This year marks my 7th year teaching college. It’s an absolutely CRAZY thing for me to think about, since it seriously just feels like yesterday that I was receiving my MA. But time marches ever forward, and with seven years of teaching under my belt, in addition to the five years I spent in higher ed. as a student, I feel like I’ve picked up a few tricks of the trade along the way. Between the mistakes I made and lessons I learned as a student myself, and the years I’ve spent watching class after class of new freshmen arrive (and then graduate!) – here are the top twelve tips I would give if I could sit down each of my freshmen and just have a little chat.
Join the clubs and activities that you want to join, right from the start.
It’s a common practice for freshmen to skip the extra-curriculars the first semester or two because they’re concerned about their academic adjustment. But I’m telling you right now that for most people? That’s probably actually counter-productive. Because as I’ve watched class after class of college freshmen come and eventually graduate, ultimately it’s the people who sign up for what they’re interested in right from the start that I see adjusting the quickest, both academically and socially.
Not only are extra-curriculars great ways to reach out and find friends with similar interests (some of whom will be upper classmen and will be able to show you the ropes in a myriad of other ways around campus in addition to providing a ready-made support group academically, emotionally, and socially) but it will also force you to develop time management skills and adjust to this new college world more quickly.
Don’t study in your room.
This is a mistake I made personally. You’re already in a very unfamiliar environment, and that can be daunting and stressful. Academic pressures only magnify that. So it’s to your benefit to have a place that you know is yours for relaxing and decompressing. Keeping studying relegated to the lounge, or the library, or wherever else on campus works for you will mean that when you walk into your room at the end of the day, you know that the time for work is over and now you can just chill. The emotional benefits of this will surprise you.
Communicate clearly and be willing to compromise with your roommate. Be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Nobody is a perfect roommate. But having civil, open lines of communication and a willingness to compromise with your roommate can get you close. I know because I had a roommate for my years of college that was pretty damned close. And the reason we got along so well despite being VERY different people is because we communicated and compromised with each other. Whenever there was a real honest-to-goodness problem, we communicated clearly and directly. We listened to each other’s concerns without getting offended, and worked to find a solution that was satisfactory to both of us.
Did we have spats and disagreements? Absolutely. Did we get irritated with each other from time to time? Absolutely. Did we occasionally snap at each other if we’d had a bad day? Totally. It’s going to happen. It’s just part of living with someone else. But those things are small beans, and when those things happen, it’s best to give them the benefit of the doubt, chalk it up to having a bad day, and not take it personally. And if it is personal? Make a point to talk it out – and sooner, rather than later.
Bring lots of quarters, and DO YOUR DAMNED LAUNDRY.
Seriously. Not only is it gross and unfair to your roommate to have your dirty laundry piling up around the room, but having fresh, clean clothes will help you feel your best around campus. If you’ve never had to do your own laundry before, make sure someone teaches you before you go, or ask someone on campus to teach you. Nobody is going to judge you for taking initiative and trying to figure it out for yourself. The amount of laundry lessons I have given over the years can attest to that.
You absolutely do not have to drink if you don’t want to, but if you decide to – be smart about it.
Bottom line is that alcohol is an ever-present thing in college, even if it’s not supposed to be. Parties happen, and while you absolutely shouldn’t be pressured into going if you don’t want to – sometimes you might want to. So always be smart when and if you decide to go out. Use the buddy system, keep tabs on your friends, if you choose to drink, know your limits, and always (ALWAYS) keep your eyes on your drink, whether it’s alcoholic or not (and this warning applies to male AND female, btw).
Additionally, remember that here in the US, it’s illegal to drink if you’re under 21, and the consequences of getting caught are much more severe than they used to be. These days, underage drinking can get you a criminal record. And a criminal record can prevent you from getting into med school, or getting your teaching certification, and basically screw up your plans in any number of ways. I’ve seen it happen. And that’s in addition to any penalties your school might have internally.
Use your meal plan.
Seriously. I know the dining hall fare can get boring. Sometimes it’s not the greatest. But if you’ve bought a meal plan, use it. You’re paying for it, and in most cases you don’t get that money back if meals go unused. Additionally, whether you believe it right now or not, you’ll miss the convenience of it once it’s gone, so take advantage of it while you can.
Make sure you make time for you, and your hobbies.
This is a super-important one. You need to make sure you’ve got a reasonable work-life balance, or else you’re going to burn out, and fast. You need an outlet for yourself and a way to recharge, and the best way to do that is to make sure you’re ensuring some time for you. Even just half an hour to do whatever it is you like to do – draw, or read, or exercise, or whatever – can make a massive emotional difference in your day. You can’t study all the things all the time and have it be productive. Which brings me to my next tip…
Be reasonable with your study habits.
Seriously. The biggest mistake I see freshmen making is studying to the point where it’s actually becoming counter-productive. Your brain needs breaks. It needs time to digest the information you learned – and studying for 7 hours straight is not the way to do that. The key to studying in college is quality, not necessarily quantity. You need to make sure your study habits are maximized for the way you learn, so that your brain can get the rest it needs to actually help make learning more productive. And if you’re having trouble figuring out how to study effectively? Talk to your professors. They can help.
Use your free time wisely.
Yes, you heard me right – free time. The reality is that if you’re coming from a traditional high school where they micromanage every second of your day, you’re going to be SHOCKED by the amount of free time you have in college. And as traditional high schools get more and more regimented, I’ve seen freshmen become more and more overwhelmed by the freedom of it. Some react by utilizing every second they’re not in class to study. Some are just so overjoyed at having control of their time that they piss it away doing nothing. Both of these are extremes best avoided. Balance is the name of the game in this case.
Go to class.
Seriously. This seems super straightforward, but you’d be surprised.
Never mind the fact that learning is important, and generally you need to be in class to do that – you’re also paying for that time. Going to class is a privilege you’re paying LOTS and LOTS of money for, and every class you miss is not only a whole host of material you now need to learn on your own, but it’s also money right down the drain.
So unless you’re sick or have some other legitimate reason, just suck it up and get to class.
If you have the chance to study abroad? DO IT.
Seriously. Unless you end up independently wealthy, or in international relations in some capacity, there is no other time in your life when spending months at a time overseas is as potentially easy as it is in college. It’s expensive, yes – but most colleges have scholarships and financial aid programs that extend to studying abroad in some capacity. So if you can make it work (and I do realize that not everyone can, but if you can…), absolutely take advantage of it. Being abroad for more than a vacay is such an eye opening and transformative experience – I recommend it to everyone who has the ability to. I only was abroad for a month when I went and I have regretted not doing a whole semester or year ever since.
Corollary to this: If possible, I would recommend going somewhere that’s culturally different from what you’re used to. Again – it has the potential to be an absolutely transformative experience.
Use social media wisely.
In today’s day and age, this is a super important one. Put your personal accounts on private (if they’re not already), and be careful who you friend and what you post. Use common sense. You know, maybe don’t friend your professors on Facebook if you’re underage and your profile picture is you doing a keg stand? Or even better, keep those keg stand photos off social media all together. Employers look at this stuff now, and remember – anything you post on the internet is forever. You can delete to your hearts content, but even if it seems to get scrubbed, that doesn’t ever mean it’s truly gone.
College alumni – anything you think I missed? I’d love to hear it in the comments!