Information for Families of First-Year Students

The transition from high school to college is an important milestone in the life of your student. While every student is different, feelings of nervousness, excitement, pressure, and success are quite common. The following timeline is designed to provide you with information about transitions that students commonly face during their first year of college, along with some personalized advice and conversation starters.

New Student Timeline

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Late Summer

The weeks leading up to the start of classes can be filled with anxiety and anticipation. Students may be wondering whether they will like it at UW–Madison. Will they like their roommates? Will they make friends? Will they be able to succeed in their classes? What will happen to their relationships with high school friends and family members?

Advice for parents and families

Be prepared for your student’s (and your own) conflicting emotions as the day of departure approaches. Discomfort is part of the process. Talk about academic expectations and encourage your student to set goals. Make a financial plan and openly discuss payment/spending expectations. Talk about how often you plan to communicate with each other. Discuss the use of alcohol and other personal choices your student will be making. Encourage responsibility, but know you cannot control what happens.

Conversation starters

  • What are you most looking forward to about attending UW–Madison?
  • What are you most nervous about?
  • What plans do you have for saying goodbye to friends who are staying home or going to other schools?
  • What plans do you have to stay in touch?


As students move to campus and begin classes, they are faced with new opportunities to make their own choices and experience new freedoms. Feelings of homesickness and the desire for frequent contact with family members are common. Students are also getting to know their roommates, making new friends on campus, and finding their way around. This tends to be a time when students incur a lot of expenses for items such as textbooks, school supplies, and room decorations/furnishings.

Advice for parents and families

Remember that you are now transitioning into being a coach or mentor to your student. Listen with an open mind and be supportive. Encourage your student to attend campus welcome activities and meet new friends. Ask about classes, friends, and opportunities for involvement.

Conversation starters

  • What is your roommate like?
  • Which classes seem most interesting to you?
  • Have you found a good place to study?
  • What events have you attended?
  • Is the amount of money we agreed upon working out?


Classes are in full swing, and students are beginning to get feedback on their progress. Some will experience shock at the amount of work they have for their classes and may struggle with managing their time. Others will be disappointed about grades on their first exams or papers. Roommate conflicts may also flare up at this time after the initial “honeymoon” phase is over. In addition, course registration for spring is quickly approaching, and students will be making plans with their academic advisors. Some students are already discussing plans to move off campus for next fall. Of course, life will still continue at home, and students will want to stay informed about what’s going on with their families.

Advice for parents and families

To be reassuring to your student, express confidence that your student can succeed in this environment. Have two-way conversations: let your student know what’s going on at home and don’t make any major changes—moving, vacations, remodeling your student’s room, etc.—without talking about it first.

Talk about study skills and time management, and refer to campus resources. Encourage your student to approach instructors for help and consult with an academic advisor when selecting next semester’s classes.

Discuss plans for upcoming events, such as a trip home for Thanksgiving. Break periods are approaching quickly—how will this change things in your home? Ask about study time, workload, and involvement in campus organizations/activities.

As your student begins to make housing decisions for next year, talk about all of the factors to consider, including whether to remain on campus or move off campus, and how to handle meals. Pay special attention to what type of living environment will help your student be most successful academically. If your student chooses to live off campus, encourage taking plenty of time to make a decision. Important information about living off campus, and the most comprehensive listings for available rentals in downtown Madison, can be found at the Campus Area Housing website.

Conversation starters

  • How are you managing the workload? What is your study schedule?
  • What courses are you thinking of taking next semester?
  • Are you thinking about joining any groups or clubs or activities? Which ones? Why?
  • Have you met with any of your professors or teaching assistants?
  • What can you do differently on your next exam/paper to do better?


As final exams approach, students may feel more stress about academics. This, combined with the onset of winter weather in Wisconsin, can leave some students feeling run down. While they may be excited for the semester to end, some students are also disappointed about missing holiday preparations at home.

