Freshmen Guide to
the College Transition
How to Combat Homesickness, Loneliness & Anxiety During Your First Year

Meet the Expert

Jim McGee Read bio

Written by…

Rob Sabo Read bio

Leaving home for college can stressful for first-year college students. Feelings of depression, isolation, homesickness and loneliness are quite common among freshman. Research shows that as many as 75 percent of college freshman reported feelings of loneliness their first two weeks of school. Loneliness can lead to depression, which can hinder a student’s chance to excel in the classroom. The guide below looks at mental health during freshman year and provides insight and resources to help college first-timers better transition to university life.

Homesickness is pining for home and family during extended absence. It stems from the loss of security, comfort and familiarity – and it’s quite common among college freshmen. A 2016 study by researchers at the Higher Education Research Institute at University of California-Los Angeles found that 71 percent of college freshmen reported feelings of homesickness, and 57 percent felt isolated from campus life.

These feelings can be especially sharp in freshmen who’ve enrolled in a college that’s far removed from the familiarity and comfort of their childhood home. Mild homesickness can actually be enabling – many students overcome mild feelings of homesickness by throwing themselves headlong into their studies and embracing the social aspects of college life. Embracing the many changes that come with entering college can help new situations become familiar more quickly.

For others, intense homesickness, and the ensuing feelings of depression, can be crippling. Intense homesickness is more than just missing family and home — it’s missing all that’s familiar, normal and comfortable. For these students, it’s important to remember that you aren’t alone; remember, nearly three-quarters of all college freshmen have experienced these same feelings.

Put these three steps into play to help combat homesickness:

  • 1. Get comfy with your new surroundings.

    Don’t stay isolated in your dorm room. Explore campus, especially places where students congregate. Talk to people. Make new friends. Explore your new city. Find places you like to eat, hang out and study. The more you get to know your new surroundings, the less scary and inhibitive they will be.

  • 2. Get involved.

    Join an on-campus club or organization, or a local gym. Soak up your free time with activities you enjoy. College can be hard work, but it also can be fun. Nothing to do at night? Go root for your university at sporting events – chances are you’ll make some friends along the way. The more social connections you make in your new home, the more it will begin to feel like your old home.

  • 3. Seek counseling.

    College counselors are experts at helping homesick freshmen overcome the challenges of leaving home and establishing their own identity in a new place. Seek out these free resources to relieve feelings of isolation and homesickness.

Keeping a full schedule – and not just with the boring routine of study, eat, sleep – is a great way for college freshmen to overcome feelings of homesickness. The less idle time you have, the less you’ll pine for home.

Loneliness and homesickness go hand-in-hand. Both are common feelings for students who move away from home are surrounded every day by new and unfamiliar faces. Intense feelings of loneliness can prevent students from successfully making the transition to college life and living independently.

Don’t let loneliness ruin your freshman year. Easier said than done, of course, but it’s crucial that college freshmen overcome loneliness so they can concentrate on their studies and building the new connections that will alleviate loneliness.

Here are some suggestions college freshman can use to help them combat loneliness:

  • 1. Leave the dorms.

    Isolation fosters loneliness. The more students get out of their dorm rooms the less likely they are to feel alone.

  • 2. Share your feelings.

    Almost every first-year student who has left home for the first time experiences loneliness. Don’t bottle up or “gunnysack” those feelings. Think of a gunnysack slung over the shoulder — every feeling that’s repressed is added to the sack and it becomes heavier. Eventually it’s too much weight to bear. Talking to like-minded people about feelings of loneliness and isolation empties the sack. Don’t forget to listen when others speak of their issues – conversation is a give-and take experience.

  • 3. Facebook isn’t the best place to find friends.

    First-year students need real friends, ones with which they can share meals, laughter, conversation and tears. They need a shoulder to lean on – and digital friends have cold shoulders. Social media is great for finding out where to go for a pre-game tailgate barbecue or other social function, but it’s the real-life flesh and blood friends that will help keep loneliness at bay.

  • 4. Temper expectations.

    Everyone’s seen televised sporting events where thousands of raucous students cheer on their beloved home teams (think Duke basketball or Michigan football). Those are fleeting moments in the larger story of the college experience. Students who grasp the tough realities of college are better equipped to handle its many and varied challenges.

Humans are social creatures. The only way to truly conquer loneliness is to form meaningful connections with others.

Depression is a serious problem in anyone’s life. For college students, it’s also a common issue – 63 percent of all college students say they frequently or occasionally felt depressed after entering college, the Higher Education Research Institute reports.

Depression in college students is more than just missing mom and dad, or feeling a bit blue because students don’t have a large circle of friends with which to hang out. College students – especially those who move far from home – are burdened with a wide range of new challenges and pressures that can make them feel overwhelmed. They also are adjusting to the leap from adolescence to adulthood. Many of these factors can trigger or exacerbate depression in college students.

