Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Getting a (Really) Good Start in College

Some helpful recommendations for first year students (and others, too)

What factors—choices, behaviors, attitudes, and actions—make for a good start in college? How can a student (you, perhaps, or your child?) have a successful freshman year rather than one that is mediocre or worse? College professors, especially—perhaps psychology faculty members—are asked questions like these each year when August and September roll around. The calendar is changing and so are the lives of many young men and women enrolling in college and universities for the first time (and some not so young men and women, too—those who are returning to post-secondary studies after a long hiatus from high school following a plunge into the world of work).

I am at the beach with my family for a final summer hurrah, but talk of all the students who begin their studies next week prompted me to write this blog entry (and because I am on vacation, it is admittedly breezier than most, which is somewhat fitting). Here are a few suggestions—none divinely inspired, but several easy to forget, overlook, or otherwise neglect:

  1. Accept that loneliness and a little anxiety about leaving home are normal feelings—try to look past them and to see them as temporary. Everyone feels it but some students are paralyzed by it—don’t be one of them. College is a fundamental transition and it will feel weird for some days, possibly weeks, for some even a few months. Knowing these feelings are normal can help you adjust. You anxiety is shared, not unique.
  2. Resolve to make friends as soon as you can. Greet people in your dorm. Get to know your roommate. Speak to people seated next to you in class—just a hello is fine; more may follow. All first year students welcome a friendly smile and a hello—it’s not weird or strange. Reach out. You may make a friend who will last through the college years and beyond.
  3. You are in college to study. Studying, learning, reading, writing, taking tests—the whole collegiate schmear—should be your raison d’être, your reason for being. Partying, playing video games, slacking, sleeping (in), and just goofing off have their place (limited, please)—but you should spend most of your time doing class work, ideally, three hours for every hour of class time. I know you think that is a ridiculous pair of numbers, but if you got close to that amount of study you would always—ALWAYS—make the Dean’s list—don’t believe me? Take the dare and prove me wrong.
  4. Budget your time. Successful students are not necessarily geniuses and poor students are not necessarily dullards. The (main) key to success in college is learning to use your time wisely and well—there is a time to read, a time to write, a time to reap, a time to sow—wait—you get the idea.
  5. Learn to manage your time. Yes, it is really that important: Become a time miser. Use it wisely during the day when you have long stretches and study for a reasonable amount at night, avoiding late night study, which is apt to be less effective if you are worn out.
  6. Sleep matters. Students in their late teens and early twenties need 7-8 hours of solid sleep a night. Less than that will affect your academic performance, not to mention health and well-being. Trying to be cool by getting by with 5 or less hours seems brave but is very foolish. Don’t believe me? Ask your older relatives about how much they slept and what their GPAs were like.
  7. Don’t forget regular exercise and attention to diet. These are easy to ignore in the thrown-ness of first weeks and months of college life. But don’t neglect them: Exercise keeps you healthy, promotes sleep, routine, and will keep the pounds down. Indeed, ready access to three meals a day (plus the camaraderie that comes from eating with new friends and dorm-mates) can take a toll on your waistline (the infamous “freshmen 10” or even—gasp—“15”). So, use that expensive equipment in your college’s over-the-top athletic facility —your tuition dollars are paying for it!
  8. Call home but not too much. It’s time not to sever the umbilical cord to Mom and Dad—just to stretch it a bit. Just because you can—and your smartphone enables you to do so—don’t text or call home each and every day (or worse, multiple times a day), especially to ask for advice. This is your time to learn to think and to make decisions yourself, not to rely on the home front for every decision—someday you will have to do this, anyway, why not start now? I think a healthy number of calls per week are one, maybe two (emergencies excepted, of course)—but that’s it. More than that, and it’s like you never left home. As my mother was fond of saying, “grow up or throw up.”
  9. Embrace ambiguity. You will feel “at sea” and unsure for a while: What to major in? What activities to sign up for? To pledge or not to pledge a frat or a sorority? To maintain that long distance love relationship? To begin a new one? To change your identity in a meaningful way (e.g., your hair, name, nickname, clothing style, etc.)? All of these possibilities are rich and wonderful—embrace them as you form a new you—this is your first best and really last chance to do so.
  10. Acknowledge your privilege. If you are going to college or are already in college, you are blessed and privileged more than you can imagine. You need to own that and be thankful for it. Appreciate it. Respect those who have not had your good fortune. Be grateful and appreciate your rich opportunity—don’t squander it.

Have an exceptional first year—good luck, do well, make us proud!­

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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