Student Success Strategies for Incoming Freshmen

5 min read

A student's first year of college is never easy, and deeply understanding their emotional experience helps your institution guide them with extra support when they need it most.

This is where the W-Curve theory comes in handy.

What is the W-Curve?

The W-Curve theory is a five-stage theory that maps the emotional pattern of most incoming students during their first year in college. It outlines a series of challenges that many students face when introduced to the collegiate environment with guidance on how to help them manage the transition.


How does it help?

When you align your student engagement strategy to the challenges your students are facing, you can do more to ensure their success through the first year. Schools that strategically plan their student communications can expect:

  •  Higher retention rates
  • Increased student engagement
  • Higher course success rates
  • Increases in year-over-year enrollment

Stage One: The Honeymoon Phase

More often than not, incoming freshmen are EXCITED! They can't wait to live independently and meet new people, searching for other incoming students on social media before the year even starts. The thrill of starting a new chapter comes paired with college orientations, events, and activities throughout the first week. They begin establishing new relationships with their room and floormates.


Communication During the Honeymoon Phase

Create an online information hub for students to access information to upcoming events, campus maps, and quick links with everything they need to get them through their first couple of weeks.

If your website has a chatbot, build out a conversation flow to help guide new students as they come looking for answers. At a minimum, set it up with frequently asked questions. If you have an AI chatbot, make sure it's set up so they can complete new student tasks, book time with your team, and register for upcoming events.

Use email communications and text updates to keep students up to date with any event registration information and upcoming deadlines. The more you can help students connect with their peers and get comfortable at their new home, the better.


Stage Two: Culture Shock

Once the novelty of the first week fades, reality sets in. With syllabus outlined of months of courseworks, the challenges of navigating campus, and more confusion, college might not match up to the over-hyped experience they've made it out to be in their minds. Students may begin to feel lost and often start comparing their own experiences to other students who seem to be having a better time. Classes kick-off, and they start feeling a new level of difficulty in their academic life. This is when students start feeling homesick for the first time, and many who live nearby start making weekend trips home.


Helping Students Through Culture Shock

Your students are feeling lost. Plan texting campaigns for freshman classes between weeks two and four with information and prompts to access your institution's support resources. Separate texts can include information on academic and tutoring resources, mental health support, safety information, and anything else you can offer to help them better acclimate to their new environment.


Stage Three: Initial Adjustment

In stage three, students start settling into the demands and cadence of college life. Their experience improves as they begin making friends outside of their initial connections and developing a social and academic routine. If they were having issues with their roommate, they'll often subside a bit in this stage.


Making the Adjustment Phase a Bit Easier

At this point, between early October and late November, students are beginning to hit their stride. As they start making new connections and building new social circles, send email updates on upcoming events and information that would be relevant to them. Think upcoming social and athletic events, charitable events, clubs, and intramural sports. They're starting to branch out and meet new people. You can help them by keeping them updated and sharing information on groups and communities for them to join.

If your school uses texting, segment further within the freshman class and make sure you've personalized your communications. For example, it wouldn't make sense to prompt a D1 athlete to join an intramural sports club. The more you can personalize by interests and preferences, the better. If you haven't asked students what they're interested in learning about yet, now might be a good time to start. Ensure your online information hub and chatbot are populated with this information for when students come looking for it.


Stage Four: Mental Isolation

This stage usually kicks in after winter break when they've been home for an extended period of time. Home doesn't feel like home anymore, but school doesn't feel like home yet either. Students start second-guessing their college choice and long for a sense of belonging. They miss the comfort of home and feelings of homesickness increase. Values and beliefs begin to shift, roommate problems resurface, and lingering high school relationships take a hit in this stage.


Offer the Support They Need

January through March is a difficult stretch for freshmen. Help foster connection and community engagement by keeping students updated with upcoming events via email. Revisit some of the messaging you used in phase two around mental health support.

Students are less likely to reach out for help proactively for mental health support. Make sure there's information easily available on your website via your information hub, chatbot, and smart search. Use texting to ensure the delivery of information around support services that are available.


Stage Five: Acceptance and Integration

At last, freshmen find a sense of balance and settle into the college experience. Students begin feeling more comfortable as they develop deeper relationships in their social lives and hit a stride with their professors. Campus starts feeling like home and their hometown dependence begins to wane.


Looking to Sophomore Year

Reducing summer melt starts in the spring, and your communication strategy can shift to increasing student retention for the next academic year.

A quick and easy checklist for this phase:
  • Set your students up for academic success! Share tutoring schedules and study resources to get them through finals. 
  • Send invitations and reminders to end-of-the-year events. Double down on community so they're excited to come back next year!
  • Create a toolkit and information hub focused on student retention, giving students the knowledge and resources they need to return to campus come fall. Send text reminders for key deadlines and dates, helping guide students through any complex processes or forms. If there's room to simplify any processes here, do so ASAP to reduce drop rates.



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