Depression is a serious medical condition – but it’s also treatable. Students should watch for these signs and symptoms of depression in themselves and in their classmates:

  • Constant feelings of sadness, emptiness and hopelessness

  • Lack of pleasure in activities or interests

  • Low energy and constant fatigue

  • Difficulty sleeping, or oversleeping

  • Feelings of guilt and worthlessness

  • Restlessness

  • Irritability

  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Depression manifests differently in everyone. If symptoms such as these are interfering with student’s academic and social success, seek help. Colleges provide mental health and counselling services to help students overcome depression and return to normal function. Don’t put off seeking help — winning the battle against depression starts with early treatment, the National Institute for Mental Health reports.

Treatment for depression includes discussing issues with a school counselor, psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker, and in some cases medical professionals will prescribe medication to help students better manage their moods and feelings.

Note: The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The line is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for people in emotional distress or suicide crisis.

Facing Adult Situations & Decisions

For many students, their first year in college is also the first time they are out from under their parent’s supervision. It’s natural to explore, test limits and shed inhibitions.

Binge drinking, exploring sexual relationships and experimenting with drugs are all too often a big part of the college experience. Students should note, however, that some choices could lead to difficult circumstances due to impaired judgment.

For instance, researchers at Brown and Syracuse Universities in a 2015 study found that almost one in six women (18 percent of 483 female first-year students surveyed) reported cases of incapacitated rape—meaning they were too incapacitated by drugs or alcohol to give consent to their attackers. But let’s be very clear: intoxication does not excuse sexual assault.

The lead author of the study, Kate Carey, Professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Brown University School of Public Health, told CNN, “We … do need to think about engaging in prevention early, probably at least at the high school level, and focus not necessarily on the women themselves, although they are a key part of the conversation, but engage all members of the community in talking about what are healthy relationships and what is the meaning of consent and to what extent is alcohol, drinking alcohol to the point of incapacitation, just not a good idea on many, many levels.”

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also paints a disturbing picture of substance abuse among first-year college students. On any given day across America:

  • 1.2 million full-time students consume alcohol

  • More than 700,000 smoke pot

  • More than 11,000 use cocaine

  • Just under 10,000 try hallucinogens

  • More than 4,500 use heroin

Many students use drugs to cope with the additional pressures that come with college life, such as peer pressure, grades and exams, and social anxiety. And about one in every four college students report negative consequences from using alcohol, including skipping classes, falling behind, poor in-class performance and lower grades.

The section below can point students in the right direction to steer clear of the issues relating to alcohol and substance abuse, as well as other non-academic issues.

Where to Get Help – Resources on Campus

Education is a key tool in the fight against the dangers and realities of substance abuse and sexual assault. Students should check with their college’s student services or counseling departments to see what resources are available at their institution.

Here are a few examples of the many resources colleges typically provide free or at low cost to students to help them with both academic and non-academic issues:

Student Health and Wellness Office, Shasta College

Shasta College may be a small community college located in the northern California town of Redding, but its student health and wellness office provides a comprehensive set of student services. Students can get psychological counseling, doctor/nurse visits, mental health screenings, support for excessive online gaming/gambling, suicide prevention, help quitting smoking, and many more resources.

Student Health Services, The College of New Jersey

The Student Health Services department at The College of New Jersey provides information on alcohol and drug education, anti-violence initiatives, counseling and psychology services, peer education, and a comprehensive list of crisis and helplines for students.

Student Health and Wellness, Champlain College

In addition to access to health care and counseling services, the Student Health and Wellness center at Champlain College has a Student Wellness Action Team of student health leaders that assist students with health and well-being through outreach, programs and events.

Student Health Services, City College of San Francisco

In addition to information about mental health, sexual assault, smoking and other health resources, the Student Health Services department at City College of San Francisco also provides resources for family planning and reproductive health, blood sugar and blood pressure screening, and free support groups to learn how to better cope with stress, trauma, procrastination, anxiety, and dealing with coming out for students who identify as LGBTQ.

Other things colleges offer students to help keep them on the right track include alcohol-free social events and residential life staff and assistants in their dormitories. And don’t forgot standard student services such as academic advising, tutoring and help with writing – regularly visiting these centers on campus can alleviate stress and eliminate triggers for depression and substance abuse.

Expert Advice for Freshmen on Making the Transition to College

Jim McGee is director for wellness at Clarion University’s Center for Wellness. Many first-year students are challenged by homesickness and loneliness, McGee says. Getting involved on campus early in the semester can be beneficial and make the transition into college life a bit smoother.

McGee encourages freshman and first-time students to do the following:

  • Research student organizations that pique their interest

  • Make an appointment at the campus counseling center to help with the transition

  • Attend residence life hall meetings to stay current and meet other students in your building

  • Maintain a balanced diet — proper nutrition is key to focus

  • Join an intramural sports team — it’s a great way to have fun and stay active

  • Develop a routine schedule for study and sleep habits

  • Make contact with your school’s academic advising center early in the semester

  • Integrate into the campus community and locate resources/supports

  • Attend campus events. Not only is there often free food, but it’s an opportunity to network and make friends outside of class or student housing

  • Attend all of your classes in order to build relationships with your classmates and professors

  • Check into campus student employment — an on-campus job is a great way to meet more people and earn extra cash

  • Visit the writing and tutoring center. Don’t be afraid to ask for help with classwork

  • Visit the campus wellness center or health services center for tips and advice on how to best take care of yourself

  • Attend alcohol awareness programs to increase knowledge related to college drinking