Six Secrets of Successful College Freshmen
The beginning of college is an exciting time, laden with possibility and a level of freedom that is novel for most 18-year-olds. Many students entering freshman year face a world of choices: Where do I want to live? What classes should I register for and how many should I take? How should I structure my schedule? What activities should I become involved with? How much of my time should I spend studying?
College is the bridge between adolescence and adulthood, a time when students learn to balance individual freedom and responsibility. College students will need to learn to take care of themselves, advocate for themselves and design a life that works for them. Success in college – and beyond – hinges on effective self-management, built on a foundation of self-awareness.
On the academic front, students need to understand how they learn and what structures, systems, and resources they need to optimize studying and complete their assignments. Know thyself, support thyself, and have a plan!
Here are some general principles to help incoming freshmen get off to a good start in their college careers.
1. Take it relatively easy at first
Some students take on too much too quickly. They underestimate the academic load of college classes, which is often significantly greater than the courses they had in high school. So much depends on the student’s high school experience, and the college, major, and individual classes they select.
If possible, it’s best to warm up to a more rigorous schedule, and not load everything up first semester freshman year. Give yourself a semester to acclimate, to get your bearings, to test out your systems before taking on a more significant academic load. This is not a race. It’s far better to start strong with an appropriately balanced course-load than to bite off too much and struggle. I’ve seen students make this mistake and lose scholarships with academic GPA requirements after a single year. Those scholarships are often hard to get back once they are gone. Take a more modest course load during your first semester as you gain confidence, competence and learn the ropes of your new environment.
And if possible, take at least one elective that promises to be fun and engaging rather than limiting yourself to the required core classes. Having a single fun class you look forward to each week can be a game changer for how you feel about your classes and your academic schedule.
2. Develop your support system: get good at getting help
No one does it alone: we all need help. It’s a major life skill to be able to recognize that you need support, to know where and how to recruit the resources you need, and to then take the pivotal step of seeking out and using those resources. When you arrive on campus, it’s a great idea to become acquainted with the resources the college provides to you: the learning support centers, tutoring resources, the writing centers. Where can I go to get help once I find myself in a pinch?
If you are taking rigorous classes, you will eventually find yourself in need of some support. Rather than spin your wheels and waste precious time, it’s the wise student who seeks out support earlier than later. Additionally, smart students know how to use the office hours and supported time with teachers’ assistants provided by individual professors. These resources will not be available around the clock, so it’s important to plan around the provided schedules. Seek help early, and course correct before you find yourself really in a hole with a major assignment or assessment looming.
Additionally, it’s nice to have a mentor-figure you can turn to for advice as you navigate all the challenges of freshman year and beyond. If you can cultivate a relationship with another adult in your life who can provide some counsel when you need it, you’ll have a leg up when life surprises you. This person could be a resident advisor, academic advisor, professor or teaching assistant in one of your classes. Having a sounding board can be very helpful as you navigate situations in and out of the classroom.
3. Learn to structure your time
One of the great challenges of shifting from high school to college is the sheer amount of time that students will spend outside of the classroom. There is a sea of time, and some students get lost with so much unstructured time. Once in college, the burden shifts to the student to manage the workflow between classes: all of the reading and the written work, the labs and more. Students have to become more strategic with their time and establish days and times where they will study and work on school work, even when the deadline is not immediate. Students who relied upon urgency and adrenaline to swoop in just under the deadline in high school may have problems in college where the workload is simply greater. Students have to learn how to commit to pushing forward reading and projects even when the adrenaline is low and nothing is imminently due.
It may be helpful for many students to commit to using their calendar system of choice (Google Calendar, the iPhone calendar, the paper desk-calendar, or others) to plan out scheduled assignments, papers, tests and exams for all their classes once they receive their course syllabi in the first weeks of school. See where there are traffic jams, where multiple long-term assignments will collide. Having a visual representation of what’s coming will allow a student to potentially feel a hint of the appropriate sense of urgency, a bit of healthy stress, to allow them to focus and work on assignments that still seem distant. Students can look a week or two ahead and always know when the stress points are coming, so there are no surprises.
4. Develop smart study habits
Students will need to find a place or places they can really focus. As a freshman I found my little study carousel in one of the lesser used libraries where I would go to focus and work for the next four years. Students need to have good study hygiene. Have an environment conducive for focus, with minimal interruptions. Bring music and a pair of headphones if it helps. Minimize your distractions: keep the phone on airplane mode or lock down your notifications so they don’t constantly interfere.
Be mindful of when you have energy for the heavy cognitive work and when it’s better to do the light lifting. Do the big cognitive lifts early in a study session. Take breaks. Interleave your subjects, doing a little history, then some math, then some economics, then potentially back to history. Don’t power through, spending hours on the same subject: the brain loses efficiency if you stay on the same topic too long. The brain likes beginnings and ends. Study more frequently for shorter intervals, rather than attempting epic study sessions.
Develop regular study routines so they become more automatic and require less will-power. “After econ on Tuesdays, I go to this library and work for 90 minutes.” Consistency is key.
5. Make balance and mental health a priority
There’s a good deal of stress on many college campuses. Some students become too myopically focused on their academics at the expense of other areas of their life that may provide satisfaction and meaning. Academics are one component of the college experience, but they are not the whole story. Relationships, friendships, extracurricular activities all round out the experience. The friendships and relationships we cultivate in college are protective for our mental health and supportive of our happiness. Isolating and focusing exclusively on academics is a sure-fire way to increase stress and diminish happiness.
Students need to find healthy ways to decompress. One good go-to is physical activity and exercise, also protective of our mental health. Sleep is also a major ally, and easier to come by in college than in high school if you plan your schedule with that in mind. In the event you are feeling heightened stress or worry, absolutely check out the counseling resources on campus. Talking things through can be so helpful.
6. Form connections with fellow students
Connect with other students on your floor or in your classes and join a club on campus. It doesn’t matter if you don’t stick with that particular club for more than a semester or two; it’s a beginning. Having some other students you know and interact with regularly will help you feel more connected. Many students who struggle or even drop out of college do so because they don’t feel a connection; they feel lost in the sea of people on campus. We are mammals first; we need to connect. When I look back on my time in college, the few groups I joined defined my time during those four years of my life, and quite a few of the friendships that endure some 20 years later were forged in those group settings. Put yourself out there and find something that feeds you, that will give you a chance to have some fun and focus on life outside of the classroom.
College can be the beginning of a great adventure, a time of exploration, expansion, appropriate risk-taking, some learning and some fun. Students who invest in themselves and learn what they need to succeed will be in a better position to thrive in college and beyond.
If you’re looking for more support as you structure your semester for success, our Executive Function Coaches are here to help. Contact us today at 866-789-7733 to schedule a one-on-one EF consultation.