While teaching introductory courses in government and sociology at AU School of Public Affairs, Lara Schwartz and Andrea Malkin Brenner, CAS/PhD,'01, discovered that what first-year students really needed was an introduction to college. They needed to know how to talk to professors, get along with roommates, and adapt to life on their own.
“I noticed many of the things that decided how a student’s semester was going weren’t even academic,” says Schwartz, professorial lecturer in the AU School of Public Affairs (SPA). “They could be affected by an illness or time management issues.”
To help students make a smoother transition from high school to college, Schwartz teamed up with Brenner, assistant professor of sociology and creator of American University Experience (AUx) for first-year students, to write “How to College: What to Know Before You Go (And When You’re There),” published by St. Martin’s Press.
This practical guide designed for students includes things students should do before arriving on campus: figure out public transportation options nearby, understand health insurance, and open a checking account. It also offers tips for thriving once a student has arrived at college, such as how to stay on top of studying, write professional emails, and stay healthy.
Drawing on conversations with sophomores and their own insider knowledge, the authors suggest topics for teenagers and parents to discuss before they leave home. For instance, they should decide how often they will communicate and expectations for sticking to a budget.
Then there is move-in day. “A lot of drama takes place because parents and students don’t know the questions to ask: Who will do the unpacking? What time will the family leave?” says Brenner. “It seems so simple, but if you’ve never done it before, you might not know.”
The authors report that colleges are seeing an increase in underprepared first-year students, and up to one-third of students don’t return for their second year. Although high school students put time and energy into the application process, they often aren’t ready for the reality of independent living.
“They are high school students one day and the next day we call them college students, but do nothing to prepare them for that transition,” says Schwartz. “Students have been told most of their lives that college is different from high school, but not how they differ. We demystify that for them.”
Sometimes families don’t have the knowledge or resources, while other parents have done too much coordinating and never passed on the responsibilities of self-care. In this new “adulting” phase, Schwartz says the job of the college student is to be “the dean of me” and coordinate all aspects of his or her academic schedule.
“We hope the book reminds students that preparation works,” says Brenner. “They’ve been involved in lots of preparation for tests or sports or performances. That concept is not new to them. We really believe it’s just as important to get out there just how to actually prepare for this next step.”