Advice for parents and families

Sending a care package that includes healthy snacks, cold remedies, and favorite holiday items from home can go a long way to boosting your student’s spirits (and immunity to illness). Discuss plans for winter break, including vacation time, working, or class preparation. Understand that planning for the holidays is not the same without everyone present.

Conversation starters

  • What are you doing to stay well during finals week?
  • Which exams are you most concerned about?
  • What could I send you to make you feel better?
  • What do you want to do at home during your break?

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Winter Break

With final exams finished, many students return home for winter break, and there may be concerns about how they will adjust to routines at home. For many, winter break is an opportunity to catch up on sleep and reconnect with friends they haven’t seen in months. They will also begin to receive their first-semester grades and experience joy, disappointment, or relief.

Advice for parents and families

Conversations about expectations and schedules before and after your student returns home can help ease the transition for all family members.

Conversation starters

  • Let’s talk about how the rules will change for you when you are home, now that you are a college student.
  • What was the best part of your first semester in college?
  • What would you do differently?
  • What classes are you taking next semester?
  • Have you thought about where you are going to live next year?


Students should strive to return from winter break with renewed energy for the semester ahead. This is a typical time for students to reassess their time-management strategies and turn over a new leaf, if necessary. Students may also engage in more exploration about their majors or careers, changing their minds or solidifying previous choices. Also, students begin thinking about spring break, including making plans for travel, work, or catching up on coursework.

Advice for parents and families

The house is empty again — it’s a roller coaster ride! You might feel some anxiety about your student’s grades. This is a good time to review or revise budgets based on a semester’s worth of experience. Also ask what changes might need to occur to ensure academic success. Encourage spring break safety. If you haven’t done so already, talk with your student about plans for living arrangements next year. Also see October–November’s advice for parents and families regarding making housing decisions.

Conversation starters

  • What do you like about your new classes?
  • Are you doing anything differently with your studying this semester?
  • Have you decided what you are doing for spring break?
  • Tell me about your good friends on campus.
  • Have you decided where to live next year?


Spring break comes and goes, and many students start making plans for the summer, all in the midst of another set of midterms. Most students feel more confident with their time-management skills and experience less stress with their exams this time around. They will also be enrolling in classes for the fall and considering options for the summer. Some students will have mixed feelings about leaving Madison for the summer, and others will decide to stay to take classes and/or pursue summer work opportunities. As the spring semester ends, you are likely to be amazed at the changes in your student and all that your student has accomplished this year.

Advice for parents and families

With a year under your student’s belt, this is a good time to check in about credit card use. Talk about any changes that should be made for academic success. Encourage your student to take advantage of Choosing a Major Workshops offered by Cross College Advising Service. Be thinking about what your own plans are for the summer. If your student is returning home, discuss expectations regarding rules and responsibilities for the summer as well as expectations for earning money and saving for the upcoming year.

Conversation starters

  • What courses are you taking next year? Are you starting to narrow in on a possible major?
  • What value could taking a summer course provide? Have you discussed summer courses with your advisor?
  • What are you looking forward to about your living arrangements for next year?
  • How do you think you have changed this year?
  • What do you wish you had done differently in your first year of college?
  • I am so proud of everything you have learned and accomplished this year!

Advice for Parents and Families

  • Express your confidence that your student will be able to successfully navigate this new environment. By serving more as a coach and mentor than a problem solver, you will help your student develop this ability.
  • Talk with your student about how often you will communicate by phone, letter, e-mail, or text message. Discuss the frequency of visits home and family visits to campus, and be aware that these tend to change semester by semester.
  • Talk with your student about expectations regarding academics, major exploration, and careers. Encourage your student to set academic goals. Be aware that the college learning environment is very different from high school, and students may not immediately earn the same superior grades as they did previously.
  • Make a financial plan and talk about how your student intends to pay for expenses. Discuss payment/ spending/employment options.
  • Discuss the use of alcohol and other personal choices that your student will be making. Encourage responsibility, but know that you cannot control everything that happens.
  • Acknowledge that college is a time for students to try new things and meet people who might be different from them in a variety of ways. Be supportive as your student engages in new activities and moves outside previous comfort zones.
  • Inform your student about major changes at home (moving, remodeling bedroom, etc.).
  • Help your student stay connected to activities at home. Acknowledge that your student may be sad about missing family birthdays and holidays and community events. Find creative ways to keep your student involved and informed.
  • Send care packages with notes from home, practical items, or treats to share with roommates and friends. These are especially welcome during more stressful times of the semester.

