Advice for New College Students
Tuesday, August 27, 2013Tweet
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?