Ten Tips for Surviving the First Semester of College
Last week, I accompanied my cousin through the expansive campus of my alma mater, Arizona State University, to navigate him through his class schedule. Together we methodically mapped out the easiest routes (i.e. routes with most shade) to get from one class to the other.
Pointing out landmarks and other tidbits (like which buildings have the best air-conditioning and which have the best ambience to study between classes) gave me the idea that I might actually have some words of wisdom for college students getting ready to set foot into their first college class over the next few weeks.
Tip #1: You are a small fish in a big sea. Don’t get eaten up.
One of the biggest adjustments during my first semester of college was the sheer amount of people on campus during the day. I went to a fairly large high school with a graduating class of about 1,600 people. But when I set foot on the campus of Arizona State for my first class, I was not prepared to share space with 35,000 other people also clamoring to get from place to place.
As if the volume of people wasn’t intimidating enough, there were many people biking and skateboarding to class and most of them were oblivious to the old physics law that no two objects can occupy the same space at the same time. I wasn’t used to jumping out of the way from oncoming skaters and cyclists in high school, and it was frustrating to dodge so many moving things everyday. I eventually found less crowded routes to classes and learned to do breathing exercises whenever the desire to throw my textbook at rude bicyclists hit.
Another point to realize is that you are starting over in college. It doesn’t matter if you were on student council in high school or captain of your high school football team…chances are that nobody will care. It’s one thing to mention your high school accomplishments in passing when you are getting to know new people and use your high school life as a way to find commonalities with others. But don’t gloat about who you were or what you did during class. Nobody cares. The same goes for grad school. Your cohort could care less that you wrote a thesis in your undergrad program or that you were active in a sorority. Use this opportunity to make new memories and accomplishments.
It’s also very easy to blend in and fade away in the background. If you are finding it difficult to adjust to college life, don’t despair. It does get better. Keep reading this list so you don’t get sucked up in the crowd and decide to leave college behind before you give it a fair shot.
Tip #2: Find your classes ahead of time.
If you are going to a large campus, such as Arizona State, take an hour of your time before your first day of class to figure out what buildings house your classes. Ideally you’ll want to do this on the weekend, when the campus won’t be crawling with droves of equally confused students. Think you might forget what the building looks like or can’t find a sign telling you where you are? Make notes of what the building looks like or better yet, take a picture and caption which building your class is in.
Tip #3: Figure out how to stay in the shade because it is still summer out there.
Arizona State University classes start on Thursday, August 23. Many other colleges and universities will be kicking off the fall semester between now to just after Labor Day. The weather is still hot and sticky, and the walk between classes can be killer. Knowing where your classes are and how you can get there without passing out from heat exhaustion can make your first week of class a little less overwhelming. Last August, I saw a student nearly pass out and get treated for heat exhaustion in downtown Phoenix. Don’t start off your first week of class in the back of an ambulance.
Look for long buildings with air-conditioned hallways or buildings with a shaded atrium that you can cut through. If those options aren’t available, always walk on the shadiest side of the campus whenever possible. Stick close to tall buildings. Also, be sure to keep a bottle of cool water with you at all times.
Tip #4: It’s okay to adjust your schedule.
After you’ve received your syllabi and sat through the first class meeting, you might find there is a class that is already causing you anxiety. Maybe you signed up for too many classes or maybe that extra challenging elective you chose will be too much to juggle with the rest of your courses. If so, consider adjusting your schedule that first week.
Most colleges allow you to drop and add classes during the first week without requiring signatures from professors or advisors. Be cautious though – most grants and scholarships require students to be enrolled full-time. Make sure you know how many credits is considered full-time (12 semester credits is the norm) before you drop a course. Also, if you drop a course and reduce your credit load, make sure you aren’t over-paying tuition. Some colleges charge the same tuition for a 12 or 16 credit load, but if your college charges by the credit (as many community colleges do), make sure you can receive a refund before lowering your course load.
It isn’t a bad idea to start out the semester with at least one extra class than needed if your college charges the same tuition for anything above X credits. That way you can survey the courses and easily drop a class without looking for a replacement.
Tip #5: Find your Zen.
College can be fun and is a major step in one’s life. But make no mistake about it, college is also stressful and will take you out of your element. Learn to manage your stress early on. Some things you can do to keep your cool include:
- Finding a garden, fountain or other quiet place on campus where you can sit and reflect for a few moments each day. Yes, even on a bustling campus like Arizona State University, these spaces do exist.
- Take study breaks. Don’t get too cooped up in your studies that you forget what life outside the library looks like. Go for short walks. Sit in a café and enjoy a cup of fresh coffee or tea. Or better yet, if your campus has a fitness center, go for a quick jog on the treadmill. You brain needs time to rest.
