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Freshman 15: Coping with the First Year of College

Freshman 15: Coping with the First Year of College

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.

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    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!

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    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.

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    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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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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