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A Freshman Year Checklist: Do 10 Things Now to Succeed Later

Feb. 7, 2018
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Rarely will you find a person who reflects on the college years and thinks, “Maybe I shouldn’t have been so adventurous.”

» MORE: College survival guide for your money

Freshman year is an ideal time to challenge yourself and expand your horizons. That adventurousness is a mindset you should have throughout your college years, whether you’re choosing your major, securing internships or leading a campus organization.

But don’t let your options overwhelm you. We asked the experts to recommend things every freshman can do to ensure success long after that first year of college is in the rearview mirror.

In the first few months . . .

1. Stay on campus. You can’t make the most of your freshman year if you don’t stick around. Fight the temptation to visit family and high schools friends on weekends, especially during the early months of the year, says Richie Gebauer, director of the first-year experience program at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pennsylvania. “Take this time to connect with peers in the residences halls, participate in campus programming and explore the local community,” he says. “Staying on campus gives students the opportunity to immerse themselves within the campus community. They’ll quickly find they no longer even consider going home on the weekends.”

2. Make time to study. As you’ve probably realized by now, college classes are wholly different from the ones you took in high school. Professors won’t hold your hand on homework assignments or remind you of a quiz coming up. Rather, they expect you’ll be aware of deadlines on your own.

But the reality is, “Many students spend the first few weeks of college getting behind in their academics and they don’t even know it,” says Molly Albart, director of student affairs planning, assessment and student success at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Know what to do before assignments are due,” she says.

3. Eat right and exercise. Don’t let your newfound freedom lead you astray in your eating and exercise habits. Anna Allen, associate dean of students at La Salle University in Philadelphia, recommends staying on top of your physical and mental health, as sleep, exercise and healthy eating habits all contribute to a better sense of well-being. And on the flip side, “becoming physically run down has been shown to have detrimental effects on academic performance,” says Allen. “Being conscious about [your] own health and living patterns, especially if this is the first time [you are] living away from home and in a community like a residence hall, can go a long way to creating a wonderful first-year experience.”

By halfway through the year . . .

4. Create a four-year plan. Once you’ve had time to acclimate to campus life, start thinking about what career you’ll want to pursue. Draft a plan for achieving your academic and career goals and discuss it with your academic counselor or career center, says Raj Bellani, dean of experiential learning and career planning at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Outlining a plan will help you recognize when you’ve reached a milestone or when you should reevaluate any academic choices.

If your major is still undeclared, Bellani suggests visiting your university’s career services office, “to take assessments and identify [your] strengths, potential career fields and academic majors of interest.” Use your freshman year to explore the classes that pique your interest most, he says.

5. Get to know at least one professor. “You’re going to need a reference for a job or internship before you know it,” says Sarah Feyerherm, associate vice president for student affairs at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. Making friends with your professors early on will lead to invaluable relationships throughout your college years. These benefits might include research opportunities, internship suggestions and stellar letters of recommendation. As Feyerherm says, “There’s nothing worse than asking your English 101 professor to write you a recommendation when you’ve never talked to her outside of class, asked for help, or participated much in the class.” Attend lectures, go to office hours and utilize your email to make the most of these relationships.

6. Join a club. Set yourself up for success by joining a campus club or organization early on. Not only will extracurriculars look great on your resume, but you’ll also get to explore your interests outside of class, learn new skills and make lasting friendships. According to David Kaiser, director of enrollment management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business in Philadelphia, “Getting involved in student organizations is one of the most critical things a student can do as a freshman, and involvement will pay significant dividends later in their college career.” For instance, Kaiser says, “Joining a business-related organization allows students the opportunity to learn and practice soft skills, such as teamwork and leadership.”

The opportunity to network is another benefit of joining a club on campus. “Guest speakers at student organization meetings offer significant value because they can provide real world, practical applications of the theories that students learn in the classroom,” Kaiser says.

7. Find a college mentor. This person may not be able to coach you through a career, but they can be someone you turn to for advice when your parents just won’t do. “Find someone whom you can ask questions and seek guidance from,” says Cathy Davenport, dean of admissions at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. “This might be the snack-bar employee, department administrative assistant, professor, or administrator who works out at the fitness center at the same time as you.”

Davenport tells us that Dickinson College offers an adult guidance program to aid its incoming students with the transition to college, called the Caring Adult Mentor Program. She says, “Students with a supportive peer group and a caring adult have the best chance at success and retention in college.”

By the end of the year . . .

8. Attend sessions at your career center. Take advantage of the resources your school has to offer, especially your school’s career center, Feyerherm says. Most students wait until the end of college to seek out career guidance; instead, get a feel for what’s ahead by visiting your career center at least once before the end of your freshman year. It’s a great place to “learn what your options are and what you’ll need to land your first internship or job,” Feyerherm says — for instance, resume or cover letter tips and interviewing skills.

9. Get organized in a way that works for you. The next few years will be filled with ups and downs,  academically, socially and financially. By the end of your first year, you’ll hopefully have learned how to deal with deadlines, final exams and the other responsibilities of your daily life. Liz Adams, director of academic advising for the University of Pittsburgh’s College of Business Administration, shares this bit of advice: “Remember that you can’t remember everything.” Write things down to jog your memory, she says. “Find a note-taking and organizational method that works for you and recognize early on that no one — but especially not a college freshman — can remember everything.”

10. Step out of your comfort zone. Take this time in your life to expand your horizons. If you limit yourself early on, you might regret not taking the chances you were given. “Be open to new and different experiences,” says Jennifer Herzog, director of new student and family programs at St. Mary’s College of California. “Meet someone different from [yourself], attend a different religious celebration from what [you] grew up with, try new foods and plan to study abroad.” Make a point of saying yes to such opportunities during your college years.

“Through these experiences,” Herzog says, you’ll “gain a greater sense of independence and usually have a great time doing it.”

New student image via Shutterstock.

This post has been updated. It was originally published Oct. 27, 2014.