Where Logic Meets Love

Advice for New College Students

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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Advice for New College Students | Faith Permeating Life

Classes have started up again here on campus and they're about to start at many more colleges and universities, so I thought this would be a good time to share some advice on being a college student.

I have spent almost a decade living or working on a college campus -- I spent five years as a student, then worked for a college for three years, have been living in a dorm for the past year, and now am back working at a college again. So I feel like I have a pretty good sense of both sides of the fence -- what it's like to be a student, and what it's like to work and live with students.

Here are my suggestions:

1. Repeat after me: "I can always change my mind."

College is the time when people expect you to change your mind. You will probably change your major, if you come in with one. (I was dead-set on being that rare student who didn't change their major. I ended dropping it two weeks in.) You can sign up for a dozen student organizations and then stop attending the ones you don't like. You can drop classes (early in the semester) if your class load is too heavy or you decide the class isn't for you or you want to change your major. Have some spare credit-hours? Try something brand-new like guitar or ballroom dancing or whatever your school offers and see if it's something you might want to stick with. A group on your floor going to a campus event? Go check it out with them, and then head home if it's not your thing or you have more studying to do.

So my point is this: Say yes. Try things. You will have more opportunities in one place than possibly any other time in your life. So pick something and go for it. You can always change your mind.

2. Ask for help as often as you need it.

You know where a good chunk of your tuition dollars are going? To pay the salaries of people whose job it is to help you. Where I went to college, undergraduate students could go to the counseling center for free. Find a good counselor. Does your school have a freshman resource center? They are there to answer your questions. Librarians? There to help you find resources for your papers. Does your professor have office hours? Is there a tutoring center? Can you catch your TA at the end of class? Ask. Get explanations. Learn.

I work in Residence Life, and a good portion of my job is answering people's questions about their housing. I love it when somebody asks me a question because that's one student I probably won't hear from in a panic mid-semester when they realize that they missed a deadline or never got something changed that they wanted to. When I taught, I loved students who asked questions because I knew they were paying attention and actually cared about learning the material, which definitely wasn't the case for everyone.

Seriously, I can't stress this enough -- ask, ask, ask. Get help. Get answers. Some people may not be able to help you, or may (sadly) not want to help you, but no one can help you if you don't ask. If navigating the web of resources is difficult for you, try to find at least one person you feel comfortable talking to, whether it's your RA or one of your professors. When you have a question, ask them to help you find out which office to talk to.

3. Build relationships with staff and faculty.

This starts with #2. When you seek out people one-on-one, you let them get to know you as an individual. This will be extremely helpful when you're looking for recommendations for jobs or graduate school down the road, but the benefits go beyond that. It's just good to have someone a little older and wiser, particularly in your field, that you can go to for advice, and you'll have the advantage of being plugged into their network. I'm still in touch with two of my professors from college that I was closest to, and they've both been instrumental in connecting me with new people in my various adventures after college.

4. Take care of yourself.

Seriously. I meant it when I said to say yes to things, but that you can always change your mind and drop out of things as well. You're probably going to find yourself with a lot of moving parts to juggle -- classes, homework, student activities, a social life, a part-time job. I promise you can do all of these things and still eat and sleep regularly. You will see people who are like, "I AM TAKING 21 CREDIT HOURS AND WORKING TWO JOBS AND I AM PRESIDENT OF FIVE ORGANIZATIONS" and while it's awesome that everyone on campus seems to know their name, you do not have to be like that to succeed, and you will probably burn out and hurt yourself if you try. Unless you have a ridiculous attendance policy (some schools/classes do), you will occasionally be able to skip a class. Use this ability sparingly and wisely, but use it when you need it.

College is a great time to seize the moment and do wild things at 2am, but you also don't want to make this a regular habit. Eat. Sleep. Bathe. Go to counseling. Take time to be active. Give yourself permission to take a day off from studying. Take care of your body -- and your mind -- and you will enjoy everything a lot more.

5. Check your school e-mail.

This might sound like a minor thing, but all the important information you need is going to come here. When you get an official e-mail from the university, actually take the time to read it. Some people are not good at writing clear and concise e-mails, but if you find out too late that buried in an e-mail was the information that you have to fill out a special form to apply for graduation, that's going to be on you, not them. If you can't stand checking multiple accounts and want to keep using your old one from high school, figure out how to forward stuff from your school address. The most common reason I hear for people not checking their e-mail is that it's inundated with irrelevant information (like announcements about upcoming events), but in my experience you can get rid of 90% of those by setting aside 10 minutes to unsubscribe, change preferences, and/or e-mail people to get off lists for organizations and programs you're no longer in.

