productively react to the stressors that college will bring.

Why is coping critical to a successful college transition?

For many young adults, starting college is the perfect storm of life changes to which they must react without supervision:

  • College is a time of significant adjustment and development. For many, the college transition is one’s first time away from familiar surroundings, family, and lifelong friends.

  • As one begins college, self-regulation is central and all-encompassing. Students must make even the most basic decisions on their own, related to sleep, studying, socialization, nutrition, laundry, and technology, among others. 

  • Academically, incoming college students struggle with adjusting to new classes, unfamiliar class formats, and increased academic demands that require more time and sophisticated thinking.

  • Mentally and emotionally, freshmen report higher stress and lower emotional wellness (with feelings of fear a predominant emotion) compared to other undergrads.

Though the above points are foreseeable, incoming college students are nevertheless increasingly unable to cope, and stress is on the rise. And although there is not a magic “coping pill,” universities can teach, implement programs, and expect young adults to take an active role in acquiring coping skills.  

When choosing a college, consider whether a school offers incoming student programs and courses that teach and reinforce coping abilities.

Colleges and universities are aware active coping skills are important to the college transition and that incoming students often lack these skills. Importantly, places of higher education are taking steps to fill the void so that their students have coping skills necessary for success.

Examples include

  • Special Programs. Increasingly, schools seek to lure new students not only with academics but also with programs that teach students how to deal with the stresses of entering college. For instance, new student mentorship programs, freshman interest groups, and open access to university facilities are tangible frameworks for new students to connect and learn how to positively navigate their new world. 

  • Institutionalizing individual coping skills by making them required coursework. Some colleges now require that incoming freshmen take courses that embody active coping (e.g., meditation, yoga, time management), which increase their chances of a successful transition. Given first-year stress levels tend to be higher, such courses are built-in assurances that students will be engaged in some form of positive coping activity from the start. 

  • First-year classes with syllabi engineered to incentivize positive coping. In some first year classes, professors implement grading systems where accumulated points at the end of the semester correspond to final grades, with a catch that students are capped at a certain number of possible points per week. Under such regimes, there was no way to cram at the end of the term, so students must commit at the beginning what grade they want to earn and work consistently from the start toward that goal. These and similar grading schemes are designed to engage new college students in active instrumental coping, with the idea that “doing the work along the way” will become second nature over time. 

Positive coping skills are strategies; without them, it is difficult to adjust to new, uncomfortable situations. This becomes all too clear when students heading off to college lack coping abilities and, notwithstanding their intelligence, are ill-equipped for the transition. The good news is that universities can help the next generation acquire and practice positive coping skills, so they can make their own success.   

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