First year in college? Here are 10 tips to get you started right.
I participate in the nonmajor adviser program here at Lehigh University. This is my third year doing it, and this year I compiled this list of lessons for those starting college. Here’s my list on how to do it right.
By the way, I wasn’t particularly good at all of these in college. Some of this I learned along the way, and some of this I realized post-college.
#1 Seek mentors of all types (personal, professional, academic) outside the classroom.
I use the word “seek” purposefully here. Mentors are busy and have lots of students. They don’t pick you; you pick them and once they see you’re serious they will move heaven and earth to devote serious time to you. Mentors help you become a better version of yourself. One of my best mentors in graduate school taught me less about my future career than he taught me about authentic, real fatherhood — something I didn’t realize until years later when my son was born and I was looking for someone to pattern myself after. You’re in college to learn about life and that isn’t just about heady ideas and your chosen field. The person you will be has a big impact on those two. Find a mentor, learn from them, thank them when you graduate, and stay in touch. Make those connections lifelong.
#2 Go to office hours. It’s where the magic of education really happens.
Your professors are not scary people. Most of us, the vast majority of us, got into this because we like teaching and mentoring. We gripe about the knuckleheads, but we genuinely love our students. If there’s one thing students don’t do enough, it’s take advantage of free time outside of class to sharpen their knowledge or learn something new. I love an afternoon chat, a cup of coffee with a student, and a chance to go beyond the class material. But you have to show up to make that happen.
#3 Make time for sleep. Seriously.
Pulling an all-nighter, while time-honored, isn’t always the best way to produce your best work. Put up boundaries around play so you’re on your game.
#4 Go to class. Seriously.
You’d think I wouldn’t have to write this, but oh, the stories I can’t tell.
#5 Take notes by hand.
The research is pretty clear on this. Laptop note-taking isn’t nearly as effective. I’ve gone back and forth on banning laptops in my lecture courses, and lord knows I love my technology. But after eight years of doing this, without a doubt my highest achievers (not just grades, but actually understanding the material) leave their devices in the bag.
#6 Take a class you know nothing about.
Look for descriptions that blow your mind a little. You might find a discipline you love. All our majors have good career paths (even the ones that get trashed a lot in public discourse, such as history or philosophy). Do what you love first; figure out the career part as you go. And if you’re not brave enough to go full major, that’s what minors are for. Figure out how to combine a minor with a chosen field of study. This is why I love the liberal arts!
#7 Get involved in something outside of class.
Join a club. Find a cause and serve. Find your tribe.
#8 You’re going to fail sometimes. That’s not only OK, it’s a good thing.
I teach at an elite (I’m told!) university, and I can tell you without a doubt that even here at Lehigh everyone struggles at some point. Everyone. Learning from failure is an essential life skill, perhaps more important than everyday success. Failure teaches you how to self-assess for improvement, and it teaches resilience. It keeps you humble and practical. No assignment, no grade, is going to be the thing that sinks you. A lifetime of avoiding challenge and risk in pursuit of good outward marks, though …. well, let’s just say I’ve seen high GPA students fail once they started their career because they weren’t prepared for the rigors of it and didn’t know how to process anything but success.
#9 The habits you practice in college will shape the kind of person you will become.
Pursue hard work, organization, basic kindness, inclusive thinking, and integrity above all else. Say “thank you” a lot. Celebrate your peers when they succeed. Be generous with the resources and strengths you bring with you to college. Be an honest person.
#10 Read the syllabus
It has the answer to 90% of the questions I field about a class setup. Please don’t be that person who asks without reading.