Students who have successfully navigated the regimented world of high school education can find themselves confused by the flexible schedule and self-directed nature of college life. For four years of high school and thirteen years of primary education in total, students follow a rigid schedule of classes, lunch periods organized with almost military precision, and strictly regulated extracurricular and homework programs.
While it may seem strange to phrase it this way, students can find the freedom of freshman year of college overwhelming. Other than some general advice from a Student Life department, a departmental advisor, or a dormitory residence advisor, freshman are mostly left to their own devices. College freshman are expected to manage their own schedules, keep track of their own work, and navigate their college experience as deftly as they did their high school experience. One reason why so many college freshmen fail is that they are unprepared, not necessarily for the workload, but for the experience of life on campus.
There are several simple steps students can take before and during freshman year to improve the likelihood of a successful start to their college career. Whether you are already several weeks into freshman year, a high school student looking forward to college with trepidation, a parent worried about your child, or an educator looking for ways to help your students, this list may offer some guidance to you.
1. Create a comfortable work/relaxation space for yourself. One thing that most students and parents fail to truly understand until freshman year has begun is that the dorm room is the student’s home for the next year. The student lives there. The student no longer lives with mom and dad. Move-in. Make your dorm room your home. More than that, make your dorm room (or, more accurately, your side of the room) your comfortable space for reading, completing assignments, and relaxing. The harder you work in college, the more you will need a space for relaxing and recuperating.
2. Avoid overwhelming yourself academically. Too many freshmen fall into one of two academic traps. Either a student fills up her course load with nothing but boring general requirement classes, or she tried to leapfrog directly to the most challenging classes. Neither path is usually successful. Find a balance. Sure, you will most likely want to get one or two required classes out of the way, but the vast majority of colleges and universities let you spread those classes out through your four years. It is no fun taking classes that don’t interest you. Taking classes in your preferred field of study is one of the things that makes college better than high school. On the other hand, overwhelming yourself with all hard classes can burn you out just as you are getting started. Mix it up. Take one or two required classes per semester. Take one or two classes in your major(s) per semester. And then balance that out with a fun elective.
3. Eat regularly & eat healthily. College isn’t only about the classes. College is about life. You don’t just sleep on campus, you live there. All colleges that provide housing also provide food. In fact, there are usually several cafeterias and cafes on campus. In order to achieve your highest academic success, make sure you set yourself up for success by eating regularly. More importantly, you want to maintain enough energy to make it around campus while avoiding the dreaded “freshman fifteen”, that mythical fifteen extra pounds college freshman seem to collect once they are no longer under the watchful eyes of mom or dad. Make healthy choices. Eat food that fuels your internal engine. You are an adult now, so you can eat as much candy as you want. That doesn’t mean you have to do so, though.
4. Manage your time well. Unlike high school, you will most likely not have class from eight in the morning through three in the afternoon, five days a week. College classes are not scheduled that way. You will have some classes for an hour, three days per week. Other classes will meet twice a week for two hours. Some might even meet once per week for up to three or four hours at a time. You will also have free time between classes. You may even find yourself with a weekday in which you have no classes at all. Craft a schedule that allows you time to eat, time to get across campus with time to spare, and time for completing assignments like reading or writing papers during the day.
5. Create a study process. Once you have created a reasonable schedule, create a study process for yourself that fits in your schedule. Use your time wisely. Complete assignments with time to spare. Build-in time to review your projects and papers so you have time for second or third drafts. Study regularly throughout the week so you can avoid cramming and all-nighters, which make for less successful outcomes. Create a plan and follow it. Do not procrastinate. College is your job. You have deadlines. Make it happen.
6. Bring clothes appropriate for the weather. With more and more students traveling across state lines for college, students are finding themselves in different climates. There is almost nothing worse than experiencing a New England or Minnesota winter when all you have are clothes from your childhood home in south Florida or southern California. Freshman year usually begins at the end of August or beginning of September, when it is still warm in cold-weather states. A semester is more akin to a marathon than a sprint, so you need to be as prepared for the cold at the end of the first semester as you are for the warm at the beginning.
7. Explore extracurriculars and find the ones that interest you. College is more than just classes and the basic needs of living. Even a student taking the most challenging classes has downtime. Always remember that you live there on campus. There is a community around you. Perhaps several overlapping communities, to be more accurate. Use the beginning of freshman year to explore different extracurriculars to find the handful that interests you. Try out things that you may not have heard about before. You never know what you’ll find unless you look.
8. Find your community. While you may remain the closest of friends with the kids you knew in elementary school or high school, many people find their dearest lifelong friends in college. You may have shared many specific experiences with childhood friends, but oftentimes, they are your friends simply because you shared a neighborhood with them. Other than that, you had little in common with them. College, on the other hand, is different. Everyone attending your college or university is there because they chose to be there. The friends you make in class or in clubs share interests with you. Be open to meeting new people and building a community of like-minded individuals.
9. Learn how to say no. Now that you are participating in class and exploring different clubs and other extracurriculars, you have to find the activities and communities that appeal to you the most. And then, you have to let go of the ones that don’t. It is a good thing to say no. You can’t do everything. Give your focus to the things you love and let go of the things you don’t. This is your college experience, and in order to make the most of it, you will need to say no to classes that you don’t have time to take, clubs that don’t mean as much to you, and activities that don’t fulfill you. And that is normal. More importantly, trust yourself, and walk away from situations that make you uncomfortable or unhappy. This may mean walking away from a party or letting an acquaintance fade away from friendship as your paths diverge. Saying no to some things gives you the space to say yes to other things.
A successful freshman year is the foundation upon which a successful college career is built. Hopefully, these tips set up each student for a fulfilling, happy, and healthy freshman year.