Tomorrow you’ll pile your stuff in the family car and head off to college. Today you look nervous but excited. You might not sleep much tonight. I can assure you it won’t be the last night this year you won’t sleep much. That’s just what freshman do…or don’t do, depending on how you look at it.
Your parents, their friends, and your teachers — and people like me — have been offering all kinds of advice these past few weeks. You probably don’t want hear it anymore. I don’t blame you since you’ve always been someone who wanted to figure things out on your own.
Maybe you could just indulge me a bit, though. I’ve been seeing fresh-faced freshmen arrive on campus for as many years as you’ve been alive. They keep staying the same age, but I just get older. How does that work? I learned a few things when I was a freshman about being a freshman, but I’ve learned even more teaching freshman over the years.
So, here goes.
1) Freshman year is what you make of it. College is what you make if it. You will meet people at your school who think stuff happens to them. Most of the time, it doesn’t. You make things happen. You don’t get good grades–you earn them. It works the same way with poor grades. So, pay attention and own your experiences.
2) Go to class. This shouldn’t be hard. As long as you aren’t working a lot of hours at an outside job, you will really only have about 3-4 committed hours a day when you are expected to go to class. If you chose not to do any homework on a given day, you are basically giving yourself the schedule you had in preschool. That’s a bad idea if you want to succeed. Your professors might act as if everything is fine; don’t expect them to warn you or shoot you a parent face. It just doesn’t work that way. They will take note when you’re not there. Read their attendance policy on the syllabus unless you want to feel the sting later. And remember, for every hour in class, you’re supposed to be doing two hours of outside course work. One of the biggest challenges of freshman year is that students have so much time. Too much unstructured time. Use it well. This is a big one.
3) Have a great time with your new friends. One of the best things about college is the social growth that takes place. But, strike a balance between your work and hanging out. Like I said, you will probably stay up too late. If you do, remember that 8:00 AM really isn’t all that early unless you went to bed at 3:45. Your professors don’t care when you went to bed. They expect you to be ready to work. If you’re tired and unable to concentrate, it’s your choice.
4) Speaking of syllabi–actually read them. Professors sweat a lot writing those things over the summer. They tweak them till they’re just right. The course syllabus should give you a very good idea what the professor expects of you. Read it again before mid-term. You’ll see that it makes more sense. Ask yourself if you’re meeting the professor’s stated expectations, and be sure to know exactly when things are due. Unlike high school, something will still be due in a few weeks even if you don’t talk much about it in class. Read the syllabus again before the final push at the end of the semester and be sure to review the learning objectives. Ask yourself if you are meeting those objectives. Be a planner. Keep a calendar.
5) Go see each professor during office hours at least once this semester. It’s good to check in when you aren’t sure about a paper or exam–but why not just stop in to get to know them? They want to know you or they wouldn’t be teaching. They are usually very laid back people, even if they take their work seriously and expect the same from you.
6) Try to offer one sincere observation or opinion during each class meeting (or every other class) as long as it isn’t a huge lecture course. Some people naturally feel more comfortable speaking in class. Don’t “over contribute” by dominating the conversation, but don’t completely hang back either. Be open to other points of view, even if those views clash with the values you currently hold. Listen with generosity. Listen to learn. And if you really can’t get yourself to speak in class, share your observations with your peers and professors outside of class. This is important.
7) Be professional. Okay, it’s not technically a “job,” but look at school as a pre-professional experience designed to give you the skills to navigate the world beyond college. Learn how to make yourself clear, and be sure to take yourself seriously. Be honest with yourself about whether you are putting your best into the things you do. Don’t make excuses. When you write your professor, or academic advisor, or the Career Center or Registrar’s Office, remember that you aren’t texting your friend. Email is a medium for communication that is more serious than posting online but less serious than writing a legal brief. Use appropriate language. If you write an email from your phone, format it as if it were composed on your computer. And always start with “Dear Professor,” not “Hi!”. You don’t have to sound wooden, but remember that composing an email is an expression of your professional self. Present yourself in the way you want people to see you.
