The Taconic Counseling Group

Michael A. Westerman, Ph.D.

The Transition from High School to College:
Navigating a Challenging Passage

Children and adolescents are faced with developmental tasks at many points as they grow up, but there are a few stages in life when young people meet multiple challenges all at once. The transition from high school to college is one of those critical developmental periods (see Larose et al., 2005). It is an exciting time that typically leads to considerable gains in maturity, but it is also a time during which many adolescents experience difficulties. This transition is an important event for families as well, because the family unit must navigate significant changes in relationships between family members. Again, although most families manage the transition well, it is quite common that they experience difficulties along the way.




The list of challenges young people encounter as they make the transition from high school to college is quite long. For high school students in their senior years and also for many in the second half of their junior years, there are the tasks of making decisions about which colleges to apply to and then applying to those schools. These tasks can be daunting because a number of big personal challenges are bundled up in them -- most importantly, struggling with questions about interests and goals in a way that far outstrips any previous challenges along those lines. The adolescent encounters the question "Who am I?" in many different forms, from "What academic areas do I care most about?" to "What kind of social environment is the best match for me?" Another set of challenges bundled into choosing a college concerns the adolescent's changing relationships with his or her family. All sorts of feelings come into play for young people and their families around the question of whether to live at home while attending college or to go away to school (and, if so, how far away?). Typically, choosing a college also poses difficult questions about finances for adolescents and their families, including what parents can and cannot provide and what financial responsibilities the student will have to assume.


The list of challenges for students in their freshman year in college is remarkably long (see Clark, 2005). To name just a few, in their first year at college students must negotiate: a new level and kinds of academic demands (e.g., large lecture classes in huge auditoriums, large-scale projects rather than daily assignments), becoming familiar with new surroundings and with people of varied backgrounds and beliefs, selecting and managing new extracurricular activities, developing new friendships, and managing one's time. New college students must negotiate all of these challenges while they are coming to terms with moving away from former friends, high school boyfriends or girlfriends, and, especially, their families.


From a psychological standpoint, in order to successfully negotiate the transition from high school to college, a young person must make strides in forming his or her unique identity and become more independent, which includes separating emotionally, whether or not geographically, from his or parents. These psychological hurtles are especially demanding because, as Larose et al. (2005) pointed out, young people don't have the luxury of working on them while everything else (academic demands, social situation, and so forth) remains the same. Rather, they have to form their identities and become more independent precisely by dealing with a whole new set of concrete issues.




Given all of this, it is not surprising that studies have shown that there is a decline in social and emotional adjustment during this period (Larose et al., 2005). Young people going through this transition experience problems and so do their families. For example, some of the adolescents I've worked with have responded to the challenges they encountered by falling back on poor coping skills, with some adolescents explaining their own difficulties by pointing to what other people (parents, professors, roommates) were doing wrong. Others withdrew from the challenges and temporarily gave up as they struggled with a sense of inadequacy and profound self-doubt.


Given how stressful the transition can be, it makes sense that research (Larose et al. 2005; McDonough, 2004) has found that adolescents do better throughout this transitional period when they receive encouragement and support from their families and feel securely attached to their parents (by all means, adolescents can feel securely attached to their parents as they separate from them). Nevertheless, the stress of this period also leads to family problems. For example, sometimes when an adolescent acts out (repeatedly getting home well after curfew, neglecting coursework, doing poorly in school) during this period of life, rebelling in the name of greater independence, he or she may really be struggling with anxiety about becoming more independent. The adolescent may be misbehaving in order to pull for greater parental involvement. In such a situation, the problem may reflect a struggle for the parents as well. They may be finding it hard to adjust to separating from their son or daughter and act in ways that work against the achievement of greater healthy independence without being aware that their actions are having this effect.


What Young People and their Parents Can Do


It can help a good deal for adolescents and their parents to keep in mind that this is a transition period. Difficulties encountered during this time probably reflect the strains of coming to terms with developmental changes rather than being indications that something is "wrong" with a young person and his or her family.


For example, writing that personal essay for a college application is a truly difficult task. Adolescents often struggle with themselves and with their parents about getting it done, and it is easy to think that if the young person had it all together, then completing the essay would be a relatively simple exercise. But that is a mistake. College admission officers do not think that applicants -- even very strong applicants -- walk around with a fully formed picture of what they want to get out of college, what they think is important about their lives, and where they are headed. Instead, the task of putting that essay together is a genuinely creative one. The process of writing it provides an opportunity to move one step forward in coming to grips with those large questions. Keeping this process view in mind won't make the essay easy to complete, but it can make writing it a positive, self-affirming experience rather than a frustrating one that brings with it feelings of inadequacy.


How Psychologists Can Help


Psychologists often can help a great deal when young people and their families encounter difficulties navigating the high school to college transition. A psychologist can evaluate whether the adolescent is attempting to cope in a counterproductive manner and whether family dynamics are part of the problem. Then, he or she can offer recommendations about whether individual therapy for the adolescent and/or family work are likely to help resolve problems. Psychologists also can help identify whether the high school or college has useful resources to turn to, such as learning centers or sessions at the school's counseling center for groups of students facing similar challenges. Psychologists familiar with this period of life also can help young people and their families make difficult decisions, such as whether it would be best for a particular student to go away to college or stay at home, or whether a particular college student would benefit from taking a leave of absence for a semester or year. Although the problems that come up are often quite upsetting and sometimes quite serious, it is usually possible to make "mid-course corrections" that result in successfully navigating the transition so that the young person can move forward with his or her education and personal development overall. In such cases, the transition, while difficult, ends up being a period during which a great deal of growth occurs.




Clark, M. R. (2005). Negotiating the freshman year: Challenges and strategies among first-year

college students. Journal of College Student Development, 46, 296-316.


Larose, S., Bernier, A., & Tarabulsy, G. M. (2005). Attachment state of mind, learning

dispositions, and academic performance during the college transition. Developmental

Psychology, 41, 281-289.


McDonough, P. M. (2004). The school-to-college transition: Challenges and prospects.

Washington, DC: American Council on Education.