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How to Adjust to College in a Global Pandemic

Tactics for combating variables out of one's control during freshman year.

Key points

  • There are physical and emotional hardships of transitioning from high school to college.
  • Taking things day by day can help incoming freshman avoid stress.
  • Recognizing and naming feelings can aid in the transition from high school to college.
  • Completing tasks alone can help freshman feel a sense of independence.
Freshman year during a pandemic is challenging in many ways.
Source: JESHOOTS-com/Pixabay

For the vast majority of people, COVID-19 has interfered with life in one way or another. Many have faced hardships of illness, death, and financial struggles. There are also often psychological battles whether we realize them or not. In the midst of global chaos, it's easy to forget the importance of mental health.

Even without a pandemic, however, transitions are difficult. For those transitioning from high school to college, there are both physical and emotional hardships, both of which have been compounded by COVID-19. Physically, for example, students might be stressed about washing or sanitizing their hands, disinfecting their room, wearing a mask, and staying six feet away from others. Emotionally, they may be struggling with isolation in hybrid (in-person and online) or online classes, which can cause a social disconnect between course material and peers. And alongside such corona-related stressors, many students will stress about maintaining their GPA and finding study techniques that work best for them, all while learning how to be independent.

Stress and Health

Stress is the body’s nonspecific response to any demand made on it. The science behind stress includes a chain reaction of physiological effects.

First, when the brain detects a stressor, the hypothalamus releases cortisol. Cortisol embeds itself into the bloodstream and locks into receptors in tissues and organs. This causes a rise in blood sugar and adrenaline, increasing one’s heart rate as muscles fill with oxygen. This is commonly known as “flight or fight,” or the body preparing itself for a threat (Yakowicz, 2015).

Stress reactions occur in response to external, cognitive, or environmental stimuli. Transitioning from high school to college, students experience all these and more. Distress is unpleasant or objectionable, whereas eustress is pleasant or beneficial (Carpenter, 2015). Distress includes studying for an exam, feeling burnt out, or anxiety about GPA. Conversely, eustress occurs after, for example, the effort put in to get an “A,” enjoyment in learning, or a good physical workout.

Schlossberg’s Transition Theory

There are three main transition categories: anticipated (predictable, such as graduation); unanticipated (not predictable, such as divorce or sudden death of a loved one); and non-events (expected but do not occur, such as failure to be admitted to medical school). Schlossberg identified four major factors that influence a person's ability to cope:

  • Situation: Timing, triggers, control, duration, and concurrent stress.
  • Self: Characteristics such as socioeconomic status, stage of life, age, gender, state of health, and ethnicity, psychological factors (like development, outlook, commitment, and values).
  • Support: Relationships—family, friends, and institutions/communities.

Those who modify a situation in order to control a problem may be able to manage their stress, thus alleviating ill effects (Evans, Forney & Guido-DiBrito, 1998).

Applying transition theory to a less-than-ideal pandemic provided a role change; workloads and efforts are different. First-generation Siena College student Niki Patel, for example, has “a lot of expectations placed on me from my parents. Not only do I need to make them proud, but I also need to find inner peace and happiness with the education and career I wish to pursue.” Patel has “great support from my family and friends that help relieve my stress and remind me of my core values, they have made the transition into college a more enjoyable experience and I have been able to learn strategies to help me get through the transition.” Some strategies include prioritizing, scheduling, and long-term and short-term goals awareness. Each motivated her to stay positive.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Motivation is the energizing force behind behaviors, giving them direction and purpose. For years, psychologists believed motivation was unitary—you either had it or you didn’t.

Intrinsic motivation is when one is genuinely interested. According to psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, intrinsic motivation is growth-oriented, driven by the inclination to explore and learn. Conversely, extrinsic motivation is about external reinforcement or avoiding punishment. Reinforcements could include verbal praise, money, fame, or degrees (Ebontempi, 2019).

Patel felt motivated by recognizing long- and short-term goals that helped her navigate the transition. “Taking things day by day" and having a blend of intrinsic and extrinsic components worked for her. Patel is earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology then pursuing a medical degree. For her, intrinsic motivation is “based on genuinely enjoying my courses” and “pursuing a career that aligns with my values. Despite my course load consisting mainly of prerequisites for medical school, I chose my major based on topics I truly found fascinating.” However, her extrinsic motivations consist of a future career potentially providing a sustainable salary, recognition, and job security.

Awareness, Learning, and Change

The key to coping with the transition from high school to college during a pandemic is recognizing one's feelings. Being aware of stress, isolation, and faltering motivation, while learning about the theories behind stress, transitions, and motivation can allow for better self-understanding.

"Looking back on my first year of college, I have gained a deeper understanding of my priorities. Every semester, I have decided to list the roles and responsibilities I have for the upcoming semester. This list can include all positions you may have such as 'President of Asian Student Association,' 'undergraduate student,' 'sister,' 'friend,' 'devotee,' 'daughter,' etc. and responsibilities such as 'study for physics,' 'pray,' 'study for the MCAT,' 'go grocery shopping,' etc.”

This list has allowed her to make time for every aspect of her life and realize where time is wasted or she is overextended.

Organization is important. Resources “such as purchasing a planner” and “writing down all important due dates during syllabus week” are helpful. Significant assignments are set. Patel likes to “cross them off as I complete them.” In Google Calendar, “I input my class schedule and work schedule,” and “set time for personal tasks like working out, grocery shopping, phoning parents, studying, etc.” Her “biggest realization was that it is OK to be alone. You do not always have to get meals with somebody, or study with a friend.” Completing tasks alone made her “feel a sense of independence,” and provided “inner peace” and “recognized what I needed. Inner peace is something you may not have the opportunity to see if you are constantly around other people… listen to your internal voice.”

The author acknowledges Siena College Student, Niki Patel for collaboration in research and providing information about her freshman experience during a worldwide pandemic.


Yakowicz, W. (2015). How to Reduce Stress by Learning the Science Behind What's Causing It. Retrieved from…

Carpenter, S. (2015). Visualizing psychology. Place of publication not identified: John Wiley.

Evans, Forney, & Guido-DiBrito. (1998). Schlossberg's Transition Theory. Retrieved from…

Ebontempi. (2019). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Implications in School, Work, and Psychological Well-Being. Retrieved from