6. Find your people.

My biggest fear starting college, by far, was that I would not be able to make friends. I had not really made friends since middle school, and even then it wasn't as much making friends as getting absorbed into the friend group that the people in my gifted program had already formed. When I first got to college, I tried to be friends with this group of super-Catholic girls, and eventually realized that I just did not fit with them and should stop trying to be like them. Eventually I figured out who I actually enjoyed spending time with, and spent more time with them.

Also: Organizations -- join one, start one, find people who love what you love. Even though my school was a "party school" where supposedly "everyone" drank every weekend, I found a group of people who threw wild alcohol-free parties on Saturday nights, and eventually was part of launching an organization to sponsor anyone who wanted to host an alcohol-free party. And my junior year I joined the gay-straight alliance, which was one of the best decisions I ever made -- that group was my family during my last year when I was finishing my master's and almost all my friends had graduated, Mike was two states away, and I was super-lonely.

So what I'm trying to say is: Your people are there. You will find them if you look. Don't feel like you have to conform to anyone else's ideals to make friends in college. Any college campus with at least a thousand people is diverse enough to find people like you.

Captain Awkward recently had an open thread with advice for first-year college students, so if you want way more detail than what I've got here, I suggest you check it out! There are a lot of good suggestions about specific things, like not paying full price for textbooks, developing good study habits, learning to cook, and building up credit with a student credit card.

Current and past college students, what would you add?


  1. I say yes to all of this! Just get involved and enjoy it. Yeah, things get stressful sometimes, but it's also so much fun when you let it be. (And you can have fun without getting wasted every weekend!)

    1. Definitely. I feel like I should add the caveat that college is not fun for everyone, so if you end up not having "the best time of your life!!!" and you just come out with a degree and some experience and connections, that's OK and there's nothing wrong with you. But there are definitely many, many opportunities to meet people, attend activities, and try new things, and many of them can be fun if you make time for them.

  2. Good advice! I will add:

    If your campus has fraternities and sororities, don't join one your first year. See what the non-Greek social life is like. If it isn't enough for you, you can take on the time commitment and expenses of joining a fraternity or sorority in your second year, when you're better adjusted to the college workload. (I didn't join one. Of my friends who joined them at various universities, those who joined later did better in classes and seemed happier overall.)

    Wash your hands before you eat. Take Vitamin D. Getting sick when you have no family to take care of you really sucks, and most colleges do not have clear and forgiving policies for making up work after illness like high schools do. If you do get sick, prioritize coursework and sleep over everything else.

    Don't abuse caffeine. Have one serving a day normally--or none, if you can do that. Then when you truly need to stay up late to finish your work, you'll be able to achieve a high level of alertness without constantly imbibing and excreting liquid.

    Line-dry all your laundry in your room if your roommate will tolerate it. This will cut your laundry expenses by 1/2 to 2/3.

    Use your meal plan to the fullest, but see if there's a way to reduce it so that you (or your parents) spend less on it. (I was able to convert my meal plan to a debit account whose balance could be rolled over to subsequent semesters, so that my first-year meal plan covered half of my second year as well.) Minimize eating in restaurants or ordering pizza. Instead, learn to cook in a hot-pot (see instructions in my electric kettle article) or using the dorm kitchen if there is one.

    Don't waste your money on soda pop or even Koolaid. This is advice I didn't take myself, and while I didn't suffer any obvious serious consequences, I surely would have been better off consuming those calories in the form of food. Get a good water bottle or insulated mug and fill it at taps where the water tastes decent. Tea bags, whether caffeinated or herbal, are only 10-25c each and have no sugar.

    Call your parents once a week at a somewhat predictable time, and email them at least once in between. This will help prevent them from hassling you. (I hear that this can be a major problem for today's students with cell phones--when I was in college, if my parents felt they hadn't heard from me recently enough, they'd call the land line in my room every few hours until I answered, and if that took very long they'd be all panicked by the time we spoke! I didn't mean for them to worry; I was just busy!)

  3. The one great piece of advice that I always wish I'd heard when I was beginning college instead of preparing to graduate was from our journalism professor: Don't worry about choosing the "right" major. Take courses that interest and challenge you, and a major can emerge from that, but your major is not the end-all be-all determining factor of your future career and life.

