Off to College: As Expectations Reign (or Rain?)


By Bill White

My son moves into his dorm at the University of Illinois on the 17th of this month – and so begins his freshman year of college. I have but one expectation – that he does all he can to find who he truly is and who he wants to be.

How well I remember my freshman year. I totally bombed academically, and that was because I was usually totally bombed. And some time during winter semester came the now infamous phone call from my father.

Businessman that he was, he ran something by me he referred to as R.O.I. Not having a clue what he was talking about, he quickly translated – Return On Investment. Needless to say, the reality of expectation hit me upside the head.

Life Expectations

Now, expectation can be a good and necessary thing. That is if it’s based in honest intentions and a clear understanding of self. But in their absence, expectation becomes toxic and potentially lethal in so many ways; including academic tailspins, emotional and mental distress, substance abuse, and suicide. Harsh words – true – but realistic.

So what are some of the statements and thoughts that point to the onset of expectitis?

  • “My parents are putting up so much dough for this – I just can’t let them down.”
  • “You’d better come through because this is going to cost your mother and me close to a quarter of a million dollars.”
  • “I’ve never gotten anything less than a 4.0, and I’m not going to start now – no matter what.”
  • “Your sister graduated with a 4.0, you know.”
  • “That scholarship money goes bye-bye if I don’t come through.”
  • “Don’t bother coming home if your GPA is less than 3.75.”
  • “If I don’t cut the mustard, I’m nothing but a failure.”
  • “You’re there to study and perform – nothing else.”

Powerful, aren’t they? And don’t fool yourself into believing they aren’t commonly uttered and thought.

So, student and parent(s), how can you immunize against toxic expectation, and make the very best of what’s surely an experience of a lifetime (besides studying into oblivion and placing ROI phone calls)?

Parent and Student

  • Commit to each other you’ll work together in a spirit of honesty and non-judgmental openness.
  • Communicate as frequently as possible – and listen to each other (and yourselves).
  • Agree that doing one’s best is all that can be asked – and stand by it


  • Accept and respect your student’s autonomy and decision-making processes.
  • Though this may be a dream come true for you, your student’s dream trumps.
  • Do not live your life – past, present, and future – through your student.


  • Pride can be a good thing, but it’s all too frequently foolish.
  • Research your support options before trouble arrives.
  • Respect your instincts and ask for help the moment you begin to think you’re in too deep.
  • Cut your parents a bit of slack, knowing they love and care about you (in spite of thinking they’re wrong).

Registration Day

My son and I participated in one of the College of Engineering’s registration days several weeks ago. And the Academic Program Coordinator spoke to students and parents during an introductory presentation.

I was pleased to hear her make this point. All of the students in the auditorium are top-drawer academic achievers. Indeed, most were able to do extremely well in high school without a whole lot of brain sweat. Well, the party’s over. And, students, when you find yourself in the midst of turmoil – and you will – you need to come see us, tell us what’s on your mind, and ask for help.

What a toxic expectation buster! But will her advice be followed? Hmmm, I’m not so sure. And if it isn’t you can take it to Vegas that toxic expectation has plenty to do with it.

Look Within

For student and parent alike, heading off to college is such a wonderful time. But to make the very best of it we must take a long look deep within; examining the very foundation of our anticipation, joy, pride – and expectations.

Only then does expectation reign!

Author Information

Bill White is a blogger, author, and counselor; who produces a sharing and learning blog for those enduring depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Stop by and participate at


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Categories: Personal Advice