Adjusting to College

Photo by Cole Hutson.

Going to college is an important transition. For many people, it is an exciting and enriching time. However, it can also pose challenges, especially if you are leaving home for the first time. New students must adjust to new people, new routines, new challenges, and new environments. It's important to remember that everyone is different in how they adjust to college. Some adjust quickly, and others take more time. If you are new to college and having a difficult time, don't panic—there are ways to get on track.

This page contains information primarily geared toward new first-year students. However, transfer, re-entry, and readmitted students may share some of the same struggles. The STARS office provides specific resources for these students.

Academic Adjustment

Many students, especially those who were high achievers in the past, find themselves feeling like "a small fish in a big pond" when arriving at college, surrounded by others who also did well in high school. Many students, whether they were high achievers or more in the middle academically in high school, have a hard time with college-level classes, struggling to understand the material and get good grades. It's also not uncommon to have "imposter syndrome"—secretly feeling like you are a fraud, that you won't measure up. This can be particularly true for students who experience discrimination due to their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or other factors, and for first-generation students, who may not have the same guidance from their families as students whose parents attended college. Seeking support from other students, mentors, and a community can help: Get to know UCSC's resource centers for people of color, women, queer and questioning students, and trans students. There are also specific resources for first-generation students, low-income students, and educationally disadvantaged students.

If you are struggling to adjust to the academic side of college, consider learning some new ways to succeed. You can also seek help from one of the many academic resources at UCSC. It's important to ask for help early on, before things get to a crisis point. Many students feel reluctant to or embarassed about asking for help, but it's important to reach out when you need to.

New People, New Relationships

First-year students must adapt to being away from family, old friends, and other familiar people and meet new people. College brings a unique opportunity to interact and live with students from various backgrounds and cultures. This can be great in many ways but also challenging at times. Some of the areas that can be difficult include living with roommates, making new friends, and sex and relationships.


One aspect of college that can be a big adjustment is living with roommates. Some new students have never shared a room with anyone; others shared a room with siblings or other family, who were familiar to them. Roommates may have different habits, boundaries, and styles than family and friends from home. Roommates may or may not develop close friendships, but communication and compromise can make living together easier. Talk to your roommates early on about expectations and agreements (e.g., bed and waking times, chores, guests). If everyone's expectations are different, try to find a middle ground; for example, if you want to have friends hang out in the room every day but your roommates aren't comfortable with that, see if you can go to your friends' rooms sometimes or agree on a schedule for having friends over that your roommates can live with. Ask your RAs or other housing staff for help if you are having trouble getting along.

Making Friends

Another change in college is making new friends. It's normal to feel anxious or unsure at times when meeting new people and to have a mix of feelings about being away from family, old friends, and perhaps romantic partners. It can be good to try and find a balance between keeping in touch with old friends and family and giving yourself the chance to get to know new people. Both are important.

Eveyone is different in their style of making friends—some people make friends quickly, whereas others like to take their time and get to know people slowly. Some find their "group" right away, and others need to look around or use trial and error to find where they fit. Extroverts are people who feel energized by social engagement, so for them, meeting new people may feel exciting and essential. They may need to learn to pull back to avoid getting overextended or jumping into relationships before they know if it's right. Introverts need quiet time to recharge, so for them, meeting new people may be more draining, requiring breaks from being with others. Introverts may need to push themselves to be more social and invest in getting to know new people. Personal style dictates whether you like to have a lot of friends or just a few and whether you prefer group activities to doing things more one on one. Be patient with yourself and remember that you don't have to make friends in the same way others do; try to get to know and accept your own style and don't feel you need to conform to others' expectations.

If you're having trouble making friends, try some of the following:

  • Attend activities organized by your residential life staff and/or college. This can be a good way to meet new people and bond with others who live nearby.
  • Check out student clubs and organizations and recreation and sports teams as a way to meet people with whom you may have things in common.
  • Get involved with a religious or spiritual community.
  • Say hi to people in your classes and res hall or in the dining hall. Ask "open" questions (those that require more than a "yes" or "no") to get the conversation going (e.g., "How do you like this class?" "What did you do last weekend?" "What did you think about the film?").
  • Take a risk: Talk to that person sitting alone. Ask your RA a question. Open up to your hallmate about feeling shy or homesick.
  • Volunteer! Getting involved with volunteer activities is a great way to feel good about helping others and get to know people by working together on a shared task.
  • Avoid getting caught up in partying. New students can get derailed during the first quarter by drug and alcohol issues. In fact, this phenomenon even has a name: The "college effect." Although it can be tempting to drink or use drugs because of new-found freedom at college or as a way to deal with social anxiety or fitting in, you don't want to crash and burn because of alcohol or other drugs. Remember that even though it may not seem that way, surveys show that the majority of first-year students at UCSC are not drinking or using drugs.

Romantic and Sexual Relationships

New students often struggle with romantic attraction, sex, and relationships. Some arrive at UCSC with a romantic and/or sexual history and others do not. Either way, it can be confusing to figure out who you want to get involved with and in what ways. It can be especially confusing if you have questions about your sexual orientation or gender identity. (If so, the Cantu Center is a great resource to check out.) One thing to keep in mind is that it's OK to wait to be sexually active if you don't feel ready. It may seem like everyone is having sex, that everyone is "hooking up" (casually engaging in intercourse, oral sex, anal sex, or other sexual activities), but that's not true: One national survey showed that almost a third of college students reported having no sex (defined as oral, vaginal, or anal) in the past year, and about 45% reported having only one sexual partner in the prior 12 months. Of those who reported having more than one partner in the past year, the average number of partners was just 2 or 3. Sex can be casual and fun or a way for people to create or express a special bond, but it depends on the situation, as well as other factors. It's important to think about your health and safety if you have sex. SHOP is a good resource for questions about sexual health. When sex is unwanted, it can be painful, confusing, and even traumatic. If you have questions about unwanted sex, check out UCSC's CARE Office.


Feeling homesick is normal for most new students. Signs of homesickness include thinking a lot about home, missing familiar people and experiences, having a negative view about your current situation, fantasizing about returning home, and feeling lonely or separate from others. More extreme symptoms may include social isolation and withdrawal, anxiety and mood problems, and engaging in risky behaviors (e.g., having unprotected sex, using alcohol or other drugs) to cope. There are some things you can do to manage homesickness:

  • Be realistic about your expectations of college: Expecting things to be perfect or to feel great all the time will set you up for disappointment.
  • Remember that some homesickness is to be expected and is nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Remember that others are probably homesick at times, even if they don't show it.
  • Be patient: Allow time to get used to your new environment.
  • Talk about your feelings with friends, family, an RA, a clergy person, or a counselor.
  • Decorate your room to make it your own, including pictures and mementos from home.
  • Make plans to visit home, but not every weekend.
  • Get involved in campus activities and invest in getting to know new people.
  • Explore campus and Santa Cruz.
  • Take care of yourself: Get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise regularly.
  • Don't ignore your feelings or try to cope with them in risky ways.
  • Build healthy ways to cope with your feelings: Take a walk, do yoga, breathe deeply, write in a journal, draw, play music, read a book for fun, play a video game.
  • Find balance: Too much studying can make you burn out, while too much relaxing or socializing can cause academic problems.

When the symptoms of homesickness are extreme, long lasting, or don't go away when you're in a situation that would normally provide relief, consider seeking help from a family member and/or CAPS.