22 Tips for First-Year College Students

How to start college on the right foot.

Posted Aug 09, 2018

Glenn Geher
Megan and Glenn at High School graduation
Source: Glenn Geher

My daughter is about to start college – in Virginia, no less! That is like five states away! As a reasonably involved dad, this is kind of a big deal for me. In thinking about my experience as a professor (having taught college classes going back to 1994), it occurs to me that I might be reasonably well-positioned to provide some guidance to help incoming college students best navigate this important juncture in life. Are you about to start college – or know someone who is? Then this is for you.

1. Make your classes your top priority.

As an incoming college student, you’ve got to be thinking about all kinds of opportunities that will emerge. From living in some cool new city to the possibilities of going to “crazy college parties,” you are probably thinking about all kinds of exciting things that college has to offer. This said, never forget that college is, first and foremost, about academics. Ace your academics, and other opportunities will follow. The most successful students, invariably, put their classes first.

2. Shoot for perfect attendance in your classes.

Sure, this goal may be hard to achieve – but at least shoot for it. Attendance is a better predictor of success in college than is just about anything. It is a better predictor of college GPA than are SAT scores, for instance. Look, in college, most professors make attendance completely optional. This is the “you’re a big kid now” approach to attendance policies. It certainly is the attendance policy in all of my classes. Students who go out of their way to attend class, no matter what, in this context are demonstrating the kind of work ethic that will set them up for success.

3. Never ask for a make-up exam.

I always tell my students that if they can go through their entire college career without asking for a single make-up exam, then they are on a strong path to success. Professors are busier than you might think and make-up exams are more taxing for professors than you might think. (of course, in the event of a real emergency, you certainly should speak to your professors about accommodations)

4. Never hand in any work late.

This point goes hand-in-hand with the prior point about make-up exams. You might end up having up to 100 different assignments during your college career. If a student comes to me in spring of senior year and says, “hey, I want you to know that I took your advice and never handed in a single assignment late,” I smile. I would hire a student with that record in a second. Sure, GPA matters, but in today’s world, diligence and dependability matter even more. Be that student – I promise you won’t regret it. (again, in true emergency situations, sometimes accommodations need to be made)

5. Study twice as much as you think you need to for your exams and quizzes.

At some point in college, I decided that I needed to step up my game. I started studying an extraordinary amount for each exam. For instance, if I had an exam that covered 8 chapters from a large textbook, I’d read each chapter carefully in the weeks building up to the exam – highlighting concepts that were not intuitive to me along the way. Then, about a week or two before the exam, I would write out all of that highlighted content in a notebook – maybe filling up 5-10 notebook pages for each chapter. The two or three nights before the exam, I would read over those pages, distilled from the original content, intensively for about 2-4 hours each night. And guess what? This intensive strategy paid off. I started getting mostly As and I ended up getting into a great PhD program as a result. Study like your life depends on it – because in a lot of ways, it does.

6. Don’t even come close to plagiarizing.

There is nothing worse than plagiarism. Students who are called out on plagiarism famously claim that they didn’t know that what they were doing constituted plagiarizing, and they often are surprised when professors take (often obligatory) punitive actions. Don’t be that student who is surprised by this! From your professor’s perspective, plagiarism (and cheating more broadly) is a slap in the face. It signals that the content of the course that the professor is so dedicated to matters little to the student. It signals that the student really only cares about getting a good grade. It is, simply, excessively disrespectful. Worse, it is not a good way to learn how to write, which is one of the core skills that you will be developing during college!

I have become aware that, when writing a paper, a student will sometimes copy something from a website (maybe Wikipedia) and paste it into a paper. And then turn the different phrases in the text to change it around a bit. Guess what? This is still plagiarism! And there is actually a name for it: “turn-of-phrase plagiarism.” My advice is to not have a single word in your paper originate from cutting and pasting from a different source. You are here to develop your writing skills – not your skills in cutting and pasting from the web!

7. Put the phone down!

Let’s face it, times have changed and pretty much everyone is addicted to their phones. And this is a problem. On this point, I promise you this: Your professor will 100% be unhappy to see you looking down at your phone during class. You may not realize it, but when your professor is lecturing, he or she is trying to connect with each student in the class – as in having a conversation with each student. And we all know how annoying it is when we are talking to someone and that person is looking down at the phone the whole time! In short, when a student is on the phone during class, the professor will have a hard time concentrating, and all the students in the class suffer as a result.

