Here are my two cents.
Every single high school senior will tell you, “get involved!”. To awkward freshman ears it only sounds like a come-on to get kids to join the clubs that the seniors have formed to pad their college resumes, but it is great advice. It is the best way to instantly stop feeling like an outsider. The longer they resist getting involved, the longer they are going to feel like they don’t have any friends. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard, “I wish I had done this in freshman year”, or, “why didn’t I ever do that?”.
Take the help offered. Many schools large and small have “Big Sibs” or other upper classmen as mentors. These kids have been there and really want to help. These students often go completely unused and it is a shame because they could help the freshmen navigate course selection, give great long term college prep advice, fill students in on what is expected from specific teachers and share their own personal tales of social awkwardness. Frankly, I needed my own Big Sib. I would have called them every day! Of course I used the wonderful Parent Coordinators at my kids’ schools, but you may not have that option if your school has cut their budget line.
When they are arranging their schedule, encourage them to try for a class that is a challenge (this seems like a no brainer, but sometimes it pays to be a broken record). 9 times out of 10, it will be more interesting. Tell them not to give up trying for the classes they want if their schedule doesn't seem to allow for the class. Many schedule changes are made in the first couple weeks of school. Many parents are (rightly) afraid that their reticent child will take what is offered, go with the status quo and least amount of homework and leave it at that. If they are intimidated with the lines at the guidance office, encourage them to go to a friendly teacher or the AP in the subject to help them run interference about gaining access to a class.
Their grades count for college from the first day. Everybody needs some time to acclimate, and no one wants to think about the next grueling search just after they have just finished one, but they must if they are ambitious. Let me just say that they don’t need to get a name to get a great education (check out Colleges That Change Lives) but some kids won’t budge from the name brand. If your child thinks they have what it takes to get into a highly selective college, their grades better look stellar. For most kids the reality sinks in somewhere around junior year long after they grade point average is beyond repair. There are tons of great schools for every kid and college is never a lost cause, but if they want to go to a “name” they better be focused on it from the first day. Frankly, the kids that are the possible candidates usually don’t need telling. There are plenty of great schools for everyone, so don’t ruin your relationship with your child over a grade point average. One way to give them the big picture is to drop in on beautiful colleges when you are on vacation. Don’t go just for the school, but when in Boston… Let them know what is required for the students that attend, they will either get the picture and step up, or not. Here is a under handed way to get your child to sit up and take notice. Write to a college and request their “Look Book”. Then when it arrives with your child’s name on it say, “wow, contacting a sophomore! Interesting!”
There are no class lists in high school. Their friends will come from all over the city and their cell phone batteries will inevitably run out at 10pm. Work out some system for contacting them, their friends and other parents in an emergency. By the time they are juniors you should know how much you can trust them to be straight with you and to assess a good or bad situation. Freshman year is an extremely delicate time for parenting. “Don’t you trust me?” shouldn’t enter into it. They don’t have enough experience to know about the pitfalls and you may trust them, but if they don’t share their friends information, you don’t have to blindly trust a stranger.