Surviving—Better Yet, Thriving—in College
* This is not meant to be comprehensive. There are plenty of college survival guides out there. This guide covers some points I find particularly important from my long experience working with first-year college students. (Click on the triangles to collapse points.)
* College is a whole different ballgame from high school. See
V Setting your goals: If you don't know where you're going, any path will take you there.
* This is hard: You may not have a path planned out (and that's probably a good thing)
* But in that case, one of your goals should be flexibility and breadth of opportunities available.
V Some possible goals
V Learning a lot
* This covers many things: Learning how the world works, learning how to think like a scholar, learning how to do independent research (solve new problems), learning how to get along with diverse people, learning how to live (semi-)independently, learning the fundamentals of some academic field
V Preparing for the future
* Getting job skills (or the foundations for job skills that you will enhance in graduate or professional school, or actually on the job)
* A college's internship programs, career planning/placement office, and network of alumni all help with this.
V Making friends and having a good time
* This is an important part of college, but not the most important. You might also accomplish this by running away to join the circus, for example.
V Pursuing your goals
V Academically, don't play it safe
V Take a wide variety of courses
* Take courses in areas you don't think you'll like and don't think you're good at. Your first year in college is not a time to be limiting your horizons to what's comfortable. But do some advance research to find the very best instructors.
V If you succeed at everything you try, you're not trying enough things
* Trying for a 4.0 is one of the stupidest strategies in college. If you end up with one, that's great, but never choose a course because you're afraid you'll get a low grade. Pass-fail courses can help in these situations.
V You can be good at something even if you find it hard work.
* Smart people expect the things they're good at to come easily, without a lot of effort to understand it or to produce good work. If they find something difficult or slow to acquire, they may think, "I'm not good at this." This is a huge mistake. There are depths to any topic, and getting to the front edge of a field will always require some serious work. Nobody in any field just knocks off a masterpiece (or even just decent, professional work) in a morning's time.
V Keep an eye out for lectures, talks, seminars that aren't connected to a class.
* Colleges often have visitors come through and they often make presentations. This is a low-commitment way to hear about a lot of new things.
* Keep an eye out for performances and exhibits of all kinds, and go to every one you can. After you leave college it won't be this easy again until you retire.
V Other perspectives
V Stay safe personally
V Cars
* Automobile accidents kill more college students than anything else.
* You know who drinks or does drugs. Don't drive with them.
* Even at the risk of killing the party vibe, don't drive (as driver or passenger) with more people in the car than it was designed to hold, don't drive without a seatbelt, don't let two people share one seatbelt (you'll get squished), don't drive too fast, don't drive to show off, don't drive when you're angry or upset.
* If the climate isn't what you're used to driving in (e.g., ice on the roads), get some practice before venturing out.
* Do all the rock-and-roll you want (just keep the volume below hearing-damage levels)
V Drugs and alcohol
* Mostly, it's illegal, and in some states the penalties are draconian (often much harsher than when your parents smoked dope in the 60s). Your dorm may be dreary, but it beats a jail cell; the food's better, too. Work to change the laws if you want, but be careful about risking your future, and be careful of people who say, "Oh, come on; nothing's going to happen; they don't really care; I've never been hassled before; everybody does it; they don't bust college students."
* Nobody really knows the long-term health effects of casual, recreational drug use. There are no pharmaceutical companies funding closely controlled studies of coke or speed or even marijuana.
* If you plan to experiment anyway, do it on your own terms where it's totally safe. You don't know just how you'll react. Have a trusted friend nearby. Make sure you have a way to get home.
V Sex
* Sex is your personal choice. Do it only when you, yourself are ready, willing, and able (and then, only when your partner is the same). If that's not during your college years, that's fine, no matter what anyone else has done or is doing. Anyone who tries to encourage you after you have declined is not a friend.
* Always practice safe sex. Every single time, no matter how passionate the moment. Be careful of anybody who encourages you to do otherwise, no matter how much you like them, no matter what they say.
