By Dr. Brian K. Johnson
Vice President of the community college division of The National Society of Collegiate Scholars.
The first-year of college can be an eye-opening and welcome rite of passage that prepares students for a time when the foundation is laid for their educational and career goals, or it can be like a roller-coaster ride full of emotional ups-and-downs and twists-and-turns for students who are not prepared. Preparation for the first-year of college goes far beyond the grades you earned in high school. As a college freshman you will be confronted with a variety of new choices and freedoms that were not part of your high school experience. Your college campus will not have an intercom system shouting daily announcements or bells to tell you when to go to class. Instead, professors will provide you with a syllabus or schedule so you will know when to turn in assignment or expect exams. Beyond that, your professors will not be clocking you. It will be your responsibility to stay on track.
The fact that you have been accepted and admitted to college is an indication of your ability to be successful. The faculty and staff are there to help. Professors and advisors will be available on a regular basis to assist and guide you; however it is your responsibility to follow through. The modus operandi is that everyone in the mix is an adult. This is a time in your life when you will feel more and more of the pressures of adulthood. Good decision-making skills will be a critical component of your success. Your decisions will range from picking your classes to picking another bff. You will need to develop a system very specific to how you will manage your affairs. Your iPhone will be a major tool as you organize yourself – use it to post due dates of your assignments or to tweet classmates about sharing homework or planning study group activities.
Here is what you absolutely need to know:
1. Tick Tock You Don’t Stop. Manage Your Time! The importance of managing your time cannot be over-stated, but it can be underestimated! Effective time management is critical to your success! For starters, you have got to make it to your classes. If possible, schedule your classes to fit the time of day you are at your best. If you are not a morning person, do not sign up for calculus at 8 a.m. on Monday. Regardless, you have got to show up for your classes and be on time. Missing class means missing important information you will need down the line for exams and in your professional career. There are a number of classes where attendance will count as part of your grade – take advantage of every easy break you can get. It won’t be long before you will figure out how hard it is to rack up brownie points. If you find yourself missing deadlines and reinventing timelines, you may need to skip fun activities like gossiping on the phone or catching up on what’s in your DVR. There will be all kinds of distractions competing for your time: work, parties, athletic events, romance, social causes, etc. It’s easy for first-year college students to be stretched too thin, because it’s usually the first time you are doing everything on your own. Your goal is to find a proper balance and stay on track. However to do so, you will need to prioritize and allocate enough time for your academic work – attending class, studying, preparing for exams, research, and writing. Allocating time for hitting the gym or dinner and a movie should be factored into your time management plan, but like most good recipes, the ratio of studying to fun is something like four parts to one.
2. Develop A Solid Academic Plan. Your main focus during college should be to do well academically. To do so, you will need to participate in your classes, complete assignments on time, and do well on quizzes, exams, and papers. It is absolutely imperative that you develop a strong tie to a good academic advisor or counselor – pointers emphasized during the college tour or freshman orientation. Your advisor is a central figure in your academic plan, and is available to assist you with selecting your courses and building your schedule. Your academic advisor is the person who will evaluate your transcript and know what coursework will transfer if you decide to change colleges. For community college students, advisors can explain the difference between the associate of arts degree (A.A.), the lower division liberal arts coursework that prepares you to transfer and the associate of applied science degree (A.A.S.), and the two-year vocational degree that prepares you for a specific career track. You will want to avoid the pitfall of taking classes you won’t need – it’s a waste of time and money. Academic advisors will help you make good choices. Other systems in place to support your success are the counseling, writing, and academic computing center. Take advantage of the tutors and other personnel who are professionally trained to help you. And connect with your professors! There is no individual on campus more prepared than your professor to help you with your coursework. Visit your professors during their “office hours”, the time they have set aside specifically to clarify points students are struggling with or may have missed in class. If it happens to be a professor with expertise in your career field, visits during office hours can be a great way over time to cultivate a mentor-mentee relationship. A positive interaction with your professors helps to make college a great place to be!
3. Money Matters. For most college students, the freshman year is the first opportunity to pay for your own rent and groceries. Just as you will need to manage your time, you will need to manage your money. Creating and following a budget or financial plan is another major thoroughfare on your road map of success – just like your time management and academic plan. Sticking with a good budget helps to eliminate surprises that accumulate when you are running out of money. Pay your rent on time and avoid racking up late fees. Put the due dates in your phone calendar. Same with credit cards, pay them on time. If possible, as a student you should avoid using credit cards or limit yourself to one or two with small limits. If your college has a meal plan, use it. In addition to being cost effective and nutritious, it will save you the time and energy used to cook. You can save on textbooks by comparing campus bookstore prices to shopping online or by purchasing less costly used books that are in good condition. Use your student I.D. to get discounts on pizzas and movies. And, if like many students you receive Financial Aid, get to know your financial aid officer, learn the system, stay on top of the deadlines, and monitor your account. Apply for all grants and scholarships for which you are qualified, and try to avoid student loans. The financial aid office or the career center can also assist you with finding a job on campus. Working on campus is a very good way to earn money and get to know people. If you have problems sticking to your budget or if you run into a financial catastrophe or emergency, remember to ask your family or staff in the financial aid office for help.
4. Ask For Help When You Need It. First-year college students have a lot in common. Many are dealing with similar issues of uncertainty and unfamiliarity, and even homesickness. As a first-year college student, you should know that your classmates are going through the same changes as you. Get to know other students. Use the college services and get to know at least one member of the staff in the career, writing, academic, and counseling centers. Let your family and friends know if you are struggling with an issue or need help.
5. YOLO! Have fun and enjoy your experience! College is serious business. But it can also be a lot fun! You can accomplish all of your academic goals and enjoy yourself at the same time. You Only Live Once! So, try to enjoy yourself. You will have a number of opportunities to socialize and network on campus: freshman orientation, athletic events, study groups, chapel, parties, student clubs and activities, and the list goes on and on. Strive to have a balanced experience that allows you a chance to relax, get the proper amount of sleep and exercise, or take a relaxing stroll through a museum or an art gallery. Seek out healthy group activities that offer ways for you to connect with others and get to know your college community. Step out of your comfort zone and interact with individuals from a different cultural orientation or sign up for a course that will expand your horizons – this is when your college experience begins to feel like more than just a collection of classes – this is when you will begin to explore what really matters in life.