Freshman year college survival guide: 20 tips for success

The autumn season for many young people is an exciting time of year. Seniors in high school are excitedly anticipating next steps in their educational paths, contemplating their college selection and admission possibilities. Freshman in college are in the throes of their first term/semester, scrambling to survive and balance their newfound independence, educational demands, and social development.

One of the questions I am asked most often by young people is “How did you make it through college successfully and get in to graduate school? How was it pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology? I also receive emails from young people all over the country hoping I might share with them helpful advice on pursuing graduate school. Many of them do not have role models to approach for guidance, particularly young people of color and/or those who may be the first generation to attend college in their family or community.

An excerpt from a message I recently received:

Dear Dr. Villarreal,
I am a senior in high school in Utah. Since I was in 8th grade I was interested and fascinated with psychology. I am still interested now that I’m a senior. I want to study psychology and I came upon an interview that you did on YouTube and you really stood out to me. I am also a Hispanic female, therefore you were really inspirational to me! I had some questions about how you chose your undergraduate school. This seems to be the only thing I am worried about and I don’t exactly know what I should be looking for. Also, I know that I want to open my own private practice in the future and I wanted to know how you started yours. Thank you so much for you time.

At every step along my journey through college and graduate school I benefited from peers, teachers, and employers who helped guide me towards success and taught me to tap into the essential motivation and stamina it takes to overcome the inevitable challenges, setbacks and failures along the way. According to American College Testing (ACT), one in every four college students leaves before completing their sophomore year and nearly half of all freshmen will either drop out before obtaining a degree or complete their college education elsewhere. The tips in this article serve as a guide to surviving your first year of college with improved odds for success. Developing the right tools, skills, and habits early on can help you not only succeed in college and your future career, but in managing a well-balanced life.

