Making the Transition to College: The W-Curve

The W-Curve is a predictable pattern of stages occurs when a person experiences culture shock. This is based upon research done with students studying abroad. Zeller and Mosier (1993) found that the W-Curve could also be applied to first-year college students and the phases they go through in adapting to a new culture.

w curve

It’s normal to have the ups and downs of the W-Curve, and knowing about this may help make the transition easier. At the first signs of culture shock, some first-year students may think this means they have made a mistake about going to college or that they have chosen the wrong school. If they see that this is just part of journey that everyone goes through, they may be better able to take it all in stride.


The Honeymoon starts before students first arrive on campus. It usually begins once a student has chosen and been accepted to a college and builds as students attend Orientation programs, get their housing assignments, and begin planning for school to start. Although they may also experience some nervousness, the overall feeling is generally one of excitement and positive anticipation. It is common for students to begin to have some feelings of homesickness mixed in with all of the fun and energy of a new beginning.

Culture Shock

As the newness of the college culture begins to wear off, first-year students begin to deal with the reality of the many adjustments they are experiencing. In the Residence Halls students are adapting to having roommates, sharing a room, shared bathrooms, and lots of neighbors.  Elsewhere on campus, they are growing accustomed to eating in a cafeteria, and the diversity that comes with meeting people from different backgrounds and cultures.

The process of making new friends is fun, but can also be draining. On the academic side of college life, Zeller and Mosier argue, “the unfamiliar territory of the college classroom also creates dissonance. Large lecture classes, unclear guidelines for note taking and studying, and unfamiliar or somewhat distant faculty may work together in producing potential adjustment difficulties for a student.

Homesickness may increase and some students may try to deal with this by maintaining strong ties to their home community, often going home on weekends and staying in constant contact with friends from home, and possibly even continuing a romantic relationship. Developmental life cycle tasks are also continuing such as becoming self-sufficient, establishing identity, and accepting responsibility for their actions.

Initial Adjustment

As initial adjustments are made, first-year students experience an upswing as they have successfully managed many of the issues that have come their way. Simply overcoming the culture shock stage brings about a sense of well-being. They fall into a routine as they gain confidence in their ability to handle the academic and social environment of college.

Mental Isolation

This is a time of feeling caught between two worlds. The new college environment is still not as comfortable as home used to be, and home is now not as familiar as it once was. Students may have a sense of not completely belonging in either place.

With all of the activity occurring when first coming to college, students may not realize how much they miss home until they have been away for quite awhile. And even then, going home to visit can still leave them feeling homesick for a home environment that no longer seems to exist. It’s shocking to find that changes have happened at home, too, and not having been in on these changes on a day-to-day basis can be upsetting.

Acceptance & Integration

As students become more involved in campus opportunities, gain some history with new friends, get to know some faculty and staff members, they begin to feel a true connection to the campus community.  They begin to have a more balanced and realistic view of the university, seeing and integrating the good experiences with the challenges. It may be shocking for a parent to hear their college son or daughter refer to college as “home.” 

Source: Journal of College and University Student Housing, Volume 23, No. 2, 1993. Culture Shock and The First-Year Experience by William J. Zeller and Robert Mosier

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