V Parties
V College parties are part of the experience.
* Avoid the punch. Heaven knows what's in it.
* Head home when the rowdiness level gets too high. Always carry money for a cab.
* Head home if you see illegal drugs. A bust doesn't discriminate between users and bystanders.
* You can also meet people in class, in campus activities and organizations, in community activities. You can have real conversations in most of those places, too.
V Finance
* If you have a credit card, keep track of everything you charge and how much your current balance is. Your monthly bill should never be a surprise. Pay your bill in full every month without fail. This builds a credit rating and saves you from the voracious jaws of the credit card companies, who want nothing more than for you to build up a huge balance at 29% interest.
V Health
* Look out for the "freshman 15" pounds you might gain because food is readily available. Don't subsist totally on junk food. Try to get some regular exercise (which is a good stress reliever, too).
* During cold and flu season especially, wash your hands frequently, avoid contact with sniffling people, try not to touch your face after touching door handles. It's no fun to miss class because you're sick in bed.
* Eat right. Dress warm. Your mother was right.
V You can try to do it all, but don't do it all at once.
* You have a lot of options and a lot of freedom, but don't dive right into the deep end. Don't start skipping class just because you can. Don't stuff yourself just because your favorite foods are available 24/7. Don't stay up all night just because nobody says lights-out. A certain amount of experimentation is good; you don't want to be exactly the same person you were in high school. But try one thing at a time, more or less. A certain amount of testing your limits is also good: How many classes can you take in one term? How good a grade can you get if you write the paper in one all-nighter? But don't expect any significant short-cuts.
V The occasional bad day or rough patch is inevitable. The question is how you deal with it.
* No matter how independent and adventurous you are, there will come a time when the whole experience seems overwhelming. Partly it may be homesickness; partly it may be that everything is new—new place, new people, new activities, new expectations. Two or three things may hit you at once: You have a cold, you get an unexpectedly low grade; someone says something thoughtless or mean. Recognize that this will happen and expect it; it's inevitable and it's normal. Just scale back a little, maybe call home, recenter yourself.
* Don't let your reverses define or defeat you. If you get a B on a paper or in a class, don't just say, "I'm only a B student" or "This isn't the field for me." Find out what merits an A and try to achieve it. If a classmate or instructor says something that hurts your feelings, examine it carefully before taking it too much to heart; everyone occasionally has bad days, misunderstands, chooses the wrong words.
V When the going gets tough, the tough get help.
* If it's class-related, start with your instructor, TA, or tutor. They're there for you.Tutoring, academic advising, personal counseling, health care; the college will provide services in all these areas.
* The college typically provides many free or near-free services: Tutoring, academic advising, personal counseling, health care.
* Don't wait until a situation becomes critical. A stitch in time saves nine.
V Warning signs—If you hear yourself (or someone else) saying this, step back and think again:
* "I'm not going to class; I haven't done the reading so I wouldn't understand anyway." Of course you should do the reading when it's assigned, but even if you haven't, more happens in class than just a recap of the reading. There could be announcements, activities, information that will help you with the reading. Your class is a learning community; you need to be present to participate.
* "I don't want to bother the instructor (or slow down the class) by asking a question." Questions are expected and it's likely that other students will benefit from the answer to your question. If an instructor prefers you to hold questions until the end or until invited, that's fine, but otherwise, just ask.
* "I have so much to do on this project that it won't matter if I delay starting until tomorrow." This is a common procrastinator's trap; before you know it, it'll be due the next morning and you won't have started. When you first get an assignment, at least read it over immediately; that will prime you to notice relevant information, even if you don't start serious work immediately. And it's much better to spend half an hour every day than to save it up (again, because you'll have the issues in the back of your mind in between sessions; it also gives you an opportunity to ask clarifying questions and to use the Writing Center).
* For a surprising number of people, college was the best time in their life. Aspire to more than that, but enjoy it while you're there.
* Copyright © 2009 by David G. Kay. All rights reserved.