Below, we have excerpted some terrific advice from college professor Matt Might. The full article is here.
Beware the first semester
When I ask my students about their biggest college regret, it is almost universally, "my first semester."
Graduates often lament that they spent their entire college career trying to recover from the damage inflicted to their GPA in the first semester. The change in class structure and freedom catches students off guard.
Professors don't coddle like high school teachers. Most won't even force students to attend class.
For students in dorms, parents can't act like a check on bad habits.
Students without a strong sense of discipline find themselves sleeping through 8 a.m. classes, failing to study for exams and unable to complete assignments. Most of these students sober up and gain discipline when they see their grades for the first semester, and live with a sense of regret thereafter.
Those that don't, drop out at the end of freshman year.
Here are some tips specific to the first semester:
- Don't get a TV. It's too easy to sit in a dorm room and watch TV, or to leave it on in the background, distracting you while studying. Once you've confirmed (or established) your discipline, you can handle a TV.
- Don't play any games. If you're a gamer, try giving it up (or restricting it to weekends) for just the first semester. It's not necessarily common, but I've known students that failed out from spending too much time on games. World of Warcraft is the usual culprit these days.
- Don't party too much. College is going to take 4-5 years. There is plenty of time for parties later. For socializing in your freshman year, consider joining mutual interest clubs.
- Go to office hours. Few students take advantage of office hours. It's a chance to get one-on-one mentoring from an expert. Plus, when you ask for a letter of recommendation, the professor will know you. Professors use office hours to measure the quality of their lecture material. If several students come by with the same confusion, it's a signal to clear up that material.
- Sit in the front row. A good professor is going to tune the lecture by reading the facial expressions of students. Unfortunately, it's hard to see all the way in the back, so we're really crafting the lecture to those that sit up front, whose faces we can see.
College classes cover material much faster than high school classes. When students slip behind in understanding, they get battered.
I've seen panic turn to depression and then incapacitation in weeks.
The best defense against falling behind is to start off ahead.
When possible, buy textbooks in advance, and work through the first couple chapters for each before the semester begins.
Look at web sites and syllabi for the last offering of the course to see which material is relevant.
Try to stay two weeks ahead of the course throughout the semester. If you find yourself slipping behind, it's critical to contact your professor as soon as possible.
If you're a week or two behind on the material, you can probably catch up in office hours very quickly.
Procrastination slays GPAs of bright students.
Coupled with the high degree of freedom afforded to students to craft their own schedule, students may find themselves in a procrastinative rut several times throughout their college career.
[If you find yourself unable to break out of a rut, you may be depressed, and you should go to the student counseling service on campus.]
The best defense against procrastination is to acknowledge it and install safeguards to prevent it.
- If you're prone to wasting time online, block your time-wasting sites with tools like LeechBlock, WasteNoTime and StayFocusd.
- Go to the library to study or work. (If you need a little more ambient activity, try a coffee shop.)
- Ditch TV.
- Never study in bed.
Pay attention in lecture. Don't have your phone, laptop or tablet out where it can distract you. If you want to take notes on your laptop, disable wi-fi.
At some point, every college student hits a phase where they subsist mostly on coffee, ramen and free pizza. Don't stay in that phase for long.
Many college students also find themselves packing on weight for the first time in their lives. If you find yourself gaining weight, survey your caloric input and expenditure for a week.
Exercise is a stimulant for the creative thinking critical to success in college. By exercise, I refer to anything other than sedentary inactivity.
Moreover, the years between 18 and 22 are a prime time to exercise. Your body will never produce the same results for so little effort ever again. Your high metabolism makes it easy to manipulate your weight.
Your ability to rapidly (and fully) recover from minor injury allows you to exercise with an intensity that will not be possible even a decade later.
The (usually free) gym on campus gives you access to lots of equipment, but you can also make your dorm room into a mini-gym for day-round intermittent exercise.
Keep a pair of comfortable running shoes by the door. Try jogging to class a couple days a week!
Save time; save money
The pricing structure for credit hours is not linear.
When I was an undergrad, the price for more than 12 credit hours in a semester was exactly the same as 12 credit hours: every class I took past 12 credit hours had no additional cost.
By taking the maximum allowable 21 credit hours (about 7 classes) per semester, each semester, I cut my total tuition bill by 42%! Your university almost certainly has a similar non-linear pricing structure.
Warning: A reader wrote to warn against attempting this approach until one has sufficiently adapted to the rigors of collegiate instruction. Attempting to take a heavy course load before one is adequately prepared may lead to burnout, and should be attempted only with caution. It is certainly not advised to take this approach in the first semester.
Precious slots in some courses fill up quickly. Get access to priority registration if at all possible.
Some schools offer early registration as a perk for participating in certain programs on campus, or for having "honors" standing.
If you're an incoming freshman, you may be able to register using your student ID and password during other summer orientation sessions: try to register online during the first orientation session.
Regardless of priority, register for classes on the earliest possible date.
If a class you want is full, check for drops weekly until the first week. In the first week itself, check several times each day. Most classes will churn 5-10% of their enrollment in the first week, and you can usually sneak in.
Take courses from the best teachers
Don't take your major classes from the "easy" professors. Take your major classes from the good professors.
Ask around among fellow students to figure out the best professors to take. Avoid professors that are difficult out of cruelty.
If a professor teaches a difficult course as a byproduct of a sincere desire to impart deep knowledge, take that class!
Don't pay full price for textbooks
Textbook pricing is morally bankrupt. Never pay full price for a textbook. Check online for cheap prices on used textbooks.
Sometimes, a professor orders a textbook for only a couple of its chapters. In this case, borrowing the book from the school library is the best option.
Most colleges have a campus police number to call to request an escort. Label the emergency, dispatch and escort numbers (if different) in your phone, and keep them in favorites/speed dial.
If you're out on campus late, don't even hesitate to call for an escort back to your room.
Confront your weaknesses
The material you learn in class matters. The character you develop outside of class matters a lot more.
College is a chance to systematically confront your personal weaknesses in the safety of a four-year sandbox. When you start college, make a list of the axes along which you want to see personal growth over the next four years.
Find the environments that foster that growth. Join the organizations that support it. Make the friends that reflect it.