So you’re a first-time freshman in college. You want to have fun, but you want people to take you seriously. You need to earn good grades, especially if you’re on scholarship, so you need to learn how to balance your social life with your academics. You need to make sure you’re preparing for the world after college, too. If it sounds like a lot of responsibility and work, that’s because it is. Fortunately, with a little planning and know-how, you can make your college career a spectacular success.
Developing New Skills
1Meet new people. It’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed, especially if you’re a freshman at a huge college or university. Don’t let that feeling keep you from making new friends. College is a place where you can meet a variety of diverse, unique people. Embrace the newness. Remember: you probably aren’t the only person who’s a little nervous about making new friends.
- Attend mixers and socials, especially the ones specifically for freshmen. These are great places to meet people who haven’t yet found their “set.” You’ll feel at ease and meet a bunch of people in the same boat as you are.
- Introduce yourself to people in your dorm. Keep your door cracked when you’re in your room to encourage people to drop by and say “hi.”
- Even if you know just one person, ask him or her to introduce you to friends s/he thinks you might get along with. You’ll build your networks really quickly.
- Join a club or society. Pledging a fraternity or sorority is a common way to build a friend network fast, but it isn’t the only way. College is full of opportunities to get involved in something you enjoy. Religious organization, clubs, interest societies, sports teams, and academic groups all offer opportunities to get to know like-minded people.
2Volunteer. Volunteering is sometimes required as part of your curriculum in college, but even if it isn’t, you’ll meet plenty of new people this way. As an added bonus, volunteering looks great on a resume and can teach you valuable skills you can use for your job hunt after you graduate.
- Many colleges have volunteer coordinators or offices of “service learning” who can connect you with volunteer opportunities that match your interests and skill sets.
- Volunteering can also open your eyes to new possibilities for careers and passions. For example, you might discover by volunteering at your local animal shelter that you have a passion for caring for animals and want to become a vet. You won’t know until you try.
3Find a passion. College is a great place to try out new things. Explore the many opportunities you have right at your fingertips! Have you always wanted to act? Audition for a play or join an improv group. Do you secretly want to learn flamenco dancing? Take a class. Maybe you’ve always thought it would be cool to be a writer. Join a literary magazine or school newspaper.
- Remember that you won’t be an expert in everything you try out, and that’s okay! College is a wonderful place to embrace vulnerability and try new stuff, even if you aren’t great at it.
4Build your portfolio in school. You may not have any idea what you want to do for a career, and as a freshman, that’s okay. However, the sooner you can decide on a path, the sooner you’ll be able to gear your college experience toward it. This doesn’t mean everything in college has to be about your future plans, but you should keep them in the back of your mind when making choices.
- Choose classes, even electives, that will give you knowledge and experience you can use in your career path.
- Don’t be afraid to be open to new experiences. Sure, a poetry class may not seem like it will help you with your advertising major, but studying poetry encourages creativity and expression — things that you’ll need to succeed in advertising.
- Save projects or papers that you’re really proud of. You can use these as proof of skills that you’re marketing, like clear communication skills or the ability to tackle complex problems.
5Pick a major you love. It’s so much harder to do well at something that you don’t care about. Choosing a major shouldn’t be all about the money or your parents’ expectations. You’re an adult now, and part of that means making important decisions for yourself.
- Talk with an academic advisor or counselor. Visit the career center. Get enough information for you to know what your major entails and what kinds of opportunities you can expect once you graduate.
- It’s unfortunately common for people to deride humanities or arts majors (English, philosophy, theatre, etc.) by saying “You’ll never get a job with that.” They’re wrong. Part of college is learning to become a fully developed, well-rounded human. Humanities and arts majors encourage important skills like critical thinking, creative problem-solving, analysis, innovation, and reflection. You’d be surprised at the jobs you can land with skills like these. (Check out Inside Jobs’ list of “100 Careers for English Majors” if you’re still in doubt.) Choose what you love, whether it’s Accounting or Zoology.
