Congratulations! You’re Starting College This Fall: Here’s How to Start Well — and Not Screw It Up.

By Dr. Matthew Weed

Photo by Matt Ragland on Unsplash

Here is advice to help you avoid being one of the 30%+ of people who started college each fall and won’t be back for their sophomore year.

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 almost seventy percent of them accept while getting their bachelor’s degrees. It’s okay to take longer, but if you’re smart about your time in college, the chances you’ll need extra time — or must leave — should go down sharply.

There are many things you can do to help yourself survive and succeed in transitioning to college.

Above all else, remember you are about to make a huge jump from how you have 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. If you don’t know how to do laundry, manage a budget, or keep your living space clean for example, take this time to learn how from your support network as these essential life skills will serve you in college and long after you complete your degree.

The value of good advice

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 of the departments and programs that interest you as you can. Yes, doing so will take more of your time and energy in the short term — but a wide range of views will give you a clearer sense of what you need to do to succeed and be satisfied with your life in the long term. Seeking mentorship is also highly likely to give you connections who are willing to write you strong recommendations someday, too. Diverse mentors can also help you make rational decisions about what you should do after college.

Whoever you get advice from, it’s important to remember 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.

Sadly, even if you do well academically, many students have financial, health, social or other issues that will come up to trouble their time on campus. Someone who knows the resources that can help in those situations will be far more able to manage them successfully than a peer who doesn’t know where to get the help they suddenly need, flailing around unnecessarily and with an added sense of desperation while trying to find it at the last minute.

Speaking of finding sources of advice, those academic advisors, faculty, and other college staff are only some of the sources of wisdom you should be open to taking advantage of. Older students — like your R.A. for example — can also be helpful. You are likeliest to meet them in activities or the dining hall and in some of your classes depending on what you take.

Learn from their experience and take advantage of their knowledge and connections as many of them will have gone through what you are now. They will know where to find people, resources, and opportunities. They are also likely to have useful perspective on how to deal with whatever problems you’re facing because they (or their friends) have gone through similar things — and succeeded while doing so.

They, along with the resources I’ve mentioned and others such as the financial aid office, student health, the athletics department (sometimes called the department of student recreation) and more can be incredibly helpful in a wide variety of situations, but only if you seek them out.

One area that older people can be particularly helpful to you is adapting to a different climate. If you live in a snow-free place and are unused to the weather in New England or the upper Midwest for example, ask them early if you have sufficient winter wear. Many students aren’t familiar with northern winters and won’t be prepared for the ice/slickened walkways and below zero wind chills that could strike well before winter break. These could contribute to slips, falls, and either injuries or illness at finals time, much as getting too wet if you’ve not got the correct rain gear could lead to trouble if you come from a dry place.

KNOW YOUR BUDGETS

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

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.

Budget your time wisely: 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). Also, make sure to ensure that whatever classes you take can help you fulfill your college’s required course distribution.

Whatever the typical course load per semester is, going a little below the average number of credits for a term 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 full range of options open to you while you’re on campus. A diverse schedule will also expose you to alternative majors if your first planned program doesn’t prove to work well for you, as will be the case more than half of the time.

That said, the sooner you figure out that you want to change your major and what you want to study instead, the better as catching up required courses will often keep you in school longer. The longer you stay in college the more it will cost you and, potentially, the more debt you may need to work off later.

Speaking of budgeting, if you are financially constrained either by your parents or because you’re paying for yourself to get through college, be sure to stick to your budget if you can. The more you must take out in student loans or IOUs from others, the more (often with lots of added interest!) you’ll have to pay later. Where you can, try to find creative ways to have fun and socialize with your peers and, where reasonably possible, get access to your readings etc. There are options out there that can help you reduce your overall costs, and the interest you pay on them. My website has a page with RESOURCES FOR STUDENTS APPLYING TO COLLEGE with pointers to articles that discuss many ways to maximize the return on your investment in college and reduce your expenses while there.

ACADEMICS

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 between sessions. 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 usually be a few quizzes at most, no more than two or three tests and maybe one or two research papers.

There are disciplines in which you will see weekly problem sets or quizzes — but most courses on campus won’t have weekly graded work, so, depending on your major, you need to prepare yourself for the likelihood that every grade you do get will count — a lot.

If you get a bad grade, seek help immediately. There is no dishonor in going to office hours or getting tutoring via whatever place your college has for revising and improving your understanding of material. Whether they’re called centers for academic success or peer/faculty tutoring programs, take advantage of them. Each can be helpful, and you’ll have to figure out whether working with undergrad tutors who have taken the class already or graduate tutors will be most helpful for you. Students in the field, or faculty/instructors will be most helpful to you. Sometimes, you may have to try several different tutors — and types of them — before you figure out what works best for you. Whatever help you choose to avail yourself of, there is no shame in success, and lots of harm in doing badly because you were too proud to ask for help.

Taking a moderate schedule while settling in during your first term will often help you begin 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 your lectures (whether in person or virtually) 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 the readings usually takes more time than going to class. If a professor repeatedly hits on authors or subjects while in lecture, you can usually assume they’ll appear on your exams. If you literally see and hear what your professors care about most, 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 while your classmates are madly trying to not only catch up but also bring their grades up from the bad scores that they earned on their first tests (because they didn’t do what they needed to succeed).

