5 Tips for the First Year of College

Summary: Make a plan to achieve some early wins, whether it’s establishing a support network of peers and teachers or taking some summer classes to get started.

Find Success in Higher Education

Beginning college can be the start of an exciting chapter—campus activities, sporting events, new friends and roommates, and so much learning! However, being away from home and your routine, combined with so many new things, experiences, and expectations, can be overwhelming. In fact, nearly one-quarter of students who enroll in college drop out during their first year, reports the Education Data Initiative

While you may never have had to study as much or in the same way that professors require and course materials demand, knowing about college expectations can help you sidestep common mistakes and build up the confidence to take on new challenges. In this article, we’ll share some tips to help you get a strong start on your college experience.   

1. Map Your Two-Year or Four-Year Plan

Before you begin your first year, envision your end goal. Where do you want to be in two or four years? What are your career ambitions? Whether you are pursuing a two-year associate’s degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree, a series of courses are required to reach graduation and achieve the necessary educational prerequisites for an internship or entry-level career.  

Your college should have a list of courses for your degree with descriptions and a recommendation for the order to take them. If the courses aren’t listed by semester, you’ll want to write out your sequence of courses semester by semester. This written plan gives you an idea of what you need to accomplish and when; a college advisor or admissions officer can also map out your courses and degree requirements.

2. Ease Into It

After high school, it’s tempting to kick back and just enjoy summer break. A better plan might be to take a 2- or 3-hour summer college course—taking a summer course gives you a preview of most college-level classes. Entry-level courses are standard with all colleges and are typically transferable from one college to another. If you want to take a summer course, call your chosen college’s admissions office or check for what general education courses may be taken online, in-person, or through another college and transferred in.

Another way to ease into college is to take your first semester or entire first year at a community college. Community colleges typically have lower tuition costs and smaller student-to-teacher ratios than universities. A smaller college community makes it easier to access support if needed. However, if this differs from your destination college, check to see that your course credits will transfer and apply to your two- or four-year plan.

3. Read and Understand the Syllabus

Once you begin college classes, professors hand out or post a course syllabus that outlines the requirements to pass the class successfully. It contains the readings or texts needed for the course, assignments and due dates, and an exam schedule. If there are questions about the syllabus, don’t hesitate to ask them—chances are other students need the same explanation as you.

With each course syllabus, sit down with a paper or digital calendar and write in the due dates for assignments, projects, and exams. Set alerts or create timelines to start assignments and study times for exams. An Ohio University website suggests giving yourself at least five days to study for an exam rather than cramming at the last minute. According to sleep researchers, cramming or “pulling an all-nighter” actually impairs cognitive function on an exam. Instead, use an app or scheduling system for creating study or assignment schedules and exam reminders.

4. Attend Class (Seriously, Don’t Skip It!)

Going to class is never a wasted effort, whether in-person or virtually. Professors typically include attendance as part of their course requirements. Plus, information not addressed in the textbook or readings deepens your understanding of course topics, activities participation, study notes, or exam help are all things you can get from attending class.

Class discussion among peers also improves comprehension and understanding. Most importantly, class attendance lets the professor know that you are an engaged and active participant. Dr. Robert Keyser of Kennesaw State University identifies several research studies, including his own, that indicate a positive and direct correlation between attendance in class and higher grades.

5. Build a Support Network

Unlike high school, where teachers were easily available for help, you may need to seek help from multiple sources. Meeting with the professor should still be your first choice if you are struggling in a class. While a professor may offer solutions, typically, they do not provide direct tutoring. Instead, they may suggest study sessions led by a teaching assistant, offer resources, or assist in finding a study group. 

Colleges may also offer peer tutors, writing centers, or study centers. Academic advisors, dorm advisors, and classmates are also potential resources. It is always easier to reach out to classmates for help or to explain assignments if you have been attending class.

Setbacks Are Temporary

College is a personal and financial investment toward a career. Creating a college plan that is a straightforward path to graduation can help you progress significantly toward your career goals. Be prepared for challenges and remember that setbacks are temporary—whatever adversity or obstacle you face, address them early and use the resources available for support.

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