Common Conversation Topics

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Homesickness: Should I Be Worried?

Homesickness is normal! As with any major change in life, students will have their ups and downs. Many students feel homesick at one time or another during their first year. Here are some suggestions for ways you can be supportive. Reassure your student that this is normal. Remember, this is a major life transition, which is not often easy.

  • Listen with an open mind and be reassuring. Let students know that you believe they will succeed. Use the information you learned at SOAR and through the Parent and Family Program to refer your student back to on-campus resources and services that can help.
  • Encourage your student to make friends. For some students, it may be better to look around for other students who are alone and strike up a conversation. For others, it is better to connect with a group of students. If the first person is not someone your student connects with, the second or third might be.
  • Encourage your student to attend events and join organizations. There are nearly 1,000 student organizations at UW–Madison. Students should continue doing things they love—the activities that have contributed to their success in getting to this point—as well as try new things. Volunteering or getting a job are also great ways to connect with other students and learn outside of the classroom.
  • Encourage your student to talk to a House Fellow or Resident Life Coordinator. House Fellows are trained and experienced in supporting students who are homesick. They also have access to resources and people who can help.
  • University Health Services is an excellent, free, confidential resource for students who are homesick. For assistance with urgent mental health concerns, 24-hour crisis intervention services are available to UW–Madison students, and to others concerned about a UW–Madison student, by calling 608-265-5600 (option 9).

Roommate Conflict

It’s completely normal for conflict to develop between roommates as both students may be sharing a room for the first time, perhaps with someone who is quite different from themselves. Most students are able to work things out when they discuss issues directly, listen to each other, and remain flexible.

You can be supportive through this process by referring your student to resources provided by University Housing, rather than by getting directly involved yourself. If the roommates cannot work things out themselves, encourage your student to contact the House Fellow. House Fellows undergo a rigorous selection and training process. An important role of House Fellows is to help students create a comfortable living situation. They are trained in conflict resolution and are available to discuss roommate conflicts privately or with roommates to find a compromise. If this does not seem to improve the situation, the House Fellow will then contact the appropriate staff within University Housing to seek further solutions.

Coming Home for the Summer

When your student comes home for the summer after the first year at college, life will be different from what it was before. Although that seems obvious, without giving it some prior thought, misunderstandings and conflicts can arise when your student seems to be following a script that is different from yours.

Living away from home for a school year is a life-changing event, and your student will be comfortable with and used to independence, especially after spending the last year in an unsupervised environment. This could be an area of conflict if you expect a phone call to let you know when your student will be home. Be sure to negotiate conflicts early to avoid tensions later on.

On the other hand, you may be anticipating newfound maturity and independence, and be disappointed to find the kitchen sink filled with dirty dishes, laundry left for you to do, and the gas tank on empty when you need the car. It can be daunting to realize that even though your student is now technically an adult, your role as a mentor and coach is still in play. In the process of launching your student as an independent adult, you will need to continue reinventing just what that role is.

You also may think you know your student’s interests and identity, but you could find that your student has made some major changes without discussing those changes with you. The young woman who was set on being a veterinarian may now want to study history, and she may also refuse to participate in the family religion. The young man who was adamantly opposed to an earring may come home with a tattoo or a nose ring.

There may be some emotional and rocky times during the summer, but your lives will be enriched if mutual respect and listening are the guides you and your student establish for staying connected with each other.