8) Expect to be a bit all over the place. If you are going to grow into a new person beyond the daily influence of your family and your high school, you have got to let go of old ideas. This is challenging. It’s okay to be confused, unsettled and nostalgic for high school. Stay in touch with people, but don’t slip back into high school mode by going home a lot. You had that world pretty well figured out. In time, this one will also become clear. Be patient and stay with it. You are going to know some people who just weren’t ready to go to college. They may withdraw. Remember that you could be them, so try to help them feel as if they are valued members of your community. Oh, and reach out to at least one international student this fall. If you think you feel disoriented, imagine how they feel. You have a lot to learn from each other.
9) Appreciate the people you live with. It’s easy to expect things to be the same as they were when you were living at home, but living with strangers means that some of your habits are just as unfamiliar to others as their habits are to you. Share, be generous, and look for common ground. And don’t steal food out of someone’s mini-frig unless you like people taking things from you. You learned that a long time ago (when your schedule was comprised of 3-4 hours a day of hardcore work designing and building block castles or playing with small plastic farm animals). Work continually for mutual respect. Oh, and this one’s really important. Don’t do anything if you question whether the other person is really into it. There is zero leeway here. Consent is consent. Yes means yes. No means no.
10) The food will probably get boring after a while, and the dorms are not 5-star hotels. Be appreciative of what you have. Thank the people who work in the dining hall, and thank the maintainers who keep the dorms clean.
11) Get to know sophomores and other students who have been around the block. Listen to what they have to say. Avoid people who want to game the system and do as little as they can.
12) Solve your own problems. When your parents say they will take care of it, tell them you are in college now and you need to figure it out yourself. Don’t let them call your professors or the dean. Your professors and the academic leaders of the college really want you to learn to advocate for yourself. And you should want to advocate for yourself. Tell your parents you love them, but tell them you got this. Consider meeting with the Dean of Students, your advisor or a professor who you click with–then follow through and solve the issue at hand. This is a big one.
13) Don’t worry if you don’t know what you want to major in. And if you do think you know, be prepared for the possibility of changing your mind. The whole idea of starting college is to poke around. Don’t let anyone make you feel inadequate because you’re not sure what you want to study. Explore.
14) Put your phone away during class. Your professor assumes you aren’t engaged if you’re texting in class. This isn’t a generational thing. This is as basic as it gets. A classroom is meant to be a space that engages a community in the present. Texting or listening to music or surfing around says that you don’t really care about what’s going on in that space. Your professors aren’t texting in class. Neither should you–even if it’s your mom who’s coming to pick you up for the long weekend. Just put your phone in your bag. It’s only an hour. No, not your pocket because it will buzz and you will feel an uncontrollable desire to check it. Just do it. Yes, now.
15) Join a club or two, but don’t go crazy. It’s easy to be tempted to get really involved. Extracurriculars are a great way to meet people and get involved with your school, but keep things in perspective. If you tell yourself you “have” to go to that meeting when you know you have a paper due the next day, you aren’t keeping your priorities straight.
16) Take good notes. Don’t just copy down what the professor is saying, especially if they post their presentations. Write down what you understand about the topic being discussed. Take notes with it in mind that you will need to look over them in a few weeks–make sure they make sense. Read critically and annotate every reading you do. Your books should be filled with margin notes that can be used to help you prepare for papers and exams. If you still don’t know exactly how to develop a thesis, get that information ASAP. Don’t fake read and write.
17) Take the total tuition of your college and divide by 32. The number you get is the cost of attending college per week over freshman year. Ask yourself if you are making the best of this investment.
18) You will get some grades on assignments this year that will feel low, considering the effort you put in. You will be disappointed. Take your professor’s comments to heart–then work toward the new standard being presented to you. Look forward, not back.
19) Remember that pizza eaten in the middle of the night contains as many calories as pizza eaten during the day.
20) Your parents are having a hard time with this transition. It’s not simply that they will miss you. It’s that they know the choices you make, and the values you develop, are yours from this point forward. Their major work is done. When the time feels right, you may want to thank them. It’s your game now. Play hard and play well.
Good Luck This Year!