In the late summer of 2008, I was exactly where you are now. I was scared senseless at the prospect of college. I was an incoming freshman at the College of William & Mary in beautiful (but steamy hot in late August during move-in) Williamsburg. I didn’t fully understand how registering for classes worked yet. Or how to and if I’d make friends. Or what living on my own would be like. Or if I could survive in a tiny attic dorm room with no air conditioning. I was a complicated mess of tears and anxiety, but I was also incredibly excited because THIS is what I had been working towards in high school. I was finally going to get to break out from under my parents’ fairly strong grip and leave my small town (non-existent) reputation behind. To me, college had always symbolized freedom and adulthood and “getting to live” for the first time. I had all these grand plans! But then reality set in and many of those plans were either complete fantasy (because, well, the world just doesn’t work like that, honey) or I missed out on my opportunities to enact them because of fear.
So if you’re a college freshman this year, then read on! Because I’ve got some tips to help you rock being a college freshman in a way I wish I could have.
- Don’t let your parents control your life.
This was one of my biggest struggles. My parents couldn’t let go. And I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. If you’re going away to college (and by that I mean you’ll no longer be living in your parents’ house), you have to set boundaries. I didn’t. I called my parents every day even when I didn’t have time or have anything new to report because they HAD to know that I was safe. I’m very grateful that my parents love me enough that they want to know I’m safe all the time, but I could have made my freshman transition to college a lot smoother if I had found a way to distance myself from my parents pretty early on. A lot of my friends had a certain day of the week that they would call their parents and catch them up on the week which I thought worked really well and envied. My parents weren’t big into texting when I first went away to college so that is also another good solution for freshman now. Rather than calling every day, an “I’m safe and alive and back in my dorm” text every night might be a good way to assuage their fears on a daily basis. Essentially I spent a lot of time alone in my dorm room those first few weeks consoling my parents about me being gone when I wanted to (and should have been) out meeting new people and trying new things. You may not have overprotective parents like mine so this doesn’t sound like a problem, but if you do, just remember that they’ll survive without hearing your voice every day. You just have to be kind but firm upfront when setting communication and visiting boundaries.
- Say good-bye to (most) of your old life.
I also spent a lot of time clinging to what little social life I had back home. In my case, it was a boyfriend still in high school struggling to deal with this new long distance relationship and me having all these new experiences. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to keep a long-distance relationship going when entering college, but I know from my own experience and that of many girls I met in college, these relationships didn’t last long. And it caused a lot of strife for me because, like with my parents, I spent a lot of those first few weeks in my room on the phone with the paranoid boyfriend instead of hanging out with my hall mates which I do credit with my relative “outsider” status on my hall by the end of the first semester. And it’s something I really regret because I think I could have been really good friends with many of those people, but I never gave myself the chance to.
This doesn’t just mean boyfriends either. I would shy away from running home every weekend if you live relatively close by. There are all kinds of excuses for why you “need” to be home. “But I teach a Sunday School class at my home church!” Or “I’m a big influencer in my high school’s choir program and I need to be there for practices.” No. Just no. Find a new church and Sunday school program near your school. Join a college choir or acapella group. Someone once told me that no one is irreplaceable which at the time I thought was really rude and high-strung. But with experience I realize it’s not meant to be hurtful. It’s just a fact of life. Sunday School and your high school choir will go on without you. And you, in the meantime, can find a new, awesome activity or group to commit your talents to.
- There’s time for more than just academics.
I’m a super crazy perfectionist most of the time. I struggled with it in high school and vowed to myself that I would be better in college, but then I found I was sequestering myself in my room during first semester midterms and not eating or talking to anyone. And I realized that was not cool. College is an awesome place because not only do you have the opportunity to get a great education and train yourself for your future profession, but there’s also something ALWAYS going on and many times it’s free. (It’s definitely more likely free or cheaper than anything you’ll do in your post-graduate life, let me tell you.) So go to the free movie on Friday night with your hallmates. Or hang out in the quad during a class break instead of running back to your dorm to study. You can study AND socialize that way. Gee, a party once in a while certainly won’t hurt you either.
- College classes will be harder than any classes you’ve taken before. (Unless you went to a magnet or college prep school in which case, they’ll probably be about the same if you had a good program).
For everyone who read #3 and thought, “Well duh! I’m here for the party anyway!” My advice to you is that college is much more challenging than anything you’ve done in high school. I feel like I had a pretty good academic transition because I went to a really good magnet school that VERY MUCH prepared me for a college workload. But for most of my peers, I had many conversations about their tough transitions. Like how much reading they had to do on their own because professors don’t usually lecture straight from a textbook. You might have to read 4 chapters and several articles and write a short response paper all for one class and then the professor lectures on topics related to your readings, but with the assumption that you’ve synthesized what you’ve read already and can apply it to the questions she’s raising in class. It’s tough if you haven’t really learned to use any critical or analytical thinking skills in high school. But it’s perfectly possible to do if you really commit to your studies right off the bat. And my next tip is also relevant here.
- Talk to your professors—“office hours” are there for a reason.
I was so afraid to go to my professors’ office hours and actually use them to initially, discuss any problems I was having, but even more importantly, get to know them as people and possibly find a mentor in one or more of them. Do you want to be successful after college? Get to know your professors, especially ones in your potential field of study. They’ll be able to show you various road maps to get to where you want to be in life.
- Many colleges like to make living difficult for freshman in order to weed out the weak.