6Learn that you aren’t entitled. Some students go through college expecting that they’re entitled to good grades or certain treatment. They’ll get upset if they do badly on an exam and blame the professor for their failure instead of examining what they need to do. Don’t be one of these students. You are not entitled to an “A” in a class or your first pick of classes or a schedule that only goes from noon to 3 PM Tuesdays and Thursdays.
- Take responsibility for your own actions. Own up to your mistakes. Work on improving and doing better next time. Don’t blame others — classmates, friends, your roommate, or your teacher — for your own actions.
- Remember that your instructors don’t owe you special treatment. Even if you’re a great student in general, your professors are not obligated to “cut you some slack” for missing class or doing poorly on an assignment. Don’t beg them to change your grade or make special exceptions to their policies for you.
- Don’t take refusal personally. An instructor or anyone else who refuses your request isn’t doing it because s/he has a vendetta against you. You will sometimes ask for things you can’t get. This is part of being an adult (admittedly, a not-so-fun part). Don’t take it personally, and don’t push once you’ve been told “no.”
7Accept that failure is okay. Part of becoming a successful college student is accepting that things won’t always work out the way you want them to. You won’t be good at everything you try. You’ll make some mistakes, even some big ones. You will have experiences that totally bomb. Don’t see these as evidence that you’re “a failure.” View them as opportunities for growth.
- Ditch any perfectionistic tendencies you have. While you may believe they’re a sign of ambition or a strong work ethic, perfectionism can actually hold you back from success and happiness. Perfectionism can stem from the fear of appearing weak or vulnerable. It holds you to unrealistic standards and asks you to interpret anything other than perfection as “failure.” It can even lead to procrastination because you’re so terrified of not doing a perfect job. Nobody is perfect. Not Lady Gaga, George Takei, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson. And you aren’t either, and that’s okay.
- Reframe challenges and setbacks as learning experiences. If you try out for a sports team and don’t get picked, don’t assume it’s because you’re a failure. Ask the coach if s/he can offer some feedback for you so you know where to develop your skills. You can learn from any experience, no matter how unpleasant.
Excelling in Academics
1Don’t overload. For some students, maxing out on credit hours each semester is a point of pride. It’s also a terrible idea. Have you head of the saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none”? If you spread yourself thin between a bunch of classes, you will not have the energy or time to excel in any of them.
- Take 4-5 classes each semester. If you really want to take more, consult with your advisor. S/he will often know what the workloads for courses are like and whether you can really handle another course.
2Introduce yourself to your instructors. Not only will getting to know your instructors help you in your course, it will also help if you need to ask them for recommendations later. An instructor can write a much better rec letter if s/he has gotten to know you a little bit.
- Look for at least one instructor or faculty member who can serve as a mentor. (In some colleges, you may be assigned a mentor or advisor.)
- You’ll find it easy to ask questions and talk to your instructors if you’ve introduced yourself.
3Ask about research opportunities. This is especially important if you’re in the sciences. It’s never too early to get started, especially if you plan on attending graduate or medical school. Talk to your instructors about any opportunities for undergraduates who want to get involved in research.
- You may even find a paid position as a lab or research assistant.
4Make yourself a study space. It’s crucial to have a place that’s dedicated to studying. Trying to do all your work in public spaces or your bed just won’t give you the focus you need to be really productive. Having a dedicated study space also means you’re more likely to study when you’re there, so you can have fun and let loose elsewhere.
- If you have nowhere to study but a shared space, at least block out distractions. Wear noise-canceling headphones or listen to “white noise” or relaxing, lyric-free music.
- You may find it helpful to have several places to study. If you find yourself getting distracted or bored in one, move to the next. Good choices include quiet coffee shops and the library.
5Get organized. This cannot be stressed enough. If you’re in college full time, you’ll have 4-5 classes, each with its own assignments and due dates. You may also have other responsibilities, like work, volunteering, social obligations, and athletics. Staying on top of everything takes a little work upfront, but it pays off.
