Congratulations! You’re Starting College This Fall: Here Are Ways To Succeed — Not Screw It Up

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A third of people who start college this fall won’t be back for their sophomore year. Here are ideas to help you avoid being one of them.

Having advised hundreds of students on getting into — and getting through — college, I know many take more than four years to finish it — thereby adding to the cost of their education and the often-crushing debt more than sixty percent of them accept while getting their bachelor’s degrees. It’s OK to take longer, but if you’re smart about your time in college, the chances you’ll need extra time should drop.

There’s lots you can do to help yourself survive and succeed in transitioning to college.

Above all things, remember you’re about to make a huge jump from how you’ve lived, learned, socialized, and accomplished everything from eating to getting laundry done. Suddenly, you’ll be away from your parents’ help. You’ll also lose all of the stated and unstated supports and limits (which are often beneficial to you even if it doesn’t feel that way at times) they set around you. Most campuses have advising resources that can help with the academic, financial and psychological concerns that cause many to drop out of college. Take advantage of as many of their orientation and information sessions as you can. Use those services if you need to later, there’s no shame — and lots of smarts — in doing so.

One source of advice is never enough. Seek knowledge from faculty and staff in as many departments and programs as you can. Yes, doing so takes more of your time and energy, but it will give you a clearer and more objective sense of what you need to do to succeed while on campus and after. Seeking added mentorship is also highly likely to give you connections willing to write you strong recommendations someday, too.

An easy way to see faculty is to take advantage of their posted office hours. Faculty you want to talk to will be there. They expect to see students then. Some take drop-ins, some require appointments. Another advantage of forging relationships with faculty early is that getting to know them (and their getting to know you!) can help you get into their labs or research programs when they have openings for students down the road.

Whoever you get advice from, it’s important to remember that the more you learn about your new school and community now from people who know it well, the better you’ll be at using its resources when you’ll need them — as is all too likely sooner or later.

Most colleges help you select classes. Listen to their advice, particularly about your first term course load. Students struggle to balance school and extracurriculars because they’re in a new environment and (sometimes rightly but often wrongly) they think they can take on every imaginable challenge and win. Far too often this proves not to be the case, sometimes disastrously.

Take a reasonable and diverse schedule your first term, i.e., no more than the average number of classes, and no more than half of those classes should be ones you think will be “hard.” So, if you plan to be a science major, don’t take high track calculus, physics, chemistry, Intro Biology, and two social science and/or liberal arts classes with lots of reading and writing — all during your first term.

Instead, if at all possible, take at most two of the science classes, something considered easy in the social sciences or liberal arts, (with not much writing!) and maybe some athletics or dance and a course like music appreciation to keep your mind and body healthy (which often helps your performance) while ensuring you get courses in your required distribution that you won’t want to have to deal with later.

Whatever major you’re in or thinking about, take at most the average number of classes you’re expected to, going a little below is perfectly OK. So long as you’re disciplined, you can catch those credits up later.

Taking a diverse schedule may also give you the chance to explore the vast range of options open to you while you’re on campus. A schedule like this will also expose you to alternative paths forward if your first planned program doesn’t work well for you. Between fifty and eighty percent of incoming students change their planned major while in college. If it looks like that is what you need to do to succeed, that’s totally OK. It’s even better if you figure it out early rather than later.

When you enter college, you — like most first year students — will probably be surrounded by a more academically competitive group of people than in high school. Even if your school was tough, you’ll still be doing, seeing, and learning things in ways you’ve never done before. Being smart about how much you take on at first can really help your performance and minimize your stress at a very stressful time in your life.

In most cases you’ll have a new way of learning. You will rarely see teachers five times a week. Instead, you’ll be in lectures two or three times a week per class with a lot more assigned reading in between. You, therefore, will have to be disciplined about getting your work done. Your professors won’t remind you to do your assignments. In large lecture classes often dominated by first year students, you’ll infrequently see quizzes and generally have very little graded homework. Instead, it will be a few quizzes at most, no more than two or three tests and maybe one or two research papers. Prepare yourself for the reality that every grade will count — potentially a lot.

If you get a bad grade, seek help immediately. There is nothing wrong in going to office hours or getting tutoring via whatever place your college has for revising and rethinking material. Whether they’re called centers for academic success or peer/faculty tutoring programs, take advantage of them. Each can be helpful, you’ll have to figure out whether working with undergrads who have taken the class already, grad students in the field, or faculty/instructors will be most helpful to you. Whatever help you choose to avail yourself of, there is no shame in success and lots of it in doing badly because you were too proud to ask for help.