  1. Attend freshman and campus orientations. It is extremely tempting to skip some of the long-winded freshman year orientations that take place at the beginning of the school year. Even if you don’t hear any new information, these gatherings are an excellent opportunity to ask questions, meet other like-minded peers, and commit newly learned information to memory.
  2. Make an effort to befriend roommates and others in your residence hall. The people you live with your freshman year are all likely going through similar transitions and emotions as you, and can be huge source of support as you adjust. This built in network of people serves not only as a team to problem solve day-to-day challenges, but will open up continued opportunities for social support.
  3. Stay on campus as much as possible your first year. Frequent trips home to eat or do laundry, off campus jobs, or maintaining romantic partners from home can stand in the way of fully adjusting to college. The more time you spend acclimating to your campus and new peers, the more comfortable you’ll be in your new environment and the more likely you are to thrive there.
  4. Get organized. In high school, teachers typically lead you through all the homework and due dates. In college, professors hand out a course syllabus and/or post the assignments online for the entire term/semester and expect you to prepare independently. While digital devices are a great way to get organized, maintaining a hard copy calendar is also extremely helpful for mapping out a ‘master timeline’ for completing all your readings, assignments, tests, and other important events. While good grades might have come naturally to you in high school, you will have to develop a new set of organization and study habits to survive your new educational setting.
  5. Become an expert on course requirements and due dates. Professors spend hours preparing course syllabi and calendars so that you will know exactly what is expected of you, and when. One of my most memorable failures (that thankfully I can laugh about now) is when I didn’t realize that a freshman course final exam was only ‘optional’ for those people who’d earned a certain number of points by the end of the semester. Don’t get burned by finding some things out too late!
  6. Commit to a study area and time schedule. With a never-ending calendar of social opportunities, campus events and parties it’s very easy for unstructured ‘study time’ to fall by the wayside. As early as possible, carve out specific times in your schedule to complete your readings and studying. Set realistic deadlines for yourself and stick to them. Choose a place with as few distractions as possible and make a commitment to going regularly. Selecting study partners is also important- decide early on which of your peers are better as study partners and which are better reserved for socializing only.
  7. Seek a balanced life. College life is an ever-changing mix of social opportunities, academic demands, and self-care. Try to prioritize what’s most important to you in advance and then make your choices accordingly. Peers can be extremely influential in your daily habits so try to surround yourself with like-minded people who will help you maintain a balance that’s well-suited to your personality and abilities.
  8. Attend class regularly. Avoid the temptation to sleep in or go late to that 8 am class. Without parents or attendance requirements to keep you on track, it’s a slippery slope when you start giving yourself permission to skip classes. Even if your professor is simply reviewing a powerpoint presentation that is available online, you’ll miss the exposure to auditory learning which will help you perform better on exams and assignments. You also risk missing vital information from professors about what to expect on exams, changes in due dates, etc.
  9. Connect with students in your classes. Aim to meet at least one new person in each of your classes and exchange contact information with them. Everyone appreciates someone else making an effort to say hello, so try to overcome feelings of shyness. These connections will serve as an important resource when you have to miss a class or need to build or join a study group down the road.
  10. Visit your professors during their office hours. Speaking as a professor, I can assure you there are only benefits to getting to know your professors, especially if later in the semester you run into some problems and need to ask for extensions or planned absences. Professors maintain office hours for the sole purpose of meeting with students to help them troubleshoot and succeed in their course.
  11. Meet with your academic adviser at least twice a year. This is the person who will help you with course conflicts, adding and dropping courses, planning out your terms/semesters, and selecting majors and minors and their requirements. Your academic adviser can play an integral role in leading you towards a timely graduation. Don’t be afraid to request another adviser if you don’t click with the one assigned to you.
  12. Don’t feel pressured to decide on a career right away. Even if it seems like everyone else knows what they’re doing with their lives, try to resist committing prematurely to a specific career path if you feel undecided. College is a time for you to explore what you enjoy learning in greater depth. It may take a few different directions before you have a greater sense of how you’d like to spend your time once you graduate. Further, just because it feels like a struggle to succeed in a given area, don’t give up easily. Trust your attraction to a particular area of study. Passion is the fuel for hard work and determination, which will allow you to succeed over time.
  13. Consider joining student organizations. A big hurdle for a lot of new students is the combination of homesickness and a feeling of not belonging, particularly for students of color, sexual minorities and those living far from their regional home. Look into joining student organizations, clubs, sororities or fraternities, or sports teams. You’ll benefit from much needed social support, learn new skills, and feel more connected to your school.
  14. Don’t be afraid to enlist extra help. One of the biggest mistakes students can make is not securing extra help early on, before becoming overwhelmed and lost. Take advantage of the study resources on campus- most have learning labs and tutors available, or consider joining/forming a study group. Don’t feel ashamed for needing extra resources or support. Every successful professional (including myself) got there by adopting a ‘do whatever it takes’ approach to achievement. College is a humbling time for just about everyone at one point or another. Make an effort to shift your focus away from evaluating yourself by the grades you earn. Instead, look for upward growth as a marker of success. My own college transcripts definitely reveal a slow and humble start, with steady improvements along the way.
  15. Stop comparing yourself to everyone else. Everyone learns in different ways, and at different paces. Everyone comes from different backgrounds with a wide range of life experiences, making college easier or harder, depending on their origins. If I’d given up after realizing other people were learning faster than me, or earning higher grades than me, I definitely would NOT have succeeded in earning a Ph.D. I wasn’t the smart kid who earned straight A’s, and I had to work much harder and longer than many of my peers to achieve passing grades. I made a lot of mistakes and faced a fair amount of setbacks along the way. Eventually college got easier, even though the courses got harder because I became more familiar with what study habits worked best for me. In spite of those challenges and setbacks, I continued to pursue my long term goal of earning a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. Accept early on that it may take you longer than expected to reach your goals, and the path you take to get there may be different from those around you. Keep asking for help, but be prepared to work harder than others around you if you expect to see successful, competitive results.
  16. Take responsibility for yourself and your actions. Try not to waste time placing blame on others for problems you face along the way. Move on and take the attitude that no one else is worth losing sight of your goals. Part of being an adult means taking responsibility for what happens to you, regardless of how you got there.
  17. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed. College is a time of tremendous change and ongoing challenges. Expect to have moments when everything seems too difficult to continue, or feeling like everyone else seems to be getting along better than you. Take a break and wait for those moments to pass; they will. Just keep moving forward and take one day, one week at a time.
  18. Make time for self care. Be sure to set aside time and activities that help you relax and take the stress out of your day or week. Whether it’s spending time with friends or communicating with family for support, engaging in your favorite type of exercise or hobby, or having downtime watching your favorite television shows or movies, be good to yourself. It will feel like you don’t have time to relax! But by doing so you will recharge and have better focus when you return to your studies.
  19. Maintain healthy eating and sleeping habits. Adequate sleep and nourishment are essential for maintaining your mood and energy level. While college dorms and apartment settings are great places to socialize with your peers, they aren’t always conducive to maintaining good health habits. Make a concerted effort to develop and maintain realistically healthy dietary and sleep habits. Freshman are especially vulnerable to gaining weight from unrestricted junk food and alcohol consumption. Aside from taking a negative toll on your physical health, don’t underestimate how these bad habits can affect your mental health as well. Even if you are the envy of your friends because you’re less prone to alcohol hang-overs or weight gain, poor health habits will eventually take a toll on your mental functioning and consequently your ability to thrive at your highest potential.
  20. Seek professional help when you need it. Familiarize yourself with your college’s health resources and counseling centers. If you become sick, or notice ongoing feelings of isolation, anxiety or depression, don’t wait for things to worsen before taking advantage of the many services these offices provide for students. You don’t have to face these issues on your own. Consider asking a friend to go with you if you feel reluctant to go alone or offer to go with a peer who may be struggling. Keep a list of emergency hotlines for handling crises such as experiencing suicidal thoughts, sexual violations or violence.

BONUS TIP: Keep track of your spending habits. While a fortunate few of you will have adequate financial support during your college years, many of you will need to learn how to budget your money and spending habits early on. Regardless of your financial resources, it’s important to develop responsible skills in money management- the earlier the better. Avoid succumbing to credit card solicitations on campus or in the mail. The average credit card debt of college graduates is shocking, and can take a staggering number of years to pay off. Familiarize yourself with what options you have in your college’s financial aid center, and plan accordingly.

Final Words of Advice for College Students~ Your college years will fly by before you know it.  Try to hold on to the positive experiences and let go the hardships. Invest in healthy relationships and avoid negative people that can drain you, stress you out, pressure you, or demand more of you than you can afford to give. Don’t be afraid to try new things, go new places, or take new risks! Some of the best experiences I had were the result of taking a leap of faith in myself and my ability to figure something out after the decision/commitment was already made. Roll the dice and bet on yourself to succeed, even if the odds are seemingly stacked against you. Remember that setbacks are NOT failures, they are extended opportunities to learn and grow in new ways. Furthermore, what you learn from those setbacks will prove to be the backbone of your strength and abilities later in life. Forgive yourself for making mistakes. No one else is keeping track like you are; as soon as you get back on the right path, those incidents will fade away as you continue to accrue new achievements. I look forward to hearing your success stories!

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