- Get a planner! Whether it’s a little notebook or the calendar on your phone, commit to putting everything in your planner as soon as you learn about it. With electronic calendars (like Google Calendars) you can even set reminders about important events. You can color coordinate by category (athletics, homework, social event, etc.) if it helps. Keeping everything written down will also help you know if you have potential conflicts that you need to address (for example, your baseball team is playing an out-of-town game on the day of a test).
- Organize your material by class. Have a place on your bookshelf or desk where you put the most important to-do stuff. Know where your books, papers, etc. are. Keep a nice, neat binder or folder for each class. Put assignments into their appropriate folder/binder so you don’t lose them.
- If you’re taking a class with online components, make sure to check in with the online platform regularly. Instructors often post notices or announcements online that you’ll miss if you don’t check.
6Read the syllabus for each class. The syllabus is the holy grail of information for every class. It will tell you what assignments you’ll have, when they’re due, and what they’re worth for your grade. Read every syllabus carefully the first week of class, and transfer important dates into your planner or calendar.
- If you aren’t sure about something in the syllabus, ask immediately. It’s way better to clear up confusion before you spend a bunch of time doing something wrong.
7Go to class. This one seems like a no-brainer, but it can be tempting — especially in big lecture classes where attendance isn’t always taken — to skip out on classes. Don’t do it. You will miss valuable information and announcements if you skip. Plus, you’re going to college to get an education: what’s the point if you aren’t bothering to learn anything?
- If you’re in a smaller class, your instructor will notice your absences, even if s/he doesn’t count them against you. If it seems like you aren’t engaged with the course, your instructor may not want to help you.
- If you need some motivation, consider calculating how much an hour of class-time costs. Let’s say you’re at Harvard, where tuition and fees are $45,278 a year. If you’re taking 5 classes each semester (a full-time load), that’s $4,527.80 per class. For a standard 16-week semester, that’s $282.98 per week, $94.32 per class hour for a 3x weekly class. Is that afternoon nap really worth nearly a hundred bucks? Didn’t think so.
8Do the homework. Homework can seem like an epic waste of time, especially if it isn’t worth much to your overall grade scheme. However, teachers don’t assign homework just for laughs. Those homework assignments usually teach you important concepts or skills that you need for bigger assignments, like exams or essays. Do them.
9Learn to take good notes. Your ability to take helpful notes will directly impact your ability to study for exams and succeed in courses. Taking notes requires you to be an active participant in class, listening to what’s said and deciding what’s important and what isn’t.
- You may be tempted to take notes on your shiny new laptop, but studies show that you’re more likely to remember stuff if you use good ol’ pen and paper.
- Write down anything your instructor writes on the board; it’s likely to show up later. Pay attention to anything your instructor emphasizes or spends a lot of time on.
- See if slides are available online. If they are, print them out beforehand and supplement them with your own notes, rather than trying to copy out all the slide information.
- Don’t bother with complete sentences. Use keywords and phrases to get the big idea. Just make sure you don’t use so many abbreviations or shortcuts that you can’t interpret your notes later.
- Most colleges and universities have some sort of academic support or counseling center. These centers often offer handouts and classes on developing better note-taking and study skills. Use these resources!
10Study. You may have been able to skate through high school without studying too much, but college is a different world. If you don’t develop wise study habits, you could find yourself overwhelmed by your workload and failing your classes.
- Use your spare time wisely! If you have an hour or two in between classes, head to the library and study for a bit. Breaking up your studying will make it easier than trying to cram all at once, and you’re more likely to remember the material.
- Figure out your study style. You may be a visual learner, in which case making flowcharts or graphs, or even drawing pictures, could be helpful when you study. Or you might respond better to listening, in which case listening to lectures or talking to yourself about topics could be more useful for you. Learn what works for you and use those techniques.
- You can find learning style inventories for free online. Your college’s academic resources center may also have some that you can take.
