This marks the 22nd year (22!) since I went to school as a first-year student. Through the years, I’ve thought so much about what made the difference between my experiences and those others in similar scenarios. Additionally, as a professor, I’ve thought so much about what made the difference in students I’ve met.

I’m going to share a few of those things I’ve wished I knew or that I wish I could have shared.

  1. Go to class. No one will set your alarm and make you go to class. But, you’ll learn so much, so much easier than if you try to learn it all on your own. Plus you’ll meet your prof! (See #2!)
  2. Meet your professors. All of them. Visit them during office hours (when they’ve committed to being available to you), introduce yourself, and be decent. The shared humanity will make a difference. Visible effort goes a long way, too.
  3. Do the homework and the extra credit. If your prof provides opportunities to be assessed (homework, papers, quizzes, tests, labs, etc.) do the work and work hard. Missed points add up. If you have the opportunity to earn extra credit points, take it! Later, if you’re begging for C- (rather than a D+) and you didn’t do the extra credit, you can bet that will come back up.
  4. Find a hiding place to study. On the nth floor of that building that no one visits, there will be a safe spot to go to and at which you can study undisturbed. Find it, own it, and learn to love it. The average A student studies more than 2 hours per each hour in the classroom (i.e., a 3-hour class probably requires at least 6 hours of homework/study per week!). If you wanted to get better at an athletic event, you’d practice! What’s the difference, here?
  5. Learn how much you’re paying in tuition, room, and board. You’re not going for free. Once you know your annual expenses, compute how much each and every course meeting costs. I bet you skip class less (see #1). This will also help you to curtail other expenses.
  6. Read the syllabus and learn to compute your grade in a course. If you don’t know how your grade is determined (tests count for 30%, etc.) and how to compute your average (arithmetically), then you’re at the whim of even an arithmetic error. Fortunately, many professors maintain this in the LMS grade book–but that doesn’t mean it was computed correctly.
  7. Learn where the support structures are on campus. We are desperately trying to support you! Need help in your math class? Visit the tutoring center! Need help on that paper? Visit the writing center! Need help finding resources for your project? Visit the library and the librarian! Need emotional or psychological help? Visit the counselors. Need food? Find the food pantry (probably with student affairs). Afraid to leave that awesome study place cause it’s so late at night? Call campus security.
  8. Learn how to use a planner/planner application. Schedule out the things you have to do (class, work, etc.), then schedule out time to do homework, and schedule out time for fun. Stick to it! You’ll recognize how much time you were wasting doing absolutely nothing or doing things with no value.
  9. Take care of yourself. Sleep (a reasonable amount of rest), exercise (it makes a huge difference), and eat well. You’re young and probably feel bulletproof but you are not.
  10. Swallow a little pride. You don’t know everything–that’s why you went to college! When you don’t understand something in class, ask a question. I’ll guarantee that at least one other person (and perhaps the entire class) has a similar question. That attractive student nearby that you’d like to impress isn’t paying for your tuition and doesn’t have to live with your GPA. Go ahead and get past concern over what others think about you; do what’s best for you.
  11. Find a good study group. If you’ve got some really fun friends in your group but you’re all tanking tests together, then that’s a bad study group. Borrowing from #10, walk up to students that you know are doing well and ask them if you can study with them. Or strike up the conversation to build a group right away. Volunteering your place or providing a $5 pizza (if you can!) can really help cement some of those ties. You just have to be sure that you contribute, too, so go prepared.

Conclusion

I’m sure if I think long enough, I’ll come up with more than 11 reasons. But these are some of the ones that I learned, that I’ve helped some to learn, and that I’ve seen others learn.

You can’t and won’t master these in the first week. (If you’re a first-year and you’re not at home don’t forget you’re also learning to do laundry, etc., and those are pretty important, too.) But, slow, methodical, and intentional efforts get you to where you want to be. Many students don’t feel like they really have the hang of college until they’re in their third year. So, don’t panic if college doesn’t come naturally.

Finally, I’d like to wish all first-year students my very best. This is a hard transition, but don’t give up. People will say things like “maybe this just isn’t for you”–and maybe it really isn’t–but don’t let it be an easy excuse. A college education makes a tremendous difference in your quality of life, forever. Further, we are in desperate need of women and men who think clearly, weigh evidences, and can convey conclusions well. Not just for economic or technological purposes but for the sake of our civilization and way of life, we now (perhaps more than ever) need those who exercise knowledge and wisdom.

Advice for First-Year Students
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