First-year college students who struggle academically or socially often fall into one of two camps: The homesick, whose longing for home causes them to miss out on many of the opportunities the first year on campus has to offer. And the undisciplined, whose new-found independence results in poor choices and bad grades.
It’s normal to be a little homesick, but don’t let it hold you back. Remember, you’re surrounded by other people your age who are going through the same thing. As for independence—sure, it’s great to be on your own—finally. But with independence comes responsibility. Show everyone you can handle it—and don’t forget why you are in college (or the big financial investment that got you there): to further your education. Don’t screw up this great opportunity.
The vast majority of first-year students fall somewhere between those two extremes. No matter your situation, the tips below can get you off to a good start:
Take advantage of orientation, welcome-to-campus events and every opportunity to meet new people. If your high school friends chose the same school, it’s OK to keep in touch, but don’t make the mistake of hanging out only with them. You won’t grow—and neither will they.
Go to class! This probably should be No. 1 on the list. You’ll have opportunities to find notes and assignments online. Don’t rely on that. There’s no substitute for being in class, taking your own notes, participating in discussions and hearing the professor’s insights. This is what you’re paying for.
Live on campus your first year. It might be tempting to rent an apartment or house with friends, but you’ll miss opportunities to meet people and soak up the campus culture. If you think living off campus will save money, make sure you crunch the numbers and consider hidden costs, like transportation and utilities.
Connect with your instructors. Most will give you a schedule of office hours—times when you can meet with them one-on-one to ask questions and get advice. Making these connections can result in better grades and more opportunities.
Ask questions. Confused about something in class or not sure how to handle a situation that arises now that you’re on your own? Many students are too intimidated to ask questions. Don’t be. Friends, family, professors, advisors—they’ll welcome your questions because they want you to succeed.
Learn how to study. Maybe high school was easy for you and you rarely had to study. Or maybe high school was a challenge. Either way—it’s never too late to up your studying game. Talk to professors or academic advisors for advice or join study groups. Some schools even offer classes to improve basic study skills.
Learn effective time management. If you’re a chronic procrastinator or feel overwhelmed by everything college throws at you, seek out advice on managing your time more effectively. Most schools offer tools to learn this skill.
Get enough sleep. Studies show that college students who don’t get enough sleep or who have erratic sleep schedules are sick more often and get lower grades. Take care of yourself and your physical and mental health by not skimping on sleep. But don’t sleep through your alarm and miss class! (In fact, don’t keep your alarm right next to your bed.)
Mental health is worth your time
If you broke your arm or came down with the flu, you wouldn’t hesitate to seek help at the campus health center. Dealing with mental health issues shouldn’t be any different. Big life changes—like going away to college—can cause mental health challenges, so it’s important to watch for signs that you or a friend might need help. These are among the warning signs to be aware of. Find more information at The National Alliance for Mental Illness website, nami.org.
- Withdrawing or seeming “down” for more than two weeks.
- Sudden changes in sleep patterns or appetite.
- Severe, sudden mood swings.
- Repeated excessive use of drugs or alcohol.
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness.
- Self-harming behaviors/talk of suicide.
How to respond
- Reach out to a school counselor or someone at the campus mental health center for advice. They will want to help.
- If you are concerned about a friend, share your concerns with your friend in a nonjudgmental, compassionate way. Avoid dismissive language like “you’ll get over it,” or “toughen up.”
- Support your friend by checking in with them and including them in your plans. Even if they don’t join you, they will appreciate being asked.