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The beginning of the academic year is a time of major transition, regardless of which college or university you’re at or which year you’re going into. Summer is over, and you suddenly have to get back into school mode, negotiate the balance between work and play, potentially handle new living arrangements, and restart your social life. Can we say “stressful?”

Below, a recent graduate reflects on what that transition angst feels like, and our counsellor suggests resources and strategies that help.

Student perspective

Naomi Leanage is a recent graduate of the University of Guelph-Humber in Ontario.

It’s that time of year again, when beach bags and cottages are replaced with backpacks and classrooms. According to back-to-school commercials, we should be all smiles. But for me, the beginning of September always brought anxiety. It was strongest when I was entering university for the first time, but I also felt the same way at the beginning of each year. It’s a tough change—going from a couple months of no-stress freedom to a year full of essays, assignments, and exams. The first month was always full of “new,” but eventually I learned how to face it.

New friends

While I spent two whole semesters getting to know everyone in my history elective, the thought of going through the same process again in each class seemed exhausting. But then I realized these new faces are going through the exact same thing, which gave me the courage to be the first to say hello. It led to some great friendships…or at least study groups.

New schedule

My summer was mostly full of flings—and no, not just with that cute guy from vacation. I’m talking about the many sudden and unexpected plans that popped up, like that time my sister and I went on an impromptu trip to the States. Being back in school gave me the chance to settle down into a steady schedule. It took a few weeks to adjust to the 8 a.m. wake-up calls, but eventually, knowing what I’d be doing every Thursday morning became comforting.

New to-do list

The nonchalant duties of summer that made up my to-do list, like “pack for vacation” or “buy sunscreen,” were replaced by “complete 10-page report.” My list began to seem overwhelming and never-ending, but with the help of a handy agenda and good organization skills, I was able to tackle everything and still have time to watch Netflix.

New housing

Though I was a commuter student who never moved out of the family home, my friends admitted that moving back in with their parents or guardians at the beginning of summer was not something they welcomed. But the fresh laundry, fridge full of food, and home-cooked meals that didn’t involve Ramen noodles or mac and cheese grew on them. Now, they’re moving back into campus residence or off-campus housing and having to adjust to life without mom and/or dad’s help. With great freedom comes great responsibility.

Adjusting to a new year can be challenging, but remember, everyone else is in flux too. How do you tackle the transition?

COUNSELLOR PERSPECTIVE

Michael Huston, MA, is a Psychologist and Counsellor with Student Counselling Services at Mount Royal University in Alberta. His work with students includes personal, career, and educational counselling.

What are some of the most common reasons for stress in the new school year?

Students see university as an important, even essential, task linking them to their future. They’re concerned with being able to cope with the demands, including but not limited to: getting better grades, choosing the right major, managing relationships, fitting in, and handling finances and part-time work. 

How can students become more comfortable with the transition?

Changes are stressful because we’re not sure how effectively we’ll cope. We can become more optimistic by finding out what the changes are, and strategizing about how we’ll cope with them. Learning new skills (e.g., study, budgeting, writing, or presentation skills) before the heavy demands hit can avert some of the stress. It increases your optimism about handling the demands.

What do students know by the end of the year that they wish they’d known at the start?

I think most students learn that they can handle university life if they approach the work one day at a time. The demands keep mounting on a daily basis, and if you fall behind, it can be difficult to catch up. Find your own way to be organized (there’s not one right way), know your deadlines, and work in advance of them. Don’t hesitate to ask for additional assistance or clarification. Your professors have all been in your shoes.

focused man working on laptop

More transition strategies

  • Think ahead about the demands you’re likely to face, e.g., writing papers, taking exams, and managing your finances.
  • Find out what resources are available for learning new skills to help you handle these demands. Michael recommends taking advantage of a learning skills centre for academic skill building. It’s a great resource for enhancing study techniques, writing abilities, presentation skills, etc.
  • Consider taking less on, e.g., work fewer hours or take fewer courses.
  • Try to maintain some of your old patterns and relationships. Keep a sleep schedule, eat and exercise, and stay in touch with family and friends.
  • Allow yourself some downtime to get settled.
  • Don’t hesitate to seek assistance through the counselling centre. You don’t need to be in a crisis to use the services or benefit from them. Along with individual counselling, many counselling centres offer other services, such as workshops, academic and career advising, and online resources that help you build skills to cope with the many demands of being in school.
  • Working together, even if it’s on different projects, can be a great source of social support. One of the best ways to allay our personal concerns about career or academic achievement, or just life in general, is to know confidently that we’re not alone in this and other people feel the same way we do.
  • Join a student organization on an issue or topic that you’re passionate about or wanting to learn about. You’ll meet like-minded peers and perhaps develop friendships. Doing the opposite can help as well. “Once you’re more comfortable in your new setting, you could attend events with people who don’t share your views so your comfort zone grows gradually,” says Lindsay M., a sixth-year graduate student at Queen’s University in Ontario.
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Article sources

Michael Huston, MA, Psychologist and Counsellor, Student Counselling Services, Mount Royal University, Alberta.

Bridges, W. (2004). Transitions: Making sense of life’s changes. Da Capo Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Glauser, W. (2017). Postsecondary campuses responding to record anxiety and depression levels. CMAJ 189 (48) E1501-E1502; DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.109-5512