Recently a woman who is entering my alma mater this fall asked what advice I would give to a college freshman. After over a decade in higher education, I’ve got some. I’ve got a lot, actually. But I’ll boil things down to nine overarching principles. Some have to do with school, some have to do with the general transition to adulthood and life on your own.
1. Get involved. Ninety five percent of the time, community will not find you; you have to go out looking for community. Go to events. Introduce yourself to people. Even just talk to that person sitting next to you in class – “Need a study buddy?” And watch the sidewalks for chalkings about events. Really, sidewalk chalk is how I learned about the majority of things happening on campus.
2. Try something new. This goes with the point above. College is an awesome time because there are sooooo many options laid out neatly in front of you – whether student groups, university clubs, or free events. Someone gave me a free ticket to one of our college football games, and there I saw the marching band. They looked like they were having more fun than anyone else in the stadium. So despite never having tried it before, the next year I signed up. And made a lot of friends and had a lot of adventures.
3a. Go. to. class. At my freshman convocation, the president of the college gave these three words of advice. When I was a high school senior I asked some of my friends who were college freshmen what the biggest difference was between high school and college. Their answer: “You don’t have to do anything.” That is, you are being treated as an adult and no one is checking up on you. Professors usually don’t take attendance. Parents won’t nag you to work on a project. You will need to find the self-discipline to get things done yourself – because you’ll need them in post-college life, too. You can start building good habits immediately by going to class. Every class. Even if you can only manage passively paying attention.
3b. Go. to. office. hours. This falls right on the heels of the one above and I quickly discovered as a gold mine to academic success in college. Nearly every professor holds office hours (and posts those in the syllabus). So if you’re confused about anything, go to office hours. It’s like getting free tutoring from the person who’s writing your test! Go to TA office hours, too; they’ve taken this class and know this professor. And don’t wait until the last minute before a test or project to do it – it could be so crowded you can’t get in, or the office hours may have unexpectedly been canceled due to someone going home early with a cold.
4. Get your money’s worth. Most students are paying for part if not all of their college expenses. In addition to going to class because you’re paying for it, take a look at all the other stuff that your school offers for FREE!!! (Well, not “free”, but that’s covered by tuition and fees so you’re paying for it whether you use it or not.) Recreation center? Flu shot? Career counseling? Bus pass? Student legal services? Off-campus housing services? Events? There’s so. much. stuff. and I didn’t take advantage of half of it when I was a student.
5. Don’t neglect your school email address or your literal mailbox. Yes, I know you don’t care about that email about a scholarship you’re not eligible for and that flier for the concert you’re not interested in, but in between all those emails and fliers are notices your school (and landlords, utilities holders, etc) will send out about important things involving deadlines and fees. Pay attention so you don’t miss them. Speaking of which…
6. You’ll mess something up eventually. Accept responsibility, learn from it, and move on. Like parking tickets. Or overdue books. Or late fees. Or missed deadlines. Once when I moved from one apartment to another I forgot to cancel our electricity and didn’t forward the mail and since no one moved into that apartment for four months I was billed for four months of electricity that then was turned over to a collection agency. Oops. I paid the bill (which was not fun) and started over. It sucked, but I chalked it up as a learning opportunity. (I still wish it hadn’t happened, but it did. So time to move on.)
7. Ask for help. Even though most students are 18 so legally considered responsible adults, colleges know that most students are living on their own for the first time and could use some guidance. And unlike many agencies you’ll encounter out in the real world (DMV, landlords, insurers, creditors, power companies…), part of the official or unofficial job description of staff at universities is to help teach students how to navigate the unfamiliar waters of adulthood – like managing all of these new responsibilities. So seek people out and ask questions. Ask them to define terms or outline processes. If you’re in a sticky situation ask about how you can keep from getting into it again.
8. Never forget long-term goals for the sake of short-term gratification. College is a blast. Really. Go out and enjoy it and have fun. But stay smart. It’s very easy for the newfound freedom of college to cause people to push boundaries much further than they should have. Small failures (and you will have some) can be great learning opportunities; large failures can drastically alter your future – especially if they have legal, health, or financial consequences. You can absolutely still have fun while staying smart.
9. Be authentic, and stop trying to be what you think other people want you to be. Okay, so this is actually advice for everyone regardless of age. I had a bit of a breakdown my freshman year when I thought that even though I was a nerd in high school that no one in college would like me as a nerd. I was too worried about what others thought of me and less willing to stand up for myself and say, “This is who I am, and I’m okay with it.” Silly me, I found out that not only do I like being a nerd but that there were plenty of nerds in college that I could be friends with – and am still friends with! The same thing goes for your faith (thankfully, that’s something I chose to hang onto). You will meet a lot of different people in college with a lot of different viewpoints. You can learn something from all of them, but you don’t have to make all of them happy. You don’t even have to make all of them like you. Some people won’t like you, and that’s okay because there’s seven billion other people on this planet. Don’t change who you are in an attempt to fit in. You will find your niche – maybe not the first week, maybe not the first month, but there are people who will accept you for being you. Accept nothing less.