Coping with the First Year of College

We’re coming up on back-to-school time, and for thousands of young people everywhere, that means taking their first great big step into adult life: college. Going to school, whether you stay at home or travel across the country or around the world, can be terrifying. It can also be your life’s greatest adventure.

What you do in your first year of college can have a big impact on the rest of your college years – not to mention on the rest of your life. A few missteps might be possible to undo later on, but too many wrong moves and you might well find it impossible to recover later. Blow off too many classes, for example, and your grades will suffer – and no matter how much you reform your ways in ensuing years, your GPA will always suffer. Do poorly enough, and you might find yourself on academic probation or even thrown out come the end of the school year!

It doesn’t have to be that way. And your first year doesn’t have to be an endless drudge, either. What’s important right now is not that you bury yourself in schoolwork until you bleed, sweat, and crap knowledge, but to establish a healthy balance of academic work, social activity, and just plain living – a balance that once established, you’ll find easy to maintain through the rest of college and into your future.

Here, then, are my 15 tips for making the most of your freshman year:

  1. Get organized. Get yourself a sturdy file box and a set of file folders, and set up a folder for each class. Start using a planner, and keep a to-do list. Unless you’re heavily into computers, I actually don’t recommend you use software or web services to manage your schedule; most of the time, you won’t have easy access to a computer which means you won’t use those tools when you need them most. Develop a note-taking strategy and use it religiously. Keep every paper you write, every syllabus, and every handout – you never know when you’ll need to challenge a grade, prove you finished an assignment on time, or recall a book title from a previous class.
  2. Plan ahead. By the end of your first week, you’ll know when almost every assignment for the semester is due – put those on your calendar and write down a set of milestones (with due dates) you need to accomplish to finish them on time. There’s no reason you should be stressing over papers or big tests the night before they’re due. Start making good use of your time at the beginning of the semester and approach your due dates calm and relaxed. (By the way, if you think you do your best work when a deadline is bearing down on you, you’re probably wrong. Your problem isn’t the lack of a deadline, it’s a lack of motivation. Get motivated now – or seriously re-think why you’re in college, before it’s too late.)
  3. Eat right. College students often gain weight in their first year. Without mom and dad buying the groceries and planning your meals, and with easy access to pizza, microwave burritos, and cheese fries, it’s easy to lose track of just how many calories you’re consuming. Try to limit the fast food and late-night delivery, and maintain a varied diet. You can still have that meatball sub now and again, just try not to live on them.
  4. Sleep well. It’s ironic that the time in our life when we need sleep the most is the time when we’re most tempted to skimp on sleep. Adequate sleep is essential for college students. Believe it or not, it’s when you’re asleep that most of the work of learning happens – that’s when the brain processes and files away the stuff you stored in short-term memory in your classes the previous day. It’s also important for regulating your metabolism – every hour of missed sleep is like eating an extra meal! (Which is one reason for freshman weight gain.) Losing sleep causes stress, which affects performance on tests and quizzes. And, of course, consistently going to bed late makes it increasingly likely that you’ll oversleep and miss those early classes.
  5. Talk to your professors. College students tend to be intimidated by their professors. Don’t be. They’re there to help you, and for all but the meanest and laziest professors, that extends well beyond mastery of the course material. Visit a professor during his or her office hours just to chat now and again. Tell them about a book you read that deals with their course material, or ask for recommendations. And, of course, ask for help, whether with a tricky point in your readings or with big life issues – if nothing else, a professor can point you in the right  direction to find the resources you need.
  6. Join something. Sign up for a sports team, even if it’s just intramural Frisbee. Join a club, or a fraternity or sorority, or the student council. Taking part in some sort of extracurricular activity will keep you socially active (a lot of first-year students feel isolated and overwhelmed), provide an outlet for nervous energy, and maybe even teach you something new. And they don’t look bad on your resume, either.
  7. Call home. Make sure you keep in touch with your friends and family back home. Though you don’t believe it now, you’ll start growing apart form your high school friends this year, but you don’t have to let go too easily! Friends and family can really help ease the transition by grounding you in a world that’s familiar and comforting. Because they know you better than anyone else, they’ll also know when something’s wrong – often before you do!
  8. Speak up in class. College is interactive. Ask questions, answer the professor’s questions, and share your opinion as much as possible. Now is the time to break free of your high school conditioning – there are no points for sitting quietly anymore.
  9. Use the library. There are so many resources available in the library – magazines, guides to local places, databases, leisure reading, videos, and of course, the books you need for your papers. Learn as much as you can about your library, as soon as you can. Talk with the librarians about the resources available in your field. Check out the resources you can access remotely – so you don’t come up stuck when you realize you need one more reference in the middle of the night.
  10. Relax. Make a point of taking it easy now and again. Take a no-study day. Go to the park. Party. Go shopping. If you don’t do something non-class related once in a while, you’re going to burn out. Remember: balance is key. Study enough, and live enough. No more and no less.
  11. Use the gym. Many college campuses have gyms that are available free to students (or at a very low cost). Pizza, late-nighters, and early classes sap your energy pretty quickly – working out, swimming, or having a run can help recharge your batteries (And, of course, fend off that first-year weight gain.)
  12. Use public transportation. Get to know the public transportation system in your college’s town, especially if you’re living on-campus. Leave the car at home, if you can – public transportation is easier on the wallet (no insurance, no gas, no maintenance) and in many cases your school ID will get you free rides everywhere. And while you are likely too young to drink legally, if you do get drunk or high somewhere, taking the bus instead of driving home might well save your life, or someone else’s.
  13. Walk a lot. Walking is good exercise, of course, but it’s also a great way to learn the lay of the land. Explore the hidden corners of your campus, as well as the city or town around it.
  14. Get a job. You’ll feel a lot better about college if you’re not always struggling to make ends meet. Plus, a job can help you meet new people and be a good counterbalance to your course load. A part-time job at a local business or on campus is ideal, especially if you can find something related to your field of study. A few hours a week, maybe 10 or 15  if you’re really organized, is ideal – you’re working for pocket money, not to support a family. Not everyone can manage this, so be honest with yourself and quit if you start falling behind. (This point assumes you’re not paying your way through school. Some students have to work, but even so remember: school is your first job.)
  15. Don’t get a credit card. You’ll get bombarded with apparently sweet credit card deals almost from the second you step on campus (many college bookstores put credit card flyers in the bag with your textbooks!) Consider that credit card companies have fought hard for the right to turn a large profit from fees for being overdrawn, missing payments, or going over your limit – now consider how they expect to make a profit from you. Even if you never do anything to earn a penalty fee, you’ll end up paying way more than however much you charged in interest and annual fees. Stick to a bank account and debit card.

Good luck, class of 2013!

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