How to Prepare Mentally for College

By BigFuture® and the Jed Foundation (JED)

Find the right college for you.

College is a big step that comes with a lot of excitement, a fair amount of nerves, and, sometimes, anxiety or stress. All of that is normal, and there are things you can do to plan for and move through the challenging parts so you can spend more time enjoying the exciting ones.

How do I manage my anxiety about college?

Anxiety about a new experience is normal, and a certain amount of anxiety can be helpful in motivating you to plan for the transition. Creating a plan to make friends and organizing your workload will help to ease your anxiety. See down below for tips on these topics.

Here are ways to manage anxiety in any given moment that can be helpful.

If you find yourself preoccupied with worry or that anxiety is interfering with your daily life, it’s good to know the difference between anxiety that will resolve as you become more comfortable and anxiety that could benefit from mental health support. Anxiety is a treatable mental health condition and one-third of college students experience it. Don’t hesitate to reach out for mental health support when you need it.

students with bike and basketball

How will I take care of my mental health at college?

If you—like many students—are entering college with a diagnosed mental health condition, it’s a good idea to talk with your school’s office of student affairs or counseling department before you go to find out what resources are available.

If you take medication, find out if your current provider can continue to manage your medicine while you are in college or if you need to find a local provider to do so, and ask for a referral if so. JED and the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI)’s guide on how to prepare for good mental health care in college can be a helpful resource.

If you arrive on campus and find yourself struggling with mental health challenges, as many students do, there are good ways to get support. Whatever you are feeling, there are things you can do, and people you can reach out to, to get the support you need and begin to feel better.

Visit JED’s Mental Health Resource Center to explore common emotional challenges and mental health conditions and how to get support for them. And if—or when—you struggle, there are many resources on campus to help you navigate your schedule, social life, and mental health.

What if I have trouble making friends?

Many college grads say the friendships made in college are the most significant ones in their lives to this day, and while that often is true, it doesn’t mean they started their first year feeling close to everyone—or anyone. All college students go through the process of making friends, which can feel overwhelming at first. Here are tips you can take to make it easier:

Before you arrive:

  • Think about what you will be bringing to campus. Beyond your packing list, don’t forget to bring your personal strengths or ‘cultural wealth'. Research shows the benefits students of color—particularly those who are the first generation in their family to go to college—gain from thinking and reframing all the strengths or “cultural wealth” they bring to college. You have a lot to offer all of the people you will meet and the friends you will make. For instance, the ability to maintain hope in the face of real or perceived barriers, which is called “aspirational capital,” has shown to enhance student’s communication skills. Students who have served as interpreters for their families bring to college “linguistic capital” or “resistance capital”, which is the inherited understanding and skills to stand up to inequality or injustice. This accumulated wisdom is something that will help you succeed in college and will benefit the new community you share it with.   
  • Make the most out of freshmen orientation. Most colleges host a freshmen orientation in the summer before Fall classes begin to introduce you to the campus. In addition to informational and advising sessions, there will be chances to meet peers and connect with others.
  • Connect with your roommate if you are living on campus. Your college should provide contact information before school starts so that you can connect about practical matters (who’s bringing the coffee machine?) and get to know each other.

    Colleges and universities do their best to match you with roommates who share similar routines and interests, but, like any relationship, it will take time to get to know each other and navigate any differences between you. The Jed Foundation’s (JED) guide to communicating with a roommate offers simple steps to get to know each other, establish ground rules, and manage any potential conflicts.
  • Reach out to alumni from your high school who went to the same college (your school counselor should be able to give you some contacts), join the “Class of” Facebook group at your college, or attend a regional meet-up if there is one scheduled near you. This may be a good introduction to connecting with peers and students who are senior to you who can provide advice.

On campus:

  • Join groups and organizations. Look for activities in your areas of interest such as theater, dance, hiking, academic clubs, intramural sports, and more. Clubs often host activities in the early weeks of school to welcome you and find new members. This can be a great way to get to know people who share your interests.
  • Seek out communities. Find communities of people who share your racial or cultural heritage, religious affiliation, background, or identity. Some of these communities can be found through your campus’s student life office, international student organizations, affinity groups, cross-cultural centers, or religious organizations such as Hillel and campus ministry. These are great places to connect with a core community from which to explore the broader campus community.
  • Go beyond your comfort zone. Be on the lookout for opportunities to connect with folks who are different from you too. When asked what they wish they’d done differently their first year, some college students say they wished they had gone beyond their comfort zone and interacted with students from different backgrounds.

International students can check out “6 Things You Need to Know as an International Student in the USA” for additional tips.

How will I manage my college workload?

For most people, classes at the college level will be more demanding than in high school. One way to make it easier is to put in place some time management practices and tools to help you organize your classes, assignments, and workload.

Check out JED’s Classes and Coursework Tips for Success for more ideas. If you start to feel overwhelmed, learn how to press pause, take a breath, and get organized to feel more in control. This video shows the process in action.

Many students have periods of academic stress at some point in their college career, especially during midterms and finals. While this is normal, it’s important to identify when stress is helpful, when it may be hurting your mental health, and look for resources and support to manage it.

Above all, remember that you are in good company with the millions of people who have started—and graduated from—college. Give yourself time to adjust and know that what feels new and overwhelming now will become second nature once you find your rhythm.