Raising your GPA from a bad start is infinitely harder than starting well and staying there.

As you determine how you’ll use your time, know that many campuses are very serious about their warnings that they will consider putting you on academic probation or even ask you to leave if your grades fall too low — with some kind of administrative intervention often occurring if you fall below a 2.0 average often at large public universities but some private ones require this as well. So, your studies really do need to come first.

Try different ways to study until you find those that work best for you. Some people study best in groups, and some people study best individually. Some like being in the library or another place where little distractions can keep them from focusing hard on what they’re learning so that they don’t burn out too fast. Others need to be in a 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” — IE required groups for projects for example, and that you may like different ways to study depending on the subject you’re working on.

If you’re already registered for classes for the coming term, look at your schedule; if it’s above the standard load, carefully consider dropping something to make your first term on campus more manageable. At this point in the academic year there won’t be campus based penalties for dropping a class if a rethink suggests that you may have taken on too much but do check to make sure you can drop credits and still get the student loans you’re counting on. Most campuses have a specific “drop” date when you can let go of a class or two if they are proving too much — and you need to know when that is. If you don’t know, ASK!!!!

If you do need to rethink your academic load, be sure you aren’t proposing to drop so many credits that you lose either standing on campus or some of your precious financial aid.

YOUR EXTRACURRICULAR LIFE

Budgeting your time isn’t just about academics. Taking on too many extracurricular activities, particularly if you have an average to heavy academic schedule compared to your peers is probably enough. Two or three extracurriculars are probably plenty to start since more will wipe out your study and sleep time.

Extracurriculars do not have the same kind of hard-set “add/drop” controls as your classes do. This gives you a little more flexibility in figuring out what you want — to — and can — do with your time outside of classes, eating, sleeping, socializing and everything else that will ‘magically’ fill your days.

That said, think hard about starting something where people will depend on you for necessary health, research, or other 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’re determined to do something with a lot of responsibility attached, remember the people you’re working with/for will be depending on you so dropping a high responsibility activity can have serious impacts on them. So be sure you can commit to whatever that position is.

Being irresponsible at a job can also damage your reputation as a candidate for work later in your time on campus so be sure you can take a position before you sign up for it.

If you are an athlete or on student employment, budget enough time for those important responsibilities along with everything else you’re doing.

So long as you take any needed Covid-relevant precautions, mealtimes should still be incredible opportunities for socializing on most campuses, particularly because you can eat and talk in the same time block. The student center or dining hall can be amazing chances 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.

If Covid is causing problems on campus and reducing your opportunities to socialize or go to in-person classes and dining hall times, remember current variants are extremely transmissible. They are even more so than the earlier types that disrupted high-schools and colleges so badly over the last couple of years. Will the new variants kill someone your age? Usually not but being sick for days or weeks (even with today’s treatments) won’t help you succeed; as your grandmother may have said to you at some point: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

So, if your school’s authorities ask you to mask up, social distance, or take a few days out of the college rat race while you’re testing positive, please listen. Even if your health isn’t affected, others on campus may be more heavily impacted if you are the one from whom they get Covid because you weren’t taking the proper precautions.

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. You may also find yourself spending a lot of money on pizza and beer that you’ll have to pay back later in the form of bigger student loans — with proportionately more interest on top of the added principle you’ve taken out to pay for those things.

It is important to say that as of this writing, it appears most student loans will not be canceled by the folks in Washington D.C., so it would be unwise to make choices and spend money assuming they will be. Even if some student loans are canceled today, there’s no guarantee that they will be canceled again. So, if you’re using loans to pay for your degree, you need to plan your spending with this in mind.

Being creative in finding cost-effective ways to have fun can lead you to opportunities you might not have explored before. Doing so can also teach you many important skills (creative problem solving, teamwork, budgeting, meeting deadlines) that you are likely to need to be successful whether in a large organization or your own business after you graduate.

There are lots of alternatives to partying and drinking if you want to be social. Most colleges list student organizations online. You can start looking for them now or make sure to go to the activity fair that will likely occur during the first week or two of your time on campus. Language tables, intramural sports, student publications, religious organizations, outdoor clubs, political and debate societies, gamers’ channels, theater and singing groups, pathways to community service, 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 where your risk of getting many kinds of communicable diseases (covid not necessarily the worst of these) is higher.

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.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Do your best to plan and budget your time and money in ways that will help you benefit from everything going on at college without costing yourself the opportunity to have as diverse and exciting an experience as your time, the campus, life challenges of all kinds, and possibly new variants of Covid-19 will allow.

Respect the challenges of the tremendous life transition you’re going through: avoid overloading yourself with either classes, extracurriculars, work, choices you think you might regret someday, or all 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.

See the EDUCATIONAL SEARCH CONSULTING page on Dr. Weed’s website to learn about his work with students considering going to college or graduate/professional school. You can schedule personalized attention if you need to think through your time at college or next steps in your education. He has rapidly growing sets of pointers to material by a wide variety of authors in his RESOURCES FOR STUDENTS APPLYING TO COLLEGE and collection of links to information for people seeking HEALTH PROFESSIONS SCHOOL RESOURCES.

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Matthew Weed

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