The Key to College Success: Summer

Incoming freshmen can flounder in the months before becoming a college student

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images / Getty Images

The race is over. You (or your son or daughter) got into college, accepted the offer of admission, bought the sweatshirt with your school’s logo. There’s just one obstacle standing in the way: summer. A growing body of research shows that the summer before college can be a treacherous time for teenagers, poised as they are between home and high school on the one side, and a more challenging and independent existence as a college student on the other.

(MORE: What High School Graduation Speeches Should Say but Don’t)

Take drinking, for example. Research published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 2010 reported that teenagers tend to increase their alcohol use during the summer before college and in their first semester. Such drinking can lead to tragedy: it’s estimated that more than 1,800 college students ages 18 to 24 die each year from alcohol-related injuries, including car crashes, and almost 600,000 are injured under the influence of alcohol.

A talk with parents can reduce undergraduates’ drinking — if the chat takes place during the summer before college. Scientists at Penn State sent the parents of incoming freshmen a handbook about college-student drinking and asked them to discuss the material with their sons or daughters either the summer before college or during the first semester. The students who had the talk with their parents before they matriculated were less likely to drink heavily once they got on campus.

(MORE: Does College Put Kids on a Party Pathway?)

In addition to drinking, incoming freshmen may also have gaps in their knowledge about other aspects of university life. A study of 25 high schools in six states conducted by researchers at Stanford University, for example, found that students were “generally unaware” of the fact that they had to place into college courses and of their school’s curricular requirements. In addition, many students held misconceptions such as “Getting into college is the hardest part” (actually, for most students completing college is the hardest part), and “I can take whatever classes I want when I get to college” (in fact, students’ courses may be determined by their level of preparation). Prospective freshmen can be sure they know what they’re getting into by reading all the literature that colleges send home over the summer, or by contacting an academic counselor at their school-to-be.

Connecting accepted students with counselors or other mentors may also head off another peril of the summer before college: the 5%, 10% or even 40% of accepted college students who don’t show up to matriculate in the fall. (The proportion varies by college and is especially high among low-income students.) Benjamin Castleman, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has been experimenting with methods to prevent this “summer melt.” He notes that college-bound high school graduates are faced with a number of potentially daunting tasks during the summer, at a time when they no longer have access to high school guidance counselors.

For example: colleges typically require students to take placement tests and fill out a ream of paperwork, including housing and medical forms, over the summer. Completing these tasks may be especially intimidating for low-income and first-generation college-bound students, Castleman notes, whose families may lack experience with the college-going process.

In addition, it’s only in the summer after high school graduation when students confront the reality of paying the first college bill, which often includes unanticipated costs like required health-insurance coverage. Castleman writes: “For college-intending students, successfully navigating the post-high-school summer thus requires a level of financial and college literacy that may be unrelated to their ability to succeed in the classroom. As a result, students who have already surmounted many obstacles to college enrollment and who would potentially earn high returns to post-secondary education may, nonetheless, fail to matriculate.”

(MORE: Money Talking: Is College Worth It?)

Castleman has found that pairing college-bound students with “peer mentors” — students already in college who have been trained to support and coach their mentees through the summer — improves the rate at which the mentees show up at college in September. Even more remarkable, a low-cost campaign of text messages — in which researchers sent recent high school graduates and their parents a series of eight to 10 text-message reminders of key tasks to complete over the summer — was just as effective in increasing the proportion of students who successfully made the transition to college. A little “summer nudging,” Castleman concludes, could be a key step in getting students all the way across the finish line.