- Plan to study 2 hours per week for every hour you spend in class. If you’re in class 12 hours a week (standard if you’re taking 4 classes), you’ll need to spend around 24 hours a week studying. Yep, it’s work.
- Remember that you’re actually there to learn information and skills. Your ability to get a job may depend on you knowing what the classes on your transcript say you know. The only way to develop those skills is to study.
11Take advantage of extra credit. Instructors aren’t required to offer extra credit, but if yours does, take advantage of it! Extra credit can be a great way to boost your grades if you aren’t really confident in your performance.
- Get started early. Don’t wait until the last possible chance to try for extra credit. You don’t know what could come up to make you miss out.
- If you’re really worried about your performance, talk with your instructor about the possibility of doing extra credit to bring your grade up. S/he may not agree (and s/he doesn’t have to), but it doesn’t hurt to ask politely.
12Use the resources available. College students have a wealth of resources available to help ensure their success. Check to see what support services and resources you can make use of. Don’t feel “weak” or embarrassed if you need to ask for help! It takes strength and courage to admit you’re having trouble.
- Most schools have a tutoring and/or writing center. If you’re having trouble with a subject or need help with any type of writing, use these resources! They’re usually free, and the tutors specialize in helping people who are having trouble, so they won’t judge or look down on you.
- Schools usually also have a career services center. These centers can help you buff up a resume, practice your interview skills, find employment or volunteering opportunities, and plan for your future career.
- Don’t forget the library! Librarians do more than just shelve books all day. They’re trained at identifying helpful, credible research sources and using them for your projects. Contact your library to schedule a consultation with a librarian. You will be amazed at the resources s/he can provide.
- Check out your school’s academic support center. (It may have a different name at your school.) This center usually offers classes, mentoring, advising, tutoring, etc. that can help you with things like study skills, note-taking, time-management, balancing your workload, and many other aspects of student life.
Making Good Choices
1Borrow only what you need. Some predatory lenders will loan you more than you need. While it may seem like “free money” now, remember that you have to pay back every penny that you borrow in college. Don’t saddle yourself with huge debt that you’ll be paying off until you retire.
- You don’t have to accept the entire amount of a loan that’s offered, either. You can adjust the number to cover your legitimate expenses without borrowing more than is necessary.
- If you have to take out private loans, shop around for the best interest rates. You may find that you get a more competitive interest rate if you can have your parents or a responsible adult co-sign the loan, but be careful; a co-signer is responsible for the debt if you end up unable to pay it.
2Consider working part-time. Not only will having a job help you cover expenses without racking up student loan debt, it will also help boost your resume for after you graduate. Ask your school’s financial aid office whether you qualify for work study, which helps pay your tuition in exchange for your work.
- If you can, try to find a job that has some transferable skills. For example, working as a receptionist at your school isn’t super exciting, but you can use some of those skills, such as organization and software familiarity, in “grown-up” jobs.
3Stay on top of your health. With all the pressures of college, it can be really easy to let your emotional, physical, or mental health slip. Don’t let your overall well-being suffer through neglect. Keeping a healthy exercise regimen, eating well, sleeping enough, and seeking counseling when you need it will help you stay on top of your game.
- Making time to exercise will help keep you feeling healthy and positive. It will also help ward off the dreaded “Freshman 15.” Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day. Remember small changes add up: choose the stairs instead of the elevator and walk around campus instead of grabbing the bus or driving.
- Eat healthy. With unlimited dining plans and 24/7 cafeterias, it can be tempting to eat nothing but chicken fingers and milkshakes when you’re in college. Choose a balanced diet to get the nutrition you need to perform at your best. Limit sugar and highly processed foods, and make sure to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Watch your snacking habits, too – those calories are often empty and they add up quick.
- Develop healthy sleep habits. Avoid all-nighters by planning in advance. Try to go to sleep and get up at the same times each day (yup, even on weekends!). Avoid alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine within 4 hours of bedtime. And get enough sleep: teenagers need up to 10 hours a night.
