You Got This: Coping with the First Few Weeks of School

Whether you’re just starting at a new school, your first year of high school, or your first year of college, it can be a scary, daunting experience. Some seem to handle it with grace and little anxiety, while the rest of us bite through our fingernails and dread the first few days or weeks of school.

What’s it going to be like this year? Will anyone like me? Will I be able to make new friends? How am I going to be able to deal with the class load and all the activities I have scheduled?

So how do you help yourself through these next couple of days and weeks? I have some ideas. Most importantly, though, is this: You got this. You will make it through these days and weeks ahead intact.

1. Answer the Worrying Thoughts

Sometimes we can cause our own worry and fear by the thoughts running around in our heads. This just doesn’t happen to kids or teenagers — it happens to everyone. The thoughts can run out of control sometimes, building us up into a state of worry that can feel overwhelming.

You can combat these irrational thoughts (what psychologists call cognitive distortions) by answering them with rational replies.

“I look horrible and everyone’s going to be looking at me.” => “Everyone’s worried about how they look, they’re not going to be looking at me any more than usual.”

“I’m not sure I’m going to be able to hack this level of school.” => “I’ve done well up to this point, I know how to study when needed, so there’s no reason this year is going to be significantly different than last year.”

“It’s so scary being in new place. What if I don’t make any friends?” => “Going some place new is always scary — but also can be exhilarating as nobody knows me so I can reinvent myself, making friends as I always do.”

2. Get Organized

Nothing will sink you faster than being a disorganized mess in school. If you can never find a pencil, have a notebook at the ready, or find your laptop is once again on zero battery, you’re not going to be able to retain as much of what you learn.

Do whatever works for you in terms of what “organization” looks like in your world. For some, that means being meticulous in their weekly planning and then sticking to it. For others it may simply mean coming to class not completely unprepared. The key is to make an effort. I know it may seem like a huge hassle and not important, but it can make the difference between a good semester or period, or a really bad one.

3. Engage in Effective Study Habits

Most students engage in highly ineffective study habits. It may be because that’s what they learned from their parents, or by asking their friends. But unfortunately these three study habits don’t help people as much as others do: re-reading (reading a chapter or your notes over and over again); highlighting and underlining; and summarizing (boiling down the key points of your notes or a book chapter in an outline or something similar).

Instead, focus on the two habits that research has shown to actually improve grades and help you retain material: practice testing and NOT cramming. Practice testing is where you take the practice quizzes or tests at the end of a book chapter. Need more practice? Ask a friend or classmate to come up with another one or two, and then exchange quizzes to help you learn the material.

Not waiting until the night before the test or due date for the paper is the other effective technique. I know this will not go over well with procrastinators. But studying throughout the semester or period — and not waiting until the end or the last moment — is far more effective than cramming.

4. Force Yourself Outside of Your Comfort Zone

Most people — yes, even teens and young adults — get comfortable in doing what they’ve always done. We get into patterns of behavior that become familiar, like a shoe you’ve worn over and over again. You know how to wear the persona you’ve developed to keep the world at bay and make you feel comfortable in your own skin. For most people, this sort of thing works most of the time.

Sometimes, however, a new situation can challenge that persona and those comfortable patterns of behavior. You have one of two choices: double-down on being comfortable or force yourself to go outside of your comfort zone (maybe just this once) and try something different. Different can be exciting and fun, but it can also be challenging and a little scary. You never know, though, what acting somewhat differently in a situation may bring you.

5. Rely on Your Friends & Social Support System

Your friends are there for a reason — to not only share in the fun times you have, but help each other out during the difficult times. The times you get dumped by a girl or boy. The times you feel overwhelmed by school or classes or an upcoming test.

New school and don’t have any friends? Turn to the activities you share in common, or turn to the one or two classes that you truly enjoy and look at others in the class who also seem to be into it as much as you are. Shared experiences form the basis of lasting friendships. It can be scary introducing yourself and trying to make new friends, but if you don’t try, you’ll never know.* * *

You got this. It may not feel like you do, but trust me when I say that you have a lot more strength and capacity than you may appreciate.

And if you need more help than this article can provide, please remember that you have additional resources at your disposal. Most colleges, for instance, offer free counseling to their students (check out the student counseling center on your campus). And most high schools have a guidance counselor or school psychologist available to talk to you about whatever’s on your mind. Please reach out to someone in your life if you need help.

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