8. Take notes with good old pen and paper.

Occasionally, a student will take notes with a laptop. This makes your professors wary. We think you are searching the web and goofing around when we see this! Writing out notes during class is a critical skill that will help you best learn the material. You can always go back to your dorm and transcribe these notes into files on a computer later. In fact, that’s a great idea to help you retain the information.

9. Take an active approach in your classes.

Your education is exactly that – YOUR education. You (or someone) is paying a ton of money for you to be there. And while it is always a good rule to treat your professor with respect, don’t ever lose sight of your professor's basic job description – to teach YOU and to facilitate YOUR learning. The classroom community belongs to everyone in there. So don’t be afraid to speak up in class, provide your two cents, etc. And by all means, if the professor is (a) going too fast, (b) not being clear, (c) using overly technical terminology, etc., raise your hand and ask for clarification. The entire class will benefit as a result. And your professor will probably be happy to have guidance that will help facilitate the learning process.

10. See your professor as your advocate. And don’t ever let yourself be intimidated by your professor.

Your professor is there to help you. Not just to help you learn, but also to help you develop all the skills needed to succeed into your future. That literally is your professor’s job! So while professors can sometimes seem a little intimidating (what with doctoral degrees and lots of books on their shelves and all), realize that at the end of the day, this person is here to help you develop. And while you don’t yet have a fancy degree and 100 books on your shelves, you probably will one day! Professors are not in this business to intimidate young people. We are in this business to help you advance in all kinds of positive ways. 

11.   Meet with each professor of your classes during office hours at least once a semester.

Professors have required “office hours.” These hours are special time blocks that we set aside to meet with students. During office hours, I might (a) help a student learn some material from class better, (b) go over a student’s written work with him or her, (c) answer questions about graduate school, (d) discuss possible research projects, (e) discuss possible study abroad opportunities, (f) discuss careers paths, etc. There are dozens of reasons that you will benefit from meeting with each of your professors. Take advantage of office hours. Students who do so, famously, put themselves on paths to success.

12. Meet with your academic advisor at least twice each semester.

You will have at least one formal “academic advisor” at any point during college. This person’s role is to help advise you on which classes to take, which extra-curricular opportunities to take advantage of, etc. So while you should feel comfortable going to any of your professors to discuss these kinds of issues, your advisor’s formal role is to help provide such guidance. So take advantage of the opportunities to meet with your advisor!
 

And by the way, there are some conditions in which a particular student does not click with a particular advisor. Don’t ever feel stuck. There are always processes for students to change advisors. You can find out about that process from the department chairperson or other relevant administrator on your campus. It’s important that students feel very comfortable working with their advisor. And, again, this is YOUR education. Don’t ever forget that.

13. Actively participate in at least one organized extra-curricular activity.

So far I have focused on academics. Clearly, I am doing this to underscore the fact that academics are far and away the primary reason that you are in college. This said, you will need to branch out. Good colleges and universities have a broad array of clubs and activities. And you should take advantage of these opportunities. In fact, I would suggest that you shoot to hold at least one leadership position (e.g., secretary for a student club) during your time in college. You should think about joining at least one extra-curricular activity during your first semester. Students who have reputations as highly active in extra-curricular activities have a leg up.

14. Give each student, regardless of whether you seem to have much in common with that person, the benefit of the doubt.

Colleges consistently underscore diversity. As a result, you will run into students from all kinds of backgrounds. Some will be just like the kids you went to high school with. And some will come from very different backgrounds. They might come from other states or other nations. They might vary from you dramatically in terms of religion. They might have interests that you find repulsive or that you have never even thought about in your life. Guess what? At the end of the day, people are people. And every single person you meet will have something to teach you – especially if you meet others with an open mind. The diversity of people that you will find a modern college setting is one of the most wonderful aspects of modern higher education.

15. Seek help before problems emerge.

There will be speed bumps. They might emerge in your classes. You might study really hard for a test and get a D. Or an F. You might have a roommate that drives you nuts. You might have a friendship that develops early in the first semester end up going sour. You might have a problem with a boyfriend or girlfriend. You might get homesick. Look, college is a wonderful experience overall – but it will not be perfect.

This said, realize that colleges have tons of resources to deal with all kinds of student problems. If you have a problem with a roommate or with someone in your dorm, talk to your RA (Resident Assistant) and/or the RD (Resident Director). If you have a problem with a class, talk to your professor about it. And if that does not solve it, talk to the department chair. Again, this is YOUR education. If you are having an existential crisis about what academic path you want to take, talk to your most trusted professor (and/or your advisor) about it. If you are experiencing physical ailments, go to the health center and see a health professional there. If you are experiencing stress or anxiety, go to the counseling center. A great way to deal with problems in life is to be proactive. These days, colleges have so many resources to help students with problems across a wide variety of issues. Take advantage of these resources.

And you know, don’t be afraid to consider transferring if there are problems that really just seem too difficult to deal with. Lots of students transfer from one school to another for all kinds of reasons. Maybe the school that you thought was perfect when you were 17 years old is just not what you thought. Transferring is not a failure by any stretch of the imagination. Don’t shoot to transfer, but always realize that it is an option.

16. Don’t be afraid to drop a class.

Colleges have various policies and procedures that make it possible to drop a class if it is just not working out. Look, not every professor is perfect and not every student connects with every class. And that’s OK. If a class becomes overly stressful or if there is just no connection whatsoever that you have with the class. Or if your overall courseload is starting to feel like too much, it’s OK to drop a class or two during your time in college. Talk to your academic advisor about the processes and possibilities. And always remember, if you drop a class or two during college, that could be for any number of reasons and it is fully forgiveable!

17. Stay healthy.

As corny is it may sound, your body is the temple of your mind and your soul. You will have the option to eat tons of unhealthy food in college. You will have the option to do no physical activity whatsoever. Alternatively, realize that there will be plenty of healthy food options. And plenty of opportunities for regular exercise, probably including a super gym! Make sure to eat fruits and vegetables every single day – and stay away from too much processed food. And realize that the human body evolved under conditions in which people were way more physically active than most of us are now. We need to make ourselves exercise as a result of this mismatch. I have never heard anyone say that his or her goal was to become less healthy. Your health is the foundation for everything else, so don’t neglect it.

Oh - and drink more water than beer - by a large margin!

18. Stay well-connected with your family.

Sure, your mom might be a total nag. And your father’s dad jokes might be an absolute embarrassment. And your little brother might always steal your charger. But hey, at the end of the day, family is the ultimate built-in support system. These days, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch with family. Take advantage of that fact.  

19. Take advantage of opportunities that present themselves.

Don’t strive to just be a student. Be a super-student! Honestly, it’s not that hard to do. In a college community, there are all kinds of opportunities that will present themselves. You might be able to serve as an officer in a club. You might be able to help a professor with a cool project. You might be able attend a conference with people from all over the country who share a passion for some topic. You might be able to meet a famous scholar in your field from another university. Seriously, you’ll find that the sky is the limit. Students who seize opportunities regularly have all kinds of doors open to them. Don’t see college as a set of classes leading to ultimately getting a job. See it as an adventure filled with all kinds of opportunities. And be that student who takes advantage of those opportunities.

20. Cultivate friendships with a small group of others with whom you connect well.

You don’t need to be friends with everyone. But you’ll need to form a small friend group at least – others whom you can count on, and who can count on you. Don’t worry about being super popular or the president of the sorority or anything like that. College is different than high school in terms of these kinds of things, seriously. Get yourself a few strong, close friends, and you will be fine. Often, college friends are friends for life. I still stay in touch with my two best friends from college – and they are still fun to hang out with to this day.

21. Realize that every person you meet in college has something to offer you.

You are going to run into a huge diversity of people. For instance, if you are at a state school in a state like New York, you’ll find students from the city, students from the suburbs, students from the mountains, students from the farms, etc. One rule of dealing with people is this: Everyone here has a ticket on the same ride. So respect for others is a pretty important (and useful) value. Seek out others who are different from yourself. They will challenge you, they will teach you things that you never knew before, and they will help you grow. And that’s what college is about.

22. Think of your education as giving you skills that will help you make a positive mark on this world.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the world is a kind of messy place. But let’s put a positive spin on that – you will have great opportunities in your life to help make this world a better place. The broad array of experiences that you will have in college will challenge you, will teach you how to work well with others, will teach you how to present information in a respectful and effective manner, and will teach you about the details of the problems in this world that need to be fixed. When you graduate, you should be well-situated to take all of this with you into your future to help you make a positive mark on this world.  

Bottom Line

Off to college this fall? You got this! The fact that you got into college in the first place is a sign that you have extraordinary potential. It shows that there are many adults in your world who believe that you have what it takes to be a leader in our shared future.

I’ve taught thousands of students across the years at seven different colleges or universities. I stay in close touch with my alumni and I truly see their success as my success. From this experienced vantage point, I hope that my guidance should be at least somewhat helpful.

This said, don’t hesitate to email me with follow-up questions. And go get ‘em!

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This post is dedicated to my daughter Megan, who will start college this Fall – and who is well on her way making this world a better place. Megan, don't forget to call!!! <3