How to Start Strong at College

Adjusting to college life requires developing helpful routines.

Posted Sep 14, 2017

By now, most college students in the United States have been back for a week or two or three. And many are enjoying their first semester of college life, including the freedom and autonomy that higher education offers. Still, it’s important to develop good habits that will guide students through their four or so years and the inevitable challenges—or at least academic hiccups—that they will face. With that in mind, I’ve crafted a crib sheet for making a solid start in college and university life.

Get to know your academic advisor. Virtually all schools assign students an advisor, someone who can counsel them about major, course, and career choices, as well as offer guidance if stresses and strains appear. Become familiar with your academic advisor—seek his or her counsel before making any choices or changes.

Treat coursework like a job. I ran into a friend recently whose third child just started college. He told me he counseled his son and his son’s friend to treat coursework like a full-time job—that is, put at least eight regular hours into it everyday. Whether you have class or not, get up early. When you aren’t in class, go to the library and do your reading and homework (taking time out for lunch and short breaks). If you do this as an 8 or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. gig, you will have most evenings free to relax and socialize or participate in college events, recognizing that some evenings will need to be dedicated to review for exams or to finish papers or other assignments.

Get a reasonable amount of sleep. Too few college students get enough sleep—many over-sleep or try to get by on five or fewer hours—both choices lead to fatigue and reduce your attentiveness. You need about eight hours to be healthy and on top of your game. Treat sleep like an extension of “treating coursework like a job.”

Find a quiet place to study. Your dorm room won’t work. Try the library or, if it’s too busy, find a vacant classroom.

Attend every class. You or your parents are paying for your education—missing class is throwing away time and money you will never get back. And your risk wrecking your course grade and your grade point average.

Keep up or even ahead with your reading for courses. Always attend class having read the material for that day so that you have a mental framework for what is being presented or discussed. Plus, if you fall behind in your reading, it can be difficult to catch up.

Take regular meals and make time for exercise. Eat three good meals each day—avoid the high calorie stuff except as an occasional treat. Go for a regular walk or a run, or hit the gym. You don’t need to do so daily (it can become an addiction in its own right) but do so two or three times a week.

Make friends and socialize—but in moderation. The freedom of college can be a double-edged sword. Have fun, go to parties, but don’t do so during the week—save fun for Friday and Saturday nights. Hitting the bars on a Monday or a Tuesday night is not a good idea. Ignore those drink specials. Remember your day job.

Create a schedule that looks weeks ahead. Know when all your exams, papers, and so on are due. Review your schedule daily. Keep track of where you are on assignments. Start long-term papers and projects early, so you can work on them incrementally and not rush at the last minute.

Working campus or other part-time jobs. If you have an on-campus job or some other part-time work, you will need to be especially vigilant when it comes to getting all your work done. Try to develop a regular schedule so that you can still complete assignments and do studying in a timely manner—if you work in a job where there is often not a lot to do (something in the library, for example, use that “downtime” to get your school work done).

Keep the home fires burning, but... Pick a time to talk to your family—once a week is fine. Calling everyday—or more than once a day—is not a good use of your time. College is a time to become more independent, to chart your own course toward adulthood. If your parents have done their job, you can figure things out without always consulting them. Save your questions for major decisions (e.g., “Should I consider studying abroad?”).

Be grateful. Attending a college or a university is a privilege, one that can be life changing. Recognize and appreciate this fact. Not everyone has your opportunity.