A Professor's 11 Tips for a Successful First Year of College

Is there enough time to make it from one end of campus to another in the 10 minutes between classes? What happens if the bookstore is out of the required textbook? Will lessons from high school be completely upended for some new and mysterious way of doing things?

Here are 11 tips to help first-year students ensure their academic success.

1. The first week does matter.

It’s common for the first day or week of school to seem like a false start. It may seem acceptable to arrive to your first class late if the classroom is buried in a basement or is far from the dorm. Students often assume that nothing important happens in the first week — many even arrive to campus late from a summer vacation. But this mindset is problematic for many reasons.

Lots of classes have homework and important material right from the first lecture. Regardless of the academic content covered in those first sessions, remember that phrase “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”? That applies to the beginning of freshman year too.

If you miss class, arrive late, fall asleep, or otherwise don’t engage, you’ll get the professor’s attention immediately — though not the kind of attention you’ll want. This just starts the semester off on the wrong foot.

The importance of momentum can’t be overstated — if you make an effort in the first few weeks, the positive impetus will carry you through rough times later.

2. Talk to your classmates, even if it feels awkward.

During my first few semesters of college, I tried so hard to pay attention and take good notes that I didn’t realize what I was missing — namely, the support and friendship of my classmates.

Professors often give assignments designed to test cooperative skills, and they notice students who thrive in groups. Classmates aren’t competitors — they’re collaborators, and even friends. That’s not to say you should write the same paper as your classmate; but studying together, putting test-cramming groups in place on social media, and even having venting sessions can help establish that feeling of camaraderie that makes everything seem more manageable.

3. Life is what happens while you’re looking at your phone.

You should never use your phone in class — it’s a pet peeve of every professor I know. But even outside of the classroom, students should be aware of how much study time is sucked up by text messaging, checking Facebook, and posting photos on Instagram.

My students often complain about having done poorly, despite spending so much time on a paper or studying for a test. I’ve noticed that this tends to happen when they are used to looking at their phones every 10 minutes, which makes it hard to focus. Internet and social-media blocking programs such as Freedom, Anti-social, Rescue Time, and Dark Room can help you stay on track when you’re studying and writing papers.

4. Take breaks to prevent breakdowns.

While sustaining concentration for long periods of time may seem like the way to go, studies show that workers (and students) are more productive if they take breaks. Research even suggests time limits — roughly 52 minutes of work followed by roughly 17 minutes of play, preferably away from the computer.

My personal strategy is to set a timer for 45 minutes during which I write, grade papers, or do other work. When the timer goes off, I get up, stretch, get something to eat, or look at silly videos of cats for 15 minutes, and then I start the clock again. Working for about 45 minutes seems much less daunting than working for six or eight hours, and breaks are important for refueling and absorbing information. There is even an app called 30/30 that helps you set timers for your tasks and breaks.

It’s also helpful to vary your study or work environment (research shows that studying in different settings helps the brain retain information). Better yet, go outside! Get some fresh air. Do something totally unrelated to the assignment. You know how your best thoughts occur to you on a drive or in the shower? Providing these opportunities will help with both your schoolwork and sanity.

5. Less can be more when it comes to credits.

Tempted to take five classes or 20-credit hours your first semester? Think again. Such ambition is laudable, but freshman year is as much about acclimating to the campus, freedom, living situation, and social scene as it is about cramming for classes. It’s tough to do all that if you’re on an overloaded class schedule. First year is the worst time to drown in coursework. Besides, you also want to leave time open for extracurriculars.

One semester, I taught five writing courses, and it nearly killed me — that fifth one felt like 10 times more work than the others. Students who are in a rush to accrue credits can take summer courses instead.

6. Join student groups, but don’t overcommit.

One of the best ways to create a sense of belonging on campus is to join student groups. Most schools have everything from academic organizations to religious associations to athletic clubs to volunteer opportunities, and many hold an activities fair in the first few weeks to give students a sense of possibilities.

Joining one or two groups at the beginning of freshman year is a great idea for socializing and building your resume. Just be sure not to overcommit — joining six organizations can feel a little bit like taking six classes.

7. Secure disability letters, accommodations, and excused absences as soon as possible.

Students who need accommodations for academic, emotional, or physical disabilities, or related to sports or religious practices should secure them as early as possible. If you need extended time on tests or assignments, or accommodations that allow for notetakers or recorded lectures, you should visit the school’s disability services office within the first week of classes. It can be tough to be proactive about absences and other special needs, but the sooner you get letters to your professors, the better off everyone will be.

8. Treat teaching assistants (TAs) like professors.

Many college freshmen are surprised when TAs give lectures and grade their tests. I’ve often heard students complain that their TAs aren’t “real” teachers. Okay, so maybe the TA isn’t the professor whose name appears on your transcript, but putting these educators into a lower category is a bad strategy.

TAs, like professors, can be amazing, mediocre, and everything in between. They also determine grades and maintain office hours for extra help. A professor will get irritated at students bypassing or complaining about the TA (and so will the TA!). Treat your teaching assistant with respect, just as you would your professor.

9. Get acquainted with your advisor and campus resources.

Colleges and universities have countless support systems in place to help students — tutors, writing centers, ESL services, health centers, emotional support and therapy, and more. These services are typically free, and using them only requires that you look them up and make an appointment.

Students sometimes feel overwhelmed, especially during freshman year, and can forget that schools have many mechanisms in place to assist them. One of the best people to turn to is your academic advisor, who can help you select classes, figure out prerequisites, and recommend additional supports if you are struggling. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is remaining a stranger to your advisor. And don’t forget professors’ office hours — use them early and often.

10. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind.

My parents didn’t allow me to eat sugary cereals, so when I first got to college, I had Cocoa Puffs — sometimes in chocolate milk (how gross is that?) — every single day. No wonder I was frequently tired and cranky.

Students are often surprised, and even overwhelmed, by the freedom and range of food choices in college. Yep, it’s possible to eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Everyone’s heard of the Freshman 15, but that’s just the start. Recent research has confirmed the relationship between the gut and the brain — unhealthy eating affects one’s emotional and cognitive states.

In college, you’ll need to maintain good health. And since students are often burning the midnight oil, as well as living in close proximity with each other, taking vitamins and supplements as part of your daily routine can help fend off illnesses that seem to occur at the worst possible times.

Exercise also helps tremendously. Studies have shown that it makes people smarter and happier, and since you’re taxing your brain all the time, it makes sense to switch it up and tax the body a little bit — and, in turn, give your brain a quick break.

11. Don’t go home until Thanksgiving.

Sure, there are exceptions to this advice — if you gets really sick, or a family member does, or there’s an important event, you will probably return home before Thanksgiving. But for many students, going home is a way to escape the difficulties of adjusting to campus life.

Almost all schools have a parents' weekend in the fall, which is a great opportunity to see family and introduce them to campus and the town. If you think of going home as an option only if absolutely necessary, you’ll be more likely to stick it out at school and solve problems on your own — which is really the whole point of the college experience.

A Closing Note

The first year of college brings many changes, and it can feel challenging to face this transition. Having these feelings is normal — in fact, the hundreds or thousands of other freshmen at your college are likely experiencing them too. Don’t forget that there are lots of people around who are invested in helping you succeed, so be sure to reach out if things become too difficult. With a little bit of help and patience, you’ll soon become a confident college student.

Want to learn more about preparing for college? Find advice for your first year of college, where you can ask questions and read articles from Noodle Experts like Joelle Renstrom.