Even though you’ve got the dorm assignment, the roommate, and the Target bill that will absorb your last summer paycheck, it’s hard to believe starting college is just around the corner.
College presents unanticipated challenges for even the most prepared students. Here is what you can expect to encounter as a freshman, along with advice on how to deal with some of the most common first-year issues:
1. You may not get the same grades you got in high school.
College courses will challenge you on a new level. Most likely, you won’t get the sorts of marks you earned in high school, even if you’ve taken several AP and honors courses. It’ll take some time to adapt to new expectations and distractions.
You may have the sharpest mind in any one class, but college life will test your concentration with constant social opportunities, part-time work, roommate issues, and assignment overload.
What you can do: If you can, be smart about the classes you take your first semester. Don’t overload your schedule with too many challenging courses. Give yourself a chance to adapt to your new environment before taking too much on. If you find yourself struggling with your courses, there are lots of resources you can use! You can form a study group with other students, reach out to a tutor on campus, or ask your professors for advice.
2. There will be less “hand holding” from your professors.
The relationships you have with your professors may be very different from the ones you had with your high school teachers. Professors may not always know your name, or remind you that your assignment was due yesterday. They will give you more autonomy over your education than your teachers did; they expect you to handle that freedom with responsibility and maturity.
This doesn’t mean you can’t cultivate a close relationship with your professors. In fact, they are some of the most valuable resources you will have access to in college, so you should make it a priority to get to know them.
What you can do: Professors really appreciate it when students make the effort to reach out, especially outside of class. Whether you are having trouble with an assignment or want to explore what it means to pursue a certain degree or career, professors have lots of knowledge they are eager to share. Send an email or visit during office hours. You’ll do better in your courses and you may even create important relationships you’ll maintain for the rest of your life.
3. There will always be something to do other than your coursework.
The social scene will beckon you, no matter how much of a wallflower you were back home. There will be plenty of activities other than schoolwork that will draw you in, from joining a club to attending a student performance — or from checking out a new restaurant nearby to hanging out with your friends on the quad. You may very well feel that you are missing out on social opportunities by hitting the library. But remember, it is hard to raise a low GPA.
What you can do: Establish study hours right away. Get a planner, schedule study dates with yourself, and trust that this discipline will make your life easier when classes get harder. This will help you leave time to enjoy non-academic opportunities while still ensuring that you get all your classwork done.
4. Sometimes, you will feel homesick.
Even students eager to live on their own find themselves missing home. You may feel a pang of homesickness when you miss your sister’s birthday, or your dog gets sick, or your roommate is being noisy and you are longing for your old room. There is comfort in familiarity and college is full of the unfamiliar.
What you can do: Take care of yourself and call home when you’re feeling down. Set a recurring time to talk to friends or family. Put up pictures of your house and your family on your desk or your walls. It may take a little while, but you’ll find your niche. It helps if you distract yourself by engaging with your new home — actively look for a club, religious group, or intramural team to join. If you are having trouble adapting, you can reach out to the mental health professionals at your school. Seeing a therapist can give you the tools to smooth out your transition.
5. Plagiarism is tempting, but it could lead to expulsion.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by your college courses, you may feel tempted to pass off someone else’s work as your own. When you are caught, however, your name will most likely come before an honors/ethics board composed of professors, students, and/or administrators who may very well recommend your expulsion.
What you can do: If you don’t know how to tackle an assignment, talk to your professor, ask a teaching assistant (TA), or seek out a student tutoring service or writing center. Regardless of your major, writing centers can help you learn how to use proper documentation and cite your research. A great online resource is the Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab.
6. You will live with debt longer than you will live at college.
Some start feeling the financial burden of their tuition soon after arriving on campus. Don’t ignore this concern. It’s easy to put off financial worries, but when you are in your 40s and still paying off your undergraduate years, you may wish you spent more time thinking about finances now.
What you can do: Make an appointment with a financial aid worker and talk about your concerns with her. Ask for information on grants or scholarships that you overlooked before. And if you still feel heightened anxiety, consider transferring to a more affordable school. An in-state college may not have seemed as desirable as your private liberal arts school while you were at home, but chances are, it will offer you a great education at a more affordable rate.
7. Your advisor does not work just for you.
While it is your academic advisor’s job to guide you through your college journey, the reality is that she will not always be available to help. Keep in mind that your advisor will probably be a professor with a full course load, committee responsibilities, and a host of students to advise.
What you can do: Don’t rely on this person alone to keep your coursework on track. Read your program’s description and course outline to educate yourself on the classes that you need, their prerequisites, and in which semesters they are offered. If you are concerned that you aren’t getting the planning help that you need to meet your degree goal, talk to your professors, TA’s, and even resident assistant (RA).
8. It can seem like no one else is struggling.
Not everybody is having more fun than you or doing better in their courses. Resist the temptation to compare yourself to others. Your friends may be editing their social media accounts and telling all their followers that they’re having a blast and that they’re successful in all their endeavors. In reality, they likely share the same transitional challenges that you’re dealing with.
What you can do: Instead of spending endless time on others’ social media profiles, turn off your phone and connect with people in person. Being open about your struggles (if you feel comfortable doing so) may lead other people to share what they are going through as well. Also, exposing yourself to a new experience — even once — is a great way to combat the feeling that you are missing out. Many schools keep an up-to-date calendar of social events and lectures on their student life webpage.
9. You never know where a photo of you may appear.
Guard your privacy. Promoting a carefree, fun-loving image may feel exhilarating, but your newfound freedom could turn against you in the blink of an eye. When someone takes a picture, it’s totally out of your control. You never know where or when it may surface again.
What you can do: Don’t take or let someone else take compromising photos of you. Stay sober and know your bearings. If you think you may be caught in an uncomfortable situation, make an appointment with your school’s student counseling center. A professional can help you manage your anxiety and consider future scenarios.
10. Your first roommate does not have to be your last.
Living situations can affect your grades and your college life for better or worse. It’s difficult to live with a non-family member in an intimate situation (especially in those tiny dorm rooms). No matter who you live with, you will have to contend with differences in your roommate’s personality, organizational preferences, schedule, or lifestyle.
What you can do: Ask your roommate to have a frank conversation with you about both of your expectations. Maybe write a contract. This type of agreement may feel awkward to discuss, but when difficulties arise, you’ll be glad to have a reference point in writing. If you are unhappy, and especially if you feel unsafe, tell your RA. She is there to help you troubleshoot uncomfortable situations.
Remember, you're not alone.
Even though you are bound to encounter some of these challenges your first year of college, know that all those confident upperclassmen you see on campus have gone through this transition before and made it to the other side. With time, and with the knowledge that you can reach out for help whenever you need it, you’ll make it through your freshman year, too.
You may encounter problems of a more serious nature.
Trust your gut. If someone says something that offends you, makes you uncomfortable, or gives you unwanted attention, try to be clear and direct about your feelings. If necessary and possible, remove yourself from the situation or let others know you’d like them to intervene. You feel the way that you do for a reason — don’t talk yourself into thinking that it’s normal to feel uncomfortable. Your safety should be your number one priority.
What you can do: If you feel comfortable doing so, talk the situation over in person with a roommate or a friend, and seek the guidance of campus security and/or student affairs. If you decide you want to pursue action against the person that made you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, it will be important to contact administrators to explore your options. If you are emotionally affected by this encounter, you may want to consider reaching out to the mental health services offered at your college.
Want to know more about what it is like to start college? Check out this free advice for your first year of college, where you can ask pressing questions and read advice from Noodle Experts like Carrie Hagan.