- Get counseling when you need it. Your freshman year can be a stressful, even scary experience. Don’t be afraid to check out your college counseling center. A counselor can teach you time-management and stress-coping skills, help you with relationship drama, and listen to you when you need to vent. Don’t wait until you feel overwhelmed! Just like your teeth, good mental health requires preventive care to keep you in tip-top shape.
4Consider putting off pledging. If your school has an active Greek community, you may really want to be a part of it. However, the mountain of obligations and time commitments can sink a first-semester freshman faster than that iceberg did for the Titanic. National research studies have shown that your GPA can drop 5-8 percentage points just by pledging a sorority or fraternity. Wait until your second semester or even sophomore year, when you have a better handle on your work/life balance.
- If you do choose to pledge a sorority or fraternity your first semester, consider an academic one. These are typically more focused on studying and may even be specific to an academic subject, which can be helpful networking for your future career.
5Learn to prioritize. As a college student, you’ll have lots of competing obligations, all of which can seem super important. Learning to prioritize your commitments and responsibilities will help you achieve a good work/life balance.
- Consider what you need and what will offer the most helpful benefit to you.
- Sometimes, you’ll have to prioritize studying for a big exam over going out with your friends, because you need that extra time studying. However, sometimes, you may need a mental health break and spending an hour or two with a video game or at a coffee shop with your pals is just what you need to refresh yourself. Learn to tell what you really need.
6Never give up. It’s great advice for college. Don’t let setbacks or mistakes hold you down. Get back up and keep pursuing your goals. The only surefire way to fail is to stop trying.
- This applies to individual classes as well as life in general. If you aren’t doing too well in a class, your temptation might be to just stop trying. Don’t! Sure, you may not be able to pull your grade up to an A if you’ve got a C at the midterm, but if you stop trying you’ll only continue to do poorly. Put in a little work and effort, though, and you at least know you won’t flunk.
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- Do try your best to get a high GPA your freshman year. It is easy to lower your overall GPA, but it is extremely difficult raising it back up. Most likely, your classes will get harder and you will get busier as you enter junior and senior years. Starting yourself with a high GPA will increase your chance of staying above average by the time you graduate college.
- If possible, do not get a job your freshman year. Freshman year is your time to explore clubs, social groups, and to just have fun! Don’t spend it working at school cafeteria. You will regret not spending enough time with your new BFFs.
- Aim for a good balance of fun and hard work.
- Stick to one or two internships. Although it may look impressive to have many work experiences in many different places, employers are not much impressed by it. Instead, when you are looking for internships, apply to places you see yourself working after leaving college. Then, when you apply for a full time job after graduation, they will remember you and will likely hire you than others who have had no experience with their company/organization.
- Live in an apartment as soon as you can. Off-campus housing is awesome. As much as dorms are fun and a great way to meet people, having your own room, your own kitchen, and your own living room wins hands down. Your roommate problems you faced in your freshman year will decrease significantly when you move into an apartment with your own bedroom. More privacy, less problems. If you are a sociable person, you don’t have to live in the dorms to meet people. You will find them and they will find you.
- Be a board member. A lot of times students will join organizations and clubs, but will end up dropping out because they don’t feel like they are involved or contributing much to the organization. If you want to be involved, take a role. Be a social media person, events coordinator, or a finance guy. Whatever it is, don’t be a bystander. Take a role and become a somebody in the group.
- Get to know your professors. Your professors are great resources and can be great mentors for you. They are experts in the field you are majoring in, they have connections, and they can guide you in the right direction. But more importantly, they are people too. Many times, students create a wall between themselves and the professors and only associate them as someone that answers questions and gives out grades. But if you start to see professors without that title, you may be surprised at how much you may have in common. They are more than just an answering machine. Get to know them.
- Avoid binge-drinking and using drugs. These are very common among college students. This type of behavior can cause you significant harm or danger. They could even be fatal.
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