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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 January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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