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Double Take: First semester of college requires more than a few mental adjustments

Wes: When completing my college dorm application in spring 1981, I added this short note: “You can do a lot of things to me, but you cannot put me with a smoker.” A few months later, my new roommate’s first gesture of friendship was to offer me a Pall Mall. So it is with college life. It gives you exactly what you aren’t expecting and demands that you cope. That’s kind of the point, really: To get you ready for an adult life that does exactly the same thing.

This week, 2012-13 coauthor Katie Guyot and runner-up Emily VanSchmus wax philosophic on their first semesters living away from home.

Emily (Drake University, Des Moines): Time management is crucial.

In high school, your days are structured: classes all day, after-school activities, dinner, homework, hang out with friends.

In college, there are only a few classes each day. At first, that left a whole afternoon free for Netflix and naps. But soon, I found myself staying up late to finish assignments that I could have finished during the day. As my homework load increased, I learned to budget my time to get assignments done and still have time to sleep. My best advice is to do homework when you get home from class, even if it’s the middle of the day. That will save you from writing essays at 4 a.m.

My peers and professors have affected me much more than I ever expected. The night before move-in, I worried about whom I would meet. Would they be weird? Would they like me? Today, I can honestly say that these are some of the best people I’ve ever known, and I can’t imagine surviving this tricky first semester without them. Friends become family in college because your parents aren’t there. If you’re sick, your friends will take care of you. If you have car trouble, they will come get you. Friends stand by you on the nights when you’re stressed or upset. They really do help make college the best years of your life.

Katie (Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio): Here’s the advice I was given before entering college:

• Study hard, but not too hard.

• Have fun, but not too much fun.

• Try new things, but not so many things that you don’t have time to do not-so-new things, like breathing.

It was by following these inscrutable scraps of wisdom that I lost myself somewhere in Central Ohio. That’s not such a bad thing.

In fact, most of my freshman adventures have been spurred either by my figurative lack of direction in life or my literal cluelessness on how to get from here to there. You really have to lose yourself before you can find yourself, so I suppose it’s fortunate that I’ve now taken classes I shouldn’t have enrolled in and joined clubs from which I’m now trying to extricate myself.

So, here’s a personal road map for freshman year, from one still lost on the journey:

• You will be homesick. Horrendously homesick. You might even carry a Tupperware container of cat food in your backpack in order to build a following of stray cats to replace the feline family you left at home. But, don’t give up; eventually college will be home.

• You’ve already arrived. Stop trying to impress the admissions office with your well roundedness. Focus on the courses and activities you truly enjoy.

• Say goodbye to high school. Your former teachers prepared you for college so you could grow without remaining rooted in old endeavors.

• When your adviser says, “Select courses that take you out of your comfort zone!” take baby steps, not a Neil Armstrong leap. Freshman year is already like a moon walk.

• Regardless of your stress level, always treat yourself well. Because I am an acronym nerd, I call this the SELF rule—Sleep enough, Eat enough, Laugh enough and Feel happy.

On the Air: Want to help your teens get ready to cope with freshman year? Join Katie, Emily, and Dr. Wes Monday in the 9 a.m. hour on the Fox4 Morning show and at 11 a.m. on Up to Date with Steve Kraske on KCUR 89.3FM. Or catch the podcast later on www.dr-wes.com.

— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens” and “Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens.” Learn about his practice Family Psychological Services at dr-wes.com. Kendra Schwartz is a Lawrence High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to ask@dr-wes.com. Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.

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