- Talk to people! Be it in person, over the phone, or social media, stay in touch at with at least some of your old high school buddies. Call a relative. Yes, you’re in college and this is your shot to be on your own, but don’t isolate yourself. It might take time to meet new people on campus, so don’t ignore your existing social networks.
Tip #6: Take part in a few campus activities.
Most people automatically think the easiest way to get ingrained in college life is to join a fraternity or sorority. While that can be a way to meet new people and build a college experience, there many other options out there if Greek Life isn’t your deal. Most colleges have a directory of registered on-campus clubs. Find a group that promotes something you are interested in.
Not the joining type? Go to campus-sponsored events. Many colleges have movie nights and comedy nights. I still remember seeing the Second City troupe for free as well as getting free movie tickets to the movie theatre near campus. Other potential activities include:
- Lectures and colloquiums – yes it is an educational activity but these types of events can add rich information beyond what you learn in the classroom. This is also a great way to meet other students interested in your field of study as well as connect with professors outside the classroom.
- Art Exhibitions – if your campus has an art museum or an art department, chances are they will organize at least one public function a semester to display work from students and professors.
- Sporting Events – fall semester means football season. Grab your roommate and a couple of tickets and take in a game. Most colleges reserve lower priced tickets for students. Don’t want to attend the game? Hit the tailgate parties! If football isn’t your thing, chances are there are many other sporting events that need spectators like lacrosse, volleyball or swimming. Basketball typically doesn’t until later in the fall and baseball won’t happen until spring semester, so check out some of the smaller sporting events in the meantime.
- Volunteer activities – look for one-day only volunteer activities sponsored by the campus. This could include painting the exterior of a house, cleaning up a park or assisting a food bank. Arizona State has a unique volunteer activity of packing dates harvested on campus. The dates are sold at a local farmer’s market to support campus horticultural activities.
Tip #7: Stay Organized and Don’t Procrastinate.
There is a reason you receive a syllabus at the beginning of each term. It is there so you know the expectations and deadlines of the course. Keep your syllabus handy and make sure you keep track of major deadlines for course assignments, research papers and exams. Input these deadlines into your calendar or organizer. If you have a semester project, start early and create your own timeline to help you progress towards finishing the project on time. By managing your time, you can juggle your coursework and fit in social time without sacrificing your grades.
Tip #8: Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
The expectations you will encounter in college differ greatly from high school. You will study subjects you didn’t think existed in college. Your high school science class suddenly looks like child’s play compared to Intro to Chemistry. Or maybe you won a poetry contest in high school but just received a D on your first college essay for English 101. Most colleges have a tutoring center available for free that can help you with whatever subject ails you. Also, professors usually set aside weekly office hours for the exact purpose of allowing students to come and chat about course concepts and assignments. Don’t be afraid to approach your professor for help. Professors are people too. I promise, they won’t bite.
Tip #9: Don’t overload on junk food.
This can be a challenge if you are living on campus and are limited to cafeteria food or on-campus eateries which are usually fast food chains. If your main source of food is a cafeteria meal plan, make smart choices and pile up on fruits and veggies. Yes, it’s tempting to order that double bacon cheeseburger everyday at the cafeteria grill, but vary your diet. Opt for grilled chicken or fish some days and don’t douse your salad in salad dressing.
If you aren’t tethered to a meal plan, many college towns have nearby farmer’s markets and co-ops with affordable, healthy food. Explore these options. If you don’t have a car, see if there is a nearby market or grocery store available by public transportation. Some fresh sliced turkey meat from the deli with a loaf of quality bread and a few veggies can provide a week’s worth of easy to make and take sandwiches.
If you live off-campus, consider investing in a small, insulated lunch bag to pack snacks such as fresh fruits and veggies for your lunch. Freeze a small ice pack, throw it in your lunch bag and you’ve got a portable fridge. Or buy a box of granola bars and throw one in your backpack each day. Prices on campus for snacks are usually more expensive that the grocery store, so save yourself some dough and pack some snacks and meals to take with you to the campus. If you’re going to night school and you work full time during the day, you also might want to pack a sandwich or snacks to take and eat during a break.
Tip #10: Recognize that you are now responsible for yourself.
You are in college now. It doesn’t matter if you are 18 or 28 and starting college. It’s time to pull up your big boy and big girl pants and take responsibility for yourself. You’ll be learning to clean your own dorm or apartment, do your own laundry, get yourself to class on time, set your own schedule, etc… It’s tempting to stay out and party all night, sleep in half the day and blow off classes without the disapproving eyes of your parents monitoring your every move.
But college is expensive. If you find yourself blowing off your courses and course excessively, do this little math exercise. Take your semester tuition and divide by 16 (the average number of weeks in a college semester). The answer is the amount of money you are wasting per week if you start slacking off in your coursework.
Your success in college ultimately depends on the choices you make.
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