Preparing yourself (mentally) for college

Publication Date: Wednesday Sep 15, 1999

Preparing yourself (mentally) for college

Counselor advises students on the challenges faced outside the classroom

by Charlie Breitrose

The first year at college was a miserable experience for Emily Squier. The Portola Valley resident was so depressed by the end of the first semester that she didn't study during exam week and failed two classes. Squier's experience is not uncommon, according to Linda Skerbec, a licensed marriage and family counselor who works with many troubled college-age students. The former Palo Alto High School English teacher also helps high school students pick the right college.

"As a therapist, I see the full range of struggles kids face in college," said Skerbec, who practices in Palo Alto.

In Squier's case, she became very sheltered and would seldom leave her dorm room.

"I lost my support system," Squier said. Her school, Bethany College in Scotts Valley, was not far from home, but she still felt separated from her family and friends.

Skerbec recommended that Squier seek out help when the student felt overwhelmed by talking to friends or another sympathetic ear.

"Linda helped me take control of my life and build myself up," Squier said.

Squier took some time away from Bethany and is now preparing to return this fall for her junior year.

Feeling isolated and lonely is only one problem Skerbec sees. Other students may fall behind because of too much socializing, feel pressured to get straight A's and experience stress over dating and break-ups.

Skerbec uses the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Inventory to determine where students may face challenges. With the Myers-Briggs method, which has been used since World War II, people respond to questions about how they react in certain situations. From their responses, people are plotted on spectrums that show whether they are organized and structured or procrastinate; whether they tend to be more practical or creative; and whether they are more outgoing or introverted.

Students headed for college can take some measures on their own to prepare for college, Skerbec said. She compiled a list of tips:

Make sure you have a healthy sense of self- worth. Parents won't be there to help in college. You have to draw on your own strength to make healthy decisions.

Find out about your strengths and weaknesses. Skerbec uses the Myers-Briggs inventory to assess this in people, but you may be able to figure these things out yourself. When you know your weaknesses, you can better avoid pitfalls. Some people are not organized or may wait until the last minute to complete assignments. A typical college paper or project requires more than one night's work. On the other hand, many high-achieving students place too much pressure on earning all A's. At top colleges, everyone is a great student, so many will get their first bad grades. Skerbec stresses that students should not base their entire self-worth on their grades.

Hard work in high school pays off. More advanced students can take Advanced Placement tests and receive credits toward their college degree.

Realize that every freedom has a corresponding responsibility. "Parents should tell their children that for each privilege, they have a responsibility to keep up," Skerbec said. She suggests writing down every new freedom along with the responsibility that goes with it. In college, for instance, students can go out every night if they want, but they still need to get enough sleep to pay attention in class.

Learn to take care of basic needs. "Many students don't realize how many things are done for them at home," Skerbec said. Learn how to do your laundry, cook, make a budget and figure out what time you need to get to class on time. Many students gain weight their first year in college. To take care of your body, learn what foods are healthy and make time for exercise.

Don't overload on classes. The first term at college is busy. Students are meeting people, finding their way around campus and learning to live away from home while at the same time taking college classes. Skerbec suggests taking a lighter load the first term to get used to school.

Know how to make friends. It may sound like something you learn in elementary school, but Skerbec finds that some students have trouble with this. "Know that when you leave high school for college, you are leaving most of the securities and friends you have known and depended on for years," she said. Skerbec recommends that everyone live in a dorm their first year, because it is an easy way to meet people. Also, she says finding a club, team, religious or campus group with similar interests is a good way to meet people.

Know how to have a healthy dating relationship. Skerbec said relationships are the most common problem she sees in college students. People should not spend all of their social time with the person they are dating, Skerbec said. It comes back to hurt people if there is a break-up, because suddenly people find they do not have close friends for support. After a break-up, if you become chronically depressed or have problems getting school work finished, seek out help from friends or professional help that is available on campus.

Skerbec said it is important to keep these tips in mind, but usually it is not just one area out of whack that causes a problem. But if one thing gets out of hand, others can follow.

"Many kids who have breakdowns have many things out of balance," Skerbec said. "

Skerbec tells people to think of a set of scales and try to keep them balanced. Too much socializing and you won't get enough sleep; too much homework and you can become stressed; not eating right causes low energy levels. 

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