Transition to College Advice from the Comfort Ability Peer Advisory Board
If you are reading this, then you probably are a person with chronic pain or functional symptoms. As a group of teens and young adults who have been down this road, we took a look back at our own personal experiences. Reflecting back at the end of high school and transition to college, we reflected on some things we wish had known in advance. While not all our tips will work for everyone, we hope you find some of these tips will help to make your own journey a little easier.
Considerations in Applying to Colleges:
The most important thing in the recovery process is to continue moving towards your goals. On the college front, that usually requires a thoughtful and flexible approach. Just as there is no single coping skill that works for every person with pain or functional symptoms, there is no single best way to plan for the transition to college. Below are some general tips that are important to keep in mind:
- A good college is one that is a good fit for you. Talk to your family, trusted teachers, and supportive members on your medical team to figure out what factors will be most important to consider in determining your best overall fit.
- It’s normal to feel a little worried about managing your first year at college, but don’t let that fear stand in your way. Instead, you may want to consider some strategies that will help to ease you into college life:
- Consider taking a lighter class load or attending as a part-time student for the first year. This can reduce anxiety and help protect time for exercise, relaxation, and important rehabilitation therapies so you will stay well-balanced.
- Choose a college closer to home. Staying within a few hours of home, at least for the first year, may make it easier to stay connected to supportive family or local providers. Once you have confidence in your ability to manage your health in college, you can branch out further.
- Think about how you could adapt your course schedule to fit your needs. Some people find it helpful to spread classes across the week while others prefer to condense them into a few days, so they have some “off days” in between. It can also be helpful to take a mix of in-person and online or virtual classes to reduce physical demands in the short-term. The goal is to build a schedule that gives you the flexibility you need to be successful.
- Research college accessibility services. If you anticipate that your health may impact your function in college, it’s good to know, before you start, what services are available to support you. Services may include housing preferences, academic accommodations, or behavioral health supports.
- Be open to sharing your experience and what you've learned along the way. Most college applications (including the Common Application) have space to share “extra information.” Consider using this space to explain your experience with chronic symptoms and how it influenced your high school experience. Be sure to focus on what you’ve learned about yourself, your values, or your career goals as a result.
College visits are always a good idea for prospective students but may be even more important for students who are actively thinking about how to best manage their health at school. Keep these important tips in mind when planning your visit.
- Don’t skip a college visit due to the symptoms. If you are in the middle of a symptom flare, or still struggling with significant discomfort during college tour season, you can request an “accessible tour.” Be sure to let the college know specifically what physical accommodations you may need. If that’s not an option, a virtual tour may be offered.
- Overnight visits can be a fun way to experience college life. If you are doing an overnight visit and you are worried about physical limitations, just let the college admissions office know of any accommodations you may need. For example, if walking is difficult, you may want to request a room on the ground floor.
- Ask the college accessibility office (or admissions office) if you can connect to a current student who uses accommodation services. This may not be offered at all schools (due to privacy reasons) but it can be worth asking because current students can offer helpful insight into how the college handles accommodations.
- Visit the college health center and counseling services so you are familiar with what they offer. Most students don’t fully transition their health care team when they go to college, but it’s helpful to know what’s available on campus if you should need quick access to care.
Preparing for Academic Success:
You’ve made it through high school, so you clearly know how to be a successful student. And, in college, many students find the academic schedule is easier to navigate. For example, there is often flexibility in scheduling courses and most classes meet only a few times a week. The real secret to academic success in college is planning ahead and maintaining good communication with student services and with professors.
- If you benefitted from academic or physical accommodations in your senior year of high school, consider that these may also be helpful during your first year of college. Once you decide where you will go to college, contact the accessibility office and let them know what accommodations you might need. This can be a lengthy process and often requires documentation from your healthcare providers, so don’t wait until the last minute. Remember, it’s always better to put an accommodation in place and not need it, then to need it and not have it!
- Get to know the resources that your college has to support students. Most schools offer a wide range of academic support services such as peer tutors, academic support centers, library resources, academic deans, or class advisors. Find out what might be available to you and consider if you might want to proactively get involved.
- Communicate with your professors. Whether or not you need formal academic accommodations, it can be helpful to informally connect with your professors. A simple conversation about how your health may have impacted your school performance in the past and a plan for how to manage if there is a problem during the semester can be very constructive.
- If you know you will miss a class, ask a friend or professor to record it. Attending classes on a routine basis is essential in college. However, if you have to miss a class for an important reason plan ahead and make it a priority to get the lecture recorded so you don’t miss out. Some professors are also willing to share their notes or slides. Don’t be shy about asking!
- Try to get all of your textbooks electronically. While it can help to have a hard copy of your textbook, these can be heavy to lug around campus. Keep the hard copies in your room and travel light with the electronic or scanned versions of your text on your computer. If electronic versions aren’t readily available, you can check with the accessibility office to see if they can help to support this request.
- Find the buildings and rooms for all of your classes before the first day. Then, find the easiest route to each class and see how long it takes to get there when you’re going at a relaxed pace. This will greatly reduce the stress of racing to your classes or worse, showing up late on your first day!
Managing your Healthcare at College:
- Make a pre-college health plan with your doctors and family. Before you leave for college it’s good to know how you will plan to take care of yourself if your symptoms flare up that results in a bad day, a tough week, or ongoing challenges. Think about how you will access helpful interventions such as physical therapy or behavioral health support, how you will get medications, and what active steps you will take to support your college life.
- Plan for success. If you know that the symptoms can zap your energy or limit your physical function, make choices that are likely to make managing your health a little easier. For example, try to pick a residence hall that is close to essential places you will go such as main campus, a grocery store, and public transportation.
- Research what’s near you. Even if you’re not formally transitioning your healthcare to your college town, it’s still worthwhile to consider what local supports-- within both the college and the community --are available to you. Keep in mind that sometimes colleges offer services, such as physical therapy, but they may not be widely advertised. It can take some digging to discover options, but it’s worth it!
You’ve finally picked your school—Congratulations! -- and it’s time to move in! This is an exciting day, but it can also be stressful. With a little planning, this day can go smoothly and set you up for a great start to the year.
- Make a clear action plan for move-in day. Think about how you will get your things set up and enlist the help of a family member or friend who can lend a hand. It can be useful to plan some breaks or rest times during the day, so you don’t accidently over-do it with all the excitement!
- If you have symptoms that limit your function, you may be able to request an early move-in date. This can help to reduce some of the stress of the busy move in hustle.
- If you will have one or more roommates, be honest about your health habits and needs. Don’t play down what you need to stay on top of managing your symptoms. Start from the beginning agreeing on some rules for your shared space so everyone can get off to a good start.
- First-year orientation is a fun way to meet people and explore your school, but it’s OK to pace yourself a bit. Orientations can be quite busy, but you usually don’t have to attend every event. Ask around and find out what is essential and where you might benefit from taking a break or spending time getting to know a few classmates in a more relaxed setting.
College and COVID-19*
Everything about college –the application process, campus visits, health services and academics –has been in flux as a result of the coronavirus. Colleges will likely continue to change their protocols depending on local exposure risks, economic considerations, and whether students are on campus, remote or hybrid learning this year. Yet, even with the significant disruption of COVID-19, college can be a great next step for many students.
If you want to connect to a college student who is successfully navigating college this year, click below and select “Adolescent/Young Adult Peer Advisor” from our “Ask an Expert” feature. You can ask anything about college life and one of our peer advisors will respond!
© The Comfort Ability, 2020 All rights reserved. Publication Date 8/25/2020. Revised 8/30/2023. For more information about the Peer Advisory Board, click here.