My freshman dorm consisted of a tiny attic room with beautiful new furniture (which was great) but the slanted ceilings and ceiling high bookshelves on the desks DID NOT mix and our room ended up being a super cramped, maze of furniture. Oh, and did I mention there was no air-conditioning? I mean, it’s not like Williamsburg is a sweltering swamp for a decent portion of the year or anything.
The key is though not to be discouraged. I lived through some sorely disappointing college living conditions. I always believed my dorm room would look like some colorful bachelorette pad out of Seventeen Magazine or Zoey 101, but I was definitely mistaken. Not even the newest, nicest dorms that only seniors could get ever lived up to my expectations. Part of college is living uncomfortably in order to get the best education for your money.
- The Freshman Fifteen is real, but it doesn’t just mean going up in weight. For some people it means down.
I actually lost about 15 pounds as a freshman. I remember going home and all my family trying to force food on me because “I just looked too skinny,” they said. So while I had unlimited meals on my meal plan at the all-you-can-eat buffets, my particular palate and increased exercise of having to walk EVERYWHERE because freshman aren’t allowed cars afforded me a deficit in weight rather than the dreaded and forewarned gain. I think the point though is to really be aware of what you’re putting into and doing with your body and how it’s reacting to it. Take care of yourself! Whether you go up or down or even stay the same in weight, make sure you’re getting enough nutrition and exercise.
- Don’t be afraid to try new things—you might find a new love! Or come out with a funny story.
One the greatest things about college is that it’s essentially a clean slate for you in a lot of areas of your life. And because you’re starting fresh, you have the opportunity to try new things without the judgment from old peers or sometimes even family. That might mean experimenting with different forms of worship or religions, learning a new skill, trying out for a choir when you’ve never sung publicly before or even just talking to a stranger who you think you have nothing in common with. You never know what will happen! You might fail, and that’s okay! Everybody fails sometimes. Just don’t stop trying to find what fits you.
- Go to class, take notes, use the library, don’t bring your computer to class unless you ABSOLUTELY need it, make study guides, and start working on projects and papers as soon as you hear about them not a week beforehand.
This is my “do your best in school” bullet because the point of going to college in the first place is to better your education and get a degree, and while “finding yourself” is a wonderful addition to the equation, that’s not what college should be all about. Like if you fail your classes but suddenly become the most popular girl in school (something that never would have happened back in high school), well…YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG. As good as it might feel to have that victory of popularity, there’s no point in going into debt with student loans just so you can “find yourself.” So actually try. There’s a lot to be learned at college!
- You can have fun in college without drinking underage.
If you evaluate college based on the media and pop culture, you’d think that part of the college sanctioned orientation involved getting smashed, but I can attest that there’s a lot more to do socially in college than drink. In fact, I never drank any alcohol until my last semester as a senior (when it was completely legal for me to do so) and even then I think over a 2-month period I had about the equivalent of 3.5 drinks. Basically, if you think your college weekends or special events need to involve drinking in order for them to be fun/worthwhile, you should probably reevaluate your priorities. You might find even more fun (and memories you can actually remember) when you take alcohol out of the equation (or at least significantly reduce its impact).
- Be sexually smart and safe.
Along with drinking, college is also synonymous with sexual experimentation, but it doesn’t have to be a breeding ground for disease and unwanted pregnancies. To be honest, I’ve never understood the “hook-up” culture. The idea of going to a frat party on a Saturday night, flirting with a guy I may or may not know well, having sex with them by the end of the night, and then doing it all over again with maybe a different guy the next weekend, blows my mind. So while, college looks like this parent-free environment where boys can stay overnight and no one will even care (except perhaps your roommate), you have to realize that just because you have the freedom, doesn’t mean you have to do anything to exercise it. Just remember that your sexual intentions may not always match those of your potential partner, which is why I consider hook-ups dangerous. And also, sex is serious—it increases your risk for disease with the more partners you have and because of our biological history, it intimately ties you to another person. Even if you’re in a monogamous relationship, you still have to weigh the possibility of a break-up and the emotional wreckage it can leave behind. It’s all about being smart and safe with your body. No one else is going to look after you better than you.
- Don’t let a relationship ruin your college experience.
Boyfriends. Girlfriends. They’re amazing! They’re awful. They can be a great part of college. Or they can ruin many beautiful memories. My advice here would be to choose your potential significant other carefully because many of your college memories will probably include them. A whirlwind romance is great until you look back on college when you’re 25 and realize you stopped hanging out with your friends or have no good memories from a particular semester because they were all with that one person who eventually ended your relationship with a spectacular but horrifying mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb.
You might find your future spouse at college (I know many couples that did!) or you might just learn more about what you want in a relationship. You might even date someone you think is your soul mate, only to graduate and realize, once outside your little university bubble, you two don’t fit well together in the real world. Who knows? Just remember to do college for you. Not your significant other.
- Make friends everywhere, they’ll come in handy.
Colleges usually do a great job during orientation at getting you to meet other students in your hall and having mixers with other student groups, but it stops there unless you make a concentrated effort to meet new people AFTER orientation. This is something I wish I’d done more. I settled into my little social anxiety bubble and didn’t meet many more people unless they were forced upon me because of classes. But don’t be like me! Meet the guy at the coffee shop! Start a conversation with the girl sketching in the quad! Talk to the students sitting around you in that giant lecture class! Not everyone you talk to is going to become your friend, but sometimes just being friendly to people goes a long way. You never know when these acquaintances might be helpful during your college experience.
I hope these 13 tips help as you transition into college or even go back as a sophomore, junior, or senior because it’s never too late to start making new friends or working hard on your education! If I could go back in time, I would do over so many of these things and follow much of my own advice above! Here’s to learning from my mistakes, making your own, and adjusting as you go!