Back in May, I wrote about how potential music majors could prepare for their first year of college. (See “How to Become a Music Major: Four Tips to Help You Get In and Get Through.”) This month I broaden the discussion and suggest ways that all students can improve their chances of having a positive first year at college.

A college or university is a collection of small communities, each advocating for and advancing its own educational goals and ideas. Faculty members often emphasize courses and degree programs as the core mission of a college or university and a student’s performance in class as the primary responsibility of the student in college. It is here that “real education” is supposed (and presumed) to take place. But there is also an entire student life and student development community whose professional members (deans of students, residence life coordinators, leadership trainers, study abroad officers, and health services staff, to name a few) and student members (student government officers, resident advisors, student newspaper staff, and so forth) believe that they have a very important part to play in the total education of students. Some may even think that student life trumps academic work because they offer the more “real world” experience and “real world” education. There are also teams of people—which may include both faculty and student life staff—who are managing all kinds of programming that does not fall neatly under either academics or student life, including guest lectures and presentations, workshops, career development opportunities, internships, concerts, plays, book clubs, film viewings and discussions, and so forth. And finally there are all of the student clubs, organizations, and associations.

ALL of these people or groups are competing for and hoping to get the individual student’s attention and commitment of time.


So my first piece of advice: Do not over commit to campus life during your first year.

Yes, that seems to put me in the camp that argues that academics are all important, but actually I believe that the entire college or university experience can be personally and professionally valuable. I’m not saying, “Do not get involved.” I am saying, “Be very careful not to get too involved.” This is a time management issue, not a statement about the relative merits of academic development and student life experiences. Both are important. But at the same time, you’re paying money for those college courses; in many cases, you’re paying a lot for those classes. You may even be going into debt for them! So I do advise that you spend your first year focusing on your courses until you’ve determined how much time you do need to be successful academically – and for many students that WILL be more hours per week than was needed for success in high school.

Once you’ve determined how much time you need to do well academically, then you can allocate more time to other campus activities and your collegiate social life.

My second piece of advice follows from the first: Do not wait until the second semester (or worse, the second year) to “gear up.” Push yourself as hard as possible in your first semester of college. Really successful students “gear up” rapidly in the very first few weeks of the first semester and every semester afterward.

As a faculty member, I have watched, year after year, as many students wait too long to get their semester started. These students finally realized around week 10 or 11 that they needed to buckle down and get to work. The problem: it is too late!

Often the due dates for critical (and large) assignments will now be only 2 or 3 weeks away, or a second exam in a course will be on the immediate horizon. Poor performances on assignments or examinations in the first 10 weeks are very difficult to overcome in the last 5 weeks because all the final assignments and all that studying for examinations in every class now begins to pile up. If you are behind in week 10, it is unlikely you can complete the work that was due during weeks 1–10 while also preparing successfully for those tasks that occur in weeks 11–15. In most cases, I find that the student grades I’ve accumulated by about week 8 anticipate final course grades for each student. Some students show some improvement in the final weeks of the semester; a few show significant maturation in their work and/or performance on examinations in the last weeks of the semester. Contrarily, grades for some students collapse after week 8—usually because the back log of late work I just mentioned overwhelms them emotionally and then they become so busy trying to finish late work that they cannot keep up with work due late in the semester.

By starting strong in your first semester will ultimately improve your GPA, and having a good GPA in your first term means you will be less likely as a junior or senior to have to beat the odds to pull a low GPA back up to respectable territory. With a strong GPA in the first semester, you will either set the stage for ongoing success or create a cushion for that inevitable semester that just does not go so well, often through no fault of your own.

So how do you start strong? The following tips collectively form my third piece of advice: develop healthy and successful study habits!

(A) Get to work on large projects and papers as soon as they are assigned. Yes, you will eventually have to set the larger projects aside for a few days or weeks because you will have to turn your attention to smaller assignments with more immediate deadlines (for example, reading assignments, lab reports, short essays, composition exercises, early-term assessments, and so on). Getting started earlier can have psychological benefits: it may mediate some of the anxiety many of us experience as deadlines for large projects loom; you will be more confident turning back to the big projects later in the term knowing you’ve already begun to work on them before the pressure to get them finished really mounts; you will be amazed by how much reflective processing of ideas has occurred in your mind even without your realizing it.

(B) Break down big tasks into a series of manageable sub-projects, then complete one every few days or weeks, depending on the scale of the overall project and your schedule. Tackling projects systematically and incrementally may relieve the anxiety of wondering, “When will I have time to do this huge project? How can I even get started?” Don’t try to find time for the whole, just find time for the smaller components; complete one goal at a time. Reward yourself with break time, and then get back to the next goal later today, tomorrow, next week, or whatever your calendar requires.

(C) Don’t wait to study for examinations. Study a little for each class for 15 or 20 minutes at least every other day. In a few weeks, you will be amazed by how much you know because you have “lived with” the material. Furthermore, you will not have to cram or study all night for a test, which means you will get more sleep when you need it the most!

(D) Read actively. Take notes on textbook assignments and other reading assignments (do not just passively underline or highlight in the book), and read through your notes as part of your test preparation, too. Consider going the extra mile: organize the notes you generate into meaningful summaries. You will be amazed by how much material you will have at your finger tips for essay questions on exams!

(E) If your professor gives you a study guide, use it! If your professor gives you sample questions, work on them!

Fourth: Do not blow off your general education courses. Yes, some may seem remedial compared to the last class in that particular subject you took in high school. Yes, some faculty members assign too much work in general education courses. But here’s the thing: even if you think you don’t care about the particular class or assume the information is irrelevant, you just never know when something you are learning could help you become a better person or contribute to your vocation or other interests. Furthermore, with jobs in near-constant states of transformation, you can not be too confident on what training or education you need, or will need, or what information is relevant or not.

Here’s a suggestion: if you are in a class with readings or texts to be mastered, mine those for ideas that illuminate what you DO care about. Better yet, finds ways to express this in assignments to your professors. Faculty members often will be pleased when students take the initiative to build connections between the texts the faculty member cares about and the general body of ideas or experiences that the student cares about. If it is a skills-based course, such as a lab, then turn the experience into a chance to observe human behavior in that environment. Or again, see if there are natural connections that you can create between your work and the course. At the very least, preserve your GPA and do not blow off general education classes! If the course is in a subject area that you feel you already know well, then take that opportunity to get an A for the course and so strengthen your GPA.

Fifth: Get to know your professors. Most will appreciate it if you introduce yourself to them, pay attention in class, and participate. And as you get to know professors and find the ones who inspire you, consider taking more elective courses with them, if possible. What you learn in the relationship and in observing that faculty member may be more valuable to you and your education than the subject matter of the class itself.

Finally, don’t feel badly if your roster of friends changes across year 1 and into year 2. This is normal as you meet more people and settle into a major. You may not room with the same people after year 1 – no problem! You may begin to eat with people you meet in your classes rather than those whom you first met during orientation or in your dorm – no problem! This is all natural, and everyone is going through this process. It is perfectly fine. Just keep being courteous and civil, and do not burn bridges!