How to survive your first year of college: a brief primer

You have not begun your higher education adventure and you might be wondering what it is really like. Maybe one of your teachers in high school tried to scare you into thinking it is basically the academic equivalent of Marine boot camp and that the professors will not repeat anything in class and that if you lose your copy of the syllabus then you are up a creek. Having taught at a university for ten years has in turn taught me how to thrive and flourish. So here is a “cheat sheet” rather than a survival guide.

There is no generic college experience, even within the same state. While there are commonalities across certain types of schools such as size or if a school is public, private, or faith-based, the culture of each college is unique and that can be almost as important as the academics themselves. Schools in rural areas are great because it is easier to study and get work done because there are fewer distractions. But in a city there are more opportunities, more internships, more connections, and more money you have to spend for room and board. I have been told numerous times by students where I teach that there was some intangible feeling of belonging, as if this was the place they were supposed to be.

So what do you do during the semester to succeed? My first three rules are easy. Go to class. Go to class. Go to class. Even if you have a job outside of school, your real job is going to class. We all get sick, especially if we are residing in those germ-breeding grounds known as dormitories. Therefore get the emails of the students sitting next to you in class if you do not know anyone. Sitting up front might mean you get called on more to answer questions but it also helps you pay attention because the professor is only a few feet away which makes you much less likely to get busted for using your cell phone. Take advantage of your professor’s office hours and email ahead just to confirm he or she will be there. Even if he or she does not have the best interpersonal skills, they will appreciate a student who takes the initiative to ask questions and desires to succeed in class. You will have instructors that are great and perhaps some that will maybe be not so great. This is to be expected considering that you will likely take at least forty classes before your graduate. If you were to talk to forty different people at a party there will be some people you will click with and others…not so much. Interactions with college professors are similar.

Succeeding in class does not mean an A. Your GPA is not a reflection of your value, self-worth, or future trajectory. Sometimes you will get an A when you deserve a B or a C and vice versa. Out in the real world, employers do not care about your GPA. All they want are people who have show up to work with a good attitude and are not on drugs (that includes “borrowing” your friend’s Adderall). You can train or teach anyone who has a willingness to learn but you cannot train someone to be nice or kind. It is not an accident that Trader Joe’s and Chik-fil-A succeed because of stellar customer service.

Through the semester, you will likely struggle with “fomo”, fear of missing out. You have a quiz tomorrow in microbiology but everyone is going out to watch a late night movie and you are afraid you will miss out on some precious, irreplaceable, memory. Here is the thing. College students go out every night. Your friends and roommates will have all different schedules and someone is always going to be doing something that sounds more fun than reading a textbook on supply chain management. Moderation is the key. If you party too much your grades will suffer; if you never have fun you will likely become unhappy. The toughest things about college are not the final exams or the papers; it is figuring out how to stay disciplined and reward yourself for doing so. Unfortunately, most of us learn from our mistakes rather than our successes. So figuring out if you are a night owl or a morning person (who secretly enjoys having 8:00 am classes) will really prepare you before you register for classes. Consider if having classes five days a week will work better for you or if Monday, Wednesday, Friday or even just Tuesday, Thursday fits your temperament and personality.

Finally happiness. A lot of students have a great, yet difficulty, time their first semester. Homesickness is the norm rather than the exception and depression or anxiety can quickly develop. Happiness on a college campus often comes from a feeling of community or a sense of togetherness. It has nothing to do with being an extrovert but a sense that there are “others” like yourself. Many schools have dozens of student clubs from hiking to Brazilian cinema. Get together with those who share your interests, at least once a week. Something that sounds as dorky as a Mario Kart club or a club that watches old soap operas can really make the difference in your first semester of college.

You will likely not learn what works for you without going through a few missteps but that is okay. College is really learning about yourself more than your major. You may learn that after a few classes of “x”, what you really want to study is “y” but you would have never come to that realization without those “x” classes. The only mistake is giving up. You can do this. You do not need good luck. Your college or university already accepted you. You just need to do.