Another benefit of taking a moderate schedule while settling in during your first term is that doing so often helps people start off well academically. Strong early grades will help you compete for college awards, cool fellowships, selective jobs, or offers of admission at respected grad/professional schools later so long as you keep doing well as you move through college.

Attending all of your lectures is one way to reduce your workload. Lectures usually tell you what the professors think is most important. If you skip lecture you have to read everything to know your stuff. Doing all of the readings usually takes more time than going to class. If a professor repeatedly hits on subjects or authors, you can usually assume they’ll appear on your exams. If you literally see and hear what your professors care about most in lectures, you can often be strategic about the studying of notes and readings you do outside of class.

Don’t cram everything in the night before exams. This may mean spending more time on work toward the beginning of the term than many of your new classmates will, but you’ll be rewarded with far higher first test scores. Strong early grades will make it easier for you as the term develops and your classmates are madly trying to not only catch up but also bring their grades up from the bad scores they earned on their first tests. Raising your GPA from a bad start is much harder than starting well and staying there.

Try different ways to study until you find those that work best for you. Some people study best in groups. Some individually. Some like being in the library or another place where little distractions can keep them from focusing so hard on what they’re learning that they burn out too fast. Others need to be in an absolutely quiet spot without distraction. Be ready for the fact that you may have to learn some material in ways that aren’t your usual “best way forward” — i.e., required groups for projects etc., and that you may like different ways to study depending on the particular subject you’re working on.

Budgeting your time and being careful about what you say “yes” to first term, whether academically or in your extracurriculars, is key!

Avoid taking on too many extracurricular activities, particularly if you have an average to heavy academic schedule compared to your peers. Two or three extracurriculars are probably plenty to start since more will wipe out your study and sleep time. Remember that any extracurricular activity you take on can be dropped if you feel too busy. There are rules about when you can drop classes. Know them well before you get on campus. Extracurriculars do not have the same kind of hard-set “add/drop” controls.

Think hard about starting something where people will depend on you for necessary health, research, or work assistance during your first term. Take on high responsibility roles once you’re more settled in if you want to do those kinds of things. If you are an athlete or on student employment, block out enough time for those important responsibilities along with everything else you’re doing.

Meal times are incredible for socializing, particularly because you can eat and talk in the same time block. The student center or dining hall can be amazing opportunities to get to know people. Most schools offer nutritious food today which, if you eat it, can help you feel healthy and perform well. Unfortunately, in some dining systems, you’ll have to look for it and resist the temptations they also make available.

Try not to go out more than a couple of nights a week. If you limit yourself this way, some people will call you lame or boring, but it’s most often those people who are at risk of academic trouble — possibly up to being dismissed from campus — by the end of first term.

There are lots of alternatives to partying and drinking if you want to be social. Most campuses list student organizations online. You can start looking for them now. Language tables, intramural sports, student publications, outdoor organizations, political and debate societies, theater and singing groups, service clubs and more are tons of ways to gather without drinking. The best part of all? You’ll make friends there because of the person you truly are, and not due to impressions of you distorted by the haze of altered behaviors and perceptions that all too often dominates at big parties.

Far too many of your peers will face dependency on drugs, binge drinking and/or alcoholism or other things that can impact their lives just as badly. Making choices that prove your wisdom will help you miss out on getting into situations that can lead to life experiences you may later regret. Watch your classmates make those mistakes and be thankful you avoided them.

In short, avoid overloading yourself with either classes, extracurriculars, work, dumb choices, or all of the above if you can. Dealing with homesickness, new ways of living and learning, and making new friends will take a lot from you. Once you’re settled in and confident you can handle a “reasonable” schedule, then you can add more things (one by one, not all at once!) until you feel busy but not ”BUSY!!!!”

Follow this simple (but easier said than done) advice and your chances of doing well in your first term will go up. If you start college on the right foot, lots of possibilities will open for you later. Start on the wrong foot, and many doors you thought open to you (like advanced training, for example) may slam shut, possibly forever.

Follow @drmatthewweed on Instagram and twitter for thoughts on science policy, college and graduate school admissions, service to society, health care and other topics.

Yale, Harvard, Princeton grad. Blind and diabetic kayaker, skier, and speaker. Advocating for everyone to care of themselves and others.