    Since graduating, I've always been struck by how people end up working in fields that are wildly different or unrelated to their majors, and yet how something in their college experience did end up being relevant to their work experience.

    1. Yes -- I mentored a student from our college this past year who was trying to decide which of her two majors to pursue after college, and I basically said, "You may end up doing either one, or a combination of both, or more than likely, something in neither field but which draws on the strengths you gained from each." Many jobs require only that you have a bachelor's or that it's in "a related field."

  4. Advice from a TA:

    (a) Definitely ask for help. But ask for it EARLY. If you don't understand material, don't wait until right before the test to ask. Remember that your teachers have other students (at my school, 50-100 for a TA) as well as lives of their own. The more time you give people to answer your questions, the better an answer you will receive.

    (b)If you have a disability, register and get accommodations early. Yes, mental illness counts. At most schools you do not have to use the accommodations, but it will take forever to get them through the system, and if there's a problem mid-semester you don't want to wait.

    (c) Learn what the actual expectations are. Avoid unnecessary work. I know you've always been told to do your best on everything. Truth is, you'll hit a time where there's so much work on your plate that you can't do everything just right and still take care of yourself. And at that time, you'll want to know where you can cut corners and not suffer for it. Like the professor who always assigns a giant chunk of reading and then never asks about any of it.

    1. All good advice. I would add that if you do need help later on, still ask for it, but if you know you're struggling early on, that's the best time to seek help.

  5. Posting this separate because it's important:

    Learn about how each individual school handles things, and what's good and bad about each office. This goes double for college mental health centers. There are good ones. There are ok ones. And then there are terrible ones. Unfortunately the bad ones can cause a lot of damage - students getting tossed out of school, sexual assault reports being written off, etc. Don't be afraid to go outside campus for serious matters, if you feel the need to.

    Relatedly, know your rights. Know what the school can and cannot do, and be prepared to push if you have to. Hopefully you never will.

    1. This is an excellent point. My college offered every student up to 12 hours of free counseling, and if you needed more they'd refer you. But if a student went to Health Services instead of the Counseling Center with coping problems, in the early '90s they gave an immediate Prozac prescription (and I hear that in the early '70s they did the same thing with amphetamines) with no mention of counseling. This was BAD for some of my friends: They had legitimate reasons to worry about how they were managing a difficult courseload combined with personal problems that were not biochemical in origin, so when they were given a drug that made them feel happy anyway, they flunked out.

      So in addition to making sure your school has decent mental health resources, I advise: Go to the mental health clinic, not the physical health clinic, when you are freaking out. It may be that you do need medication for your mental health, but don't take a prescription before being evaluated by a *mental* health professional.

    2. The first counselor I went to at my college was terrible. She was a grad student in training and was completely unhelpful (like she sat there and stared at me and then asked if I was planning on harming myself or anyone else, and when I said no she acted like her work was done). It was my very first experience with counseling, so I was like, "This is not helpful at all!" Thankfully Mike already had an awesome counselor at that point, so I called up the Counseling Center and was like, "I want to see this other counselor because my boyfriend sees her" and they got me in, and she was amazing. And the reverse with the health center -- I went to one doctor most of the time, but one time had to see the other doctor on staff, and he was terrible, lecturing me angrily about the fact that I took iron supplements when that was completely unrelated to why I came in. (He did the same to a friend who is seriously anemic, and she actually listened to him, to her detriment.)

      Anyway, the point is, be aware that there can be diversity even within the same office at the same school, so if you're not getting what you need, try asking to see someone else.

    3. Such diversity only matters at the "ok" ones. What I'm saying is that unfortunately there are centers out there that are actively harmful, and they're not as uncommon as people might think. There's a lot of paranoia and misinformation out there among health centers, particularly where liability is concerned. I've experienced university counselors telling me that my belief that I had been assaulted was a result of my "paranoia" (which was later diagnosed as PTSD). This was followed by basically being labelled dangerous for refusing treatment from them. I've had friends who were permanently forced off campus for discussing suicidal ideation with a university counselor.

      Unfortunately health centers are not immune to stigma, and school liability can lead to conflicts of interest. The desire to not have incidents *on campus* can lead to decisions that are not in the best interests of students. Same thing goes for school security - sometimes it may be better to report serious incidents, especially sexual assaults, to local police.

    4. That makes sense, and I'm sorry you had to go through that. I appreciate you sharing your perspective and advice on this.


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