The ABC's of College

Former Assistant Editor, Online Specialist, Carnegie Communications

If choosing a college was as easy as ABC, 1-2-3, then there would barely be any preparation. (And CollegeXpress probably wouldn’t exist . . . lame.) But college is a crazy important decision: you start thinking about it two, three, four years before you even start, often at a time when your teeth are still adorned with braces and you don’t even have a driver’s permit. So why does it take such advanced planning? There are myriad aspects about college to consider. Sure, choosing your major is important, but what about all those other things, like location, financial aid, student activities, and other parts that play a significant role in your decision? It may not be as easy as 1-2-3, but it’s not so hard that we can’t break it into the ABC’s: all the small things you need to know before diving into this big process.

Admission: What happens before enrolling at a school? Getting admitted, of course. Luckily, if you’re reading up on the subject—from writing the college essay to reviewing a detailed application timeline and even the top application mistakes—, you’re already on your way. Check out our full admission page for tons more advice!

Be safe: Seriously. Listen to your parents. Listen to campus safety officials. Listen during your orientation. College campuses are full of strangers, whether students or locals, so be wary of your surroundings and read some of these college safety tips.

Classes: Choose your classes wisely. Don’t sign up for a course or professor just because you hear it’s easy. Challenge yourself, try new things, and step outside your comfort zone to best prepare you for life beyond college. Trust us: getting an easy A isn’t career preparation.

Dorms: Love your dorm room! Keep it clean, organized, and personalized. Additionally, don’t forget that your residence hall is just a big hub for activities, so stay tuned to those bulletin boards for job opportunities, tutoring, clubs, intramural sports, and much more.

Eat well: It’s too easy to gain the freshman 15, so be careful of the all-you-can-eat buffet. Yes, college cafeteria food can be exceptionally tasty, but focus on smaller portions and nutritious foods to keep your body and mind in tip-top shape.

Financial aid: College is expensive. Find scholarships to help pay your tuition bills, and familiarize yourself with filling out the FAFSA so you can get as much aid as possible.

Graduation: The big end goal! Keep this in sight as you select courses and choose your major. For the sake of time—and your wallet—it’s best to graduate early if you can, and if not, you definitely want to graduate on time (easier said than done!). And when that day finally comes, party like a rock star!

Health: We’re not just talking about eating your veggies here. Take stock of your mental health too. College can be a stressful time, so you need to be aware of how the changes in lifestyle affect your body and mind; that way, if something doesn’t feel right, you’re able to get help—and there’s always someone who can help—if necessary.

Internships: Get that experience! Whether it’s a co-op through your school, