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Image from Pexels

Alright, so you just got into one of your top choices for college! Congratulations! I know you’re feeling on top of the world right now. I know that’s how I felt when I was in your shoes. However, looking back on my time as a freshman, there were a lot of things I didn’t realize about myself and others. Unfortunately, hindsight is 20/20 so I can’t really go back and change the course of my own time as freshman. But, hopefully you’re able to take something from this list and avoid some common pitfalls during your first year of college.

1. You’re not as special as you think you are.

Let me start by saying how admirable it is that you managed to get a 4.0 in high school while being president of multiple clubs and becoming an all-star in the sport of your choice. You worked hard and were rewarded for your effort with an offer for admission. That being said, as soon as you step foot on campus, you have to rebuild that reputation from the ground up. You have to prove, once again, that you are as awesome as you thought you were in high school.

There is a difference though. You are no longer a big fish in a small pond. You are a big fish surrounded by fish of equal or greater size. You may realize over time that all high schools are not created equally and that you have deficits that people from other high schools or parts of the country don’t have. It won’t be fair, but you will have to catch up to them or fall by the wayside. Conversely you might have gone to a high school that adequately prepared you for your freshman year. Don’t wait until classes get harder to start practicing good learning and study habits. No matter how prepared you are, there is always something to be learned along the way while in college. Don’t let hubris get the better of you.

2. Willpower will be your greatest ally.

Don’t get too discouraged by my first point. You can catch up, but you must put in the effort to do so. Some of your classmates have been studying aspects of your field since they were in middle school. During the intro classes, they may be able to seamlessly glide through with minimal effort while you struggle to maintain a “C” average. In order to even break into the “B” range you will have to put in three times the effort you see from people with experience. This means going to office hours, meeting with teaching assistants, taking legible notes, making note cards, and doing whatever else helps you retain information in a useful way. There will be times when you wonder what you’re doing and why you went to college in the first place. Don’t give up. The transition from high school to college is a steep one, but you will become more experienced over time. This brings me to my next point.

3. Effort, by itself, can throw you off.

I’m sure you’re thinking by now that effort and willpower are synonyms or like terms. But, actually, they are a little different. Willpower is continuing to proceed towards the destination regardless of the amount of obstacles you have to face. Effort is taking action towards a goal. While effort can move you towards the destination, without concentration, it won’t do you any good. In other words, if you put in a lot of effort in the wrong way, it will leave you feeling flustered and drained before you even make it to midterms. In addition, you may end your first semester with a lower GPA than you were expecting. Perfect examples of this include doing all of the assigned reading for every class and highlighting every other word in the textbook. Doing both of these things require a great deal of effort that doesn’t really benefit you.Instead, learn to work smarter instead of harder. Modify your approach depending on the structure of the class. If the professor tests solely from the lecture, go to every class and take great notes. Read sparingly for that class and focus on reading for other subjects that require it.

4. Don’t completely ignore Rate My Professor.

In my previous article, I discussed self-growth during college and that it is important for you as a developing adult to reason for yourself what is best to do based on the facts presented. Students tend to ignore for a variety of reasons including: “only the people who get ‘A’s’ comment”, “only the people who get ‘F’s’ comment”, “my professors told me not to”, the list goes on. None of these are valid reasons to pass up free advice. Mixed in with the polarized reviews in question, there is usually someone in the middle who gives accurate information about the professor. Using this tool, you can discover if a class may be a good fit for you before signing up. This, however, does not make this site the final say in terms of whether or not you should take a class. Don’t put too much weight on the “They were great,” and “They were bad” comments. Focus on the comments that give actual reasons for why they gave the professor that rating such as “The reading load is unbearable. We read 28 novels.” Be sure to read as many positive and negative comments as you can before making a final judgment. You can avoid some unnecessary problems by reading the concerns of your fellow students.

5. Try not to over-commit to clubs and student organizations.

While it was encouraged and expected to join as many extracurricular activities as possible during high school, it’s not a wise idea for your first year of college. Your first year will be characterized by several significant life changes and adjustments. You have to get used to dining hall food, living with a stranger and taking more time on your school work than you’re probably used to. Throwing in five clubs is a recipe for disaster. For freshman year, it’s better to sample a few clubs and then pick no more than one or two to devote your free time to. It’s better to be an active member of one club then a part-time associate of five clubs.

6. Don’t give people advice based on your projected major

If there’s one thing that makes absolutely no sense to me about underclassmen, it’s this. People take a couple of intro classes and suddenly, they become the authority on said topic. What’s worse, freshman will sometimes go to each other to get professional advice because their friend is majoring in something. During my freshman year one of my hall mates found out I was interested in majoring in psychology (not even majoring in it yet) and randomly asked me to diagnose her with a potential mental disorder. What everyone is forgetting here is that until you actually graduate from said institution of higher learning, all you have to your name is a high school diploma or GED. That’s it. You are not licensed to do anything. You might be able to push for a high wage in retail or food service, but giving people medical or psychological advice is out of the question and possibly even illegal.

7. Be careful about becoming too popular too soon

Maybe it’s just because I go to a smaller school, but over the past three years I’ve noticed a trend. The people who tried the hardest to put themselves out there during freshman year are the ones that socially crashed and burned. When I’m referring to popularity, I’m not talking about networking appropriately. I’m talking about the people who do any and everything to be noticed by as many people on campus as possible. High school is over and being popular is more arbitrary now than ever. Being top dog on campus won’t guarantee you lifelong success. In fact, it may distract you from the real reason you went to college in the first place: to get a degree. Instead of seeking the admiration of a bunch of people who could care less about you, focus on forging friendships with people who edify you and make you want to be a better person. These are the types of people that make college the awesome experience that it is.

8. Go the heck to sleep and take care of yourself!

Freshman are the worst about taking care of themselves. I don’t say this as a bitter upperclassmen, but as a person who was terrible at this during my first year of college. I would stay up forever…simply because I could. I would alternate between salad and pizza when eating in the dining hall. I didn’t realize that I didn’t own a coat until it was late fall. If I had to put my previous self on the scale of healthy adult to college freshman, I’d be a college freshman. But then there are some people that break the scale. I’m referring to the guys that wear shorts and flip-flops in December, the girls with short dresses in February, and the people who leave the restroom without washing their hands in the middle of flu season. Being sick in college is an entirely different experience. I was lucky freshman year and had an incredible roommate who did help me out when I was sick, but not everyone is this lucky. You will more or less have to deal with it by yourself, or get to the health center. Missing class will put you behind and it will be solely up to you to go to the professor or another student to find out what you missed. The plague you caught will be passed around your entire hall and may eventually make it back to you. It’s better to just do everyone a favor and take care of yourself. Get at least eight hours of sleep. Take a walk every once in a while if you can’t make it to the gym. Wear seasonally appropriate clothing and and practice good personal hygiene. And for goodness sake, don’t forsake these habits during finals!

9. Your living space is not your home.

I don’t know what kind of horror some of my classmates lived in before coming to college, but some of those freshman dorm rooms were utterly terrifying. I’m not talking about clothes on the floor and a desk in disarray, I’m talking about the musky stench of a misplaced piece of food. Now you may be used to having someone to clean for you at home, but there seems to be something that a lot of college freshman forget. Your dorm is not your home. It’s a space you and a stranger are spending money to live in so that you can get to class easily. If you’re lucky, you may have custodial staff to clean the restrooms for you and if you do, don’t make their job any harder by being disgusting. You are officially an adult and making messes with the expectation that other people will take care of them is a childish thing to do.

I’ve got a double whammy for this point. Freshman tend to forget that this living space is allotted to them for a total of a year. Either that, or they don’t care about the mountain of work they have to do to pack all of their decorations away during move out. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t personalize your space, but I am saying that you shouldn’t overdo it. Everything you take up there with you has to come back at some point.

10. Start sending some of your stuff home ASAP.

There is a 99.9% chance that you brought too much to college. It’s just something that happens when you’re a freshman. Most of it was probably either too much of a necessary thing or a completely unnecessary thing. You don’t need 20 pairs of pants. You just don’t. You also don’t need that macaroni and cheese warmer when you brought a functional microwave. When packing for the year, count on accumulating more things…because you will. It’s an inevitable part of living. When you go home on every break, take a box of stuff that you have not used/worn during your first couple of months (unless it’s clothing for the upcoming season). You will thank yourself when you have to move everything out at the end of the spring semester. Learning what to bring and what to leave is a learning curve. Each year, you should find yourself bringing less to college.

BONUS! 11. Don’t break the law. I’m serious.

In college, you’re going to have a lot of new opportunities to dabble in. Many of them can be edifying and educational. Others can destroy you. Most “traditional” freshman are about 18 when they go to college. In America, you gain the right to vote, serve on a jury, join the military and smoke cigarettes (except in New Jersey?) at that age. Despite all of the other things that are available, freshman still seem to gravitate towards underage drinking. Of course, this is usually facilitated by upperclassmen with their own reasons for helping out freshman. Spoiler: their motives aren’t always altruistic. When you’re a freshman, it’s in your best interest not to drink. Period. Chances are, your first one won’t be offered to you in a safe environment. In addition, if you’re caught you can face serious punishment and possibly be thrown out of school. Another thing that you should never do is cheat. Most colleges will expel you for cheating on tests and assignments because allowing you to stay will hurt their credibility as an institution. A split second of desperation can completely alter your life. You worked hard to get into college. Don’t mess it up by doing something illegal once you get there.

Inevitably, you are going to make mistakes during your freshman year of college. In fact, you will make mistakes all throughout your college career. You’re going to get a few bad grades. You’re going to make some people dislike you. You’re going to have off days (or weeks… or months). You may even do something so incredibly embarrassing that you would rather spend the rest of your life hiding under a rock than facing the light of day ever again. But, don’t worry about making mistakes. Instead, learn from them so that you don’t continue to make the same ones. Good luck everyone and enjoy your first year of college!


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the author

Lauren Collier is a senior at the College of William and Mary studying English and Psychology. She spends her days in the developmental psychology lab researching family behavioral patterns. When she's not in the lab or writing for The Prospect, Lauren is usually cooking up a storm with her roommates or writing poems under the shade of a large tree.

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  1. Sumant on April 10, 2015

    Excellent Advice Lauren and very well written article. Our son is off to U Mich Engineering fall of 2015, and this is compulsory reading! Cheers from India

  2. Pingback: 4 Pitfalls to Avoid During Your First Year in College - Blog 28 Jul, 2015

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