Navigating the freshman year: tips from your fellow students

As they move further away from their last days of high school, seniors are turning their attention to the moment when they can leave for college.  Preparing for that first year is exciting and incoming freshman are getting to know their roommates online, thinking about the extra long sheets they need to buy, and making plans for traveling to campus.

I asked a few current undergraduates and recent graduates  – including my own children – about the advice that people gave them before they left for college that helped them navigate their first year.  Or, looking back with hindsight, what counsel they wish someone had passed along before they stumbled into college life.

  • “Be proactive at seeking out opportunities that campus life offers. They are not always visible and they will rarely just fall in your lap.”   [Yale ’15, Geology and Geophysics]
  • “Though it took me time to open my mind to trying new things or inviting the new into old routines, it was worth it in the end.”    [Delaware ’15, Computer Science]
  • “It is easy to slip straight into your degree requirements and you should use your first semesters to complete some requirements. But otherwise take what interests you, not what you have to.”   [Rice ’13, Structural Engineering]
  • “Ask people for recommendations on courses and good professors- you may find something new that you come to love.”   [Rice ’11, History]
  • “Explore the different majors at your school as early as possible even if you think you’re happy with the major that you’re in.”   [Yale ’14, Geology and Geophysics]
  • “I wish I had a better idea of how careers correlated to courses. Even in freshman year I wish I had known better what I could do with what I studied.”   [Rice ’11, English]
  • “Most of us won’t end up in a career related to our major, and I wish I had taken a couple of courses with career applications, like economics.”   [Rice ’11, History]
  • “Writing is always required, regardless of what you do, and I wish I had taken the time to improve on my writing and composition.”   [Rice ’12, Art History]
  • “Work really hard through your freshman year. It is easy to think you will breeze through college, but a bad first semester will damage your GPA. It’s really easy to focus on doing fun things and only working when you can fit it in, but you need to get in the rhythm of getting your work done.”   [Rice ’11, History]
  • “Anyone who tells you that he looked back after college and said, ‘Man, I wish I had spent more time in the library,’ is lying.”   [Rice ’11, Religious Studies]
  • “Freshmen come in a little wide-eyed and don’t realize that these professors are not only willing to help them but are sometimes dying to be approached by interesting students.  I came in a little shy, and didn’t make use of the people around me early enough.”    [Stanford ’11, Bio-Mechanical Engineering]
  • “Approaching professors doesn’t mean you have to become a research assistant performing menial tasks.  Your interests can drive a joint pursuit with a professor, curricular (forming research questions, leading discovery) or otherwise. It can help you do whatever you want to pursue.”   [Stanford ’12, History]
  • “I’m glad that I was told to not be afraid to reach out to professors. I got in touch with the engineering adviser even before I got to campus and met with him before classes started. He gave me great advice about class selection that really helped me, and without which I would probably would have been very overloaded first semester.”   [Yale ’15, Mechanical Engineering]
  • “I wish I had been busier first semester; I wasn’t involved with as many things as I should have been, and I wound up with a lot of free time, sort of scratching my head and thinking ‘is this it?'”   [Oberlin ’15, Undeclared/Music]
  • “Be outgoing and try to meet people because freshman year is the best time to do so.”   [Yale ’14, Geology and Geophysics]
  • “I wish I kept better track of current events. It would have rounded out my education.”   [Rice ’10, Mechanical Engineering]
  • “When I was a senior in high school, I had a huge crush on a TV character from The OC, Taylor Townsend. When Taylor was giving her valedictory address at the Harbor School, she said something that confused me as an 18-year-old:  ‘There’s no one older than a high school senior, and no one younger than a college freshman.’  Looking back, I love that notion, and I wish I applied it more when I was starting out.  I took safe risks, and didn’t do anything that was too off the radar.  I took the transition from high school to college too seriously, as if that moment were a rite of passage I had to treat with soberness.  Kids should have fun, not over-think the transition, and feel alright about stepping out of their comfort zone.  I don’t mean they should do weird things just for the sake of doing them, but I think most of the people I know played it safe because they didn’t want to put themselves out there, take a chance, and face the possibility of falling flat on their face.  Being a college freshman is a time to be young again, and I think too many kids come in wanting to seem anything but that.”   [Stanford ’11, History]















Almost there: the academic performance of accepted students

With March well on its way, many high school seniors have either been accepted into Early application schools or are beginning to receive acceptance letters from their Regular decision colleges. After the celebration and relief, some will begin to believe they are in fact already in college and that high school is, well, so last year. They will start taking skating on homework, consider dropping that pesky math course that requires hard work, and say things like, “I am not really going to study history/science at college anyway.”

There is only one appropriate response: don’t! The culture of college admission often encourages students to think of high school as little more than preparation for college applications. Once you have achieved admission to college, there seems little reason to keep going in high school. But college applications are nothing but a point of transition between these two experiences – it is not the main act for either.

• Your high school education has value of its own – after all, if you don’t go to college, this may be the end of your formal schooling. Even if you go to college and study engineering, for example, you may never do much history again, and if you major in political science, other than some general education requirement, you may never be exposed to geometry again. And right now that may seem like no big loss to you, but those are important bits of knowledge in your daily life as an adult – as you measure your new kitchen counter or read your newspaper – and if miss the opportunity to gain such skills in high school, it may become harder to get back to them.

• Once you are at college, you are not starting over but building on a prior knowledge of reading, writing, and mathematical literacy. If you skip out on that preparation, you go to college just a little further behind than you may have been otherwise. Colleges know this, and so they will not look kindly on you changing your senior curriculum because “it is just not that interesting to me.” In college lack of preparation also leaves you less able to discover ideas, applications and even entire subjects that did not occur to you in high school.

• Colleges also know that high school seniors do not necessarily know what is the best preparation even for their intended major. A student who wants to study psychology may need to have a foundation in statistical analysis, an engineering student may find it useful to know some economics or urban studies, and if you fancy yourself a CSI analyst in Miami, you need biochemistry. You are in effect also preparing yourself for the unknown.

• There are also practical reasons why colleges look askance at accepted high school students who give up on rigorous senior learning. They know that if the academic enterprise cannot keep you motivated in high school, it won’t in college either and before too long they may see you before a disciplinary committee on academic progress. They know that if you did not learn good study skills and habits of self-motivation and discipline in high school, your risk of failure at college increases exponentially.

And so, contrary to what you may hope or believe, colleges pay attention to your senior performance even after you have been accepted. If you want to drop an academic course, you simply have to request permission from the college first, and the more selective your college, the more likely they are to say no. In the summer they will check your final school report to see if you maintained the academic record that gave them reason to accept you (measured by grades and courses), and if you did not, you will probably hear from them. Students can have their offers of admission revoked, although this is a rare occurrence. They are more likely to receive from their college a letter of reprimand or a request for an explanation – what the Dean of Admissions at Connecticut College calls an “oops” letter. Having such evidence of your former, slacker self in your file at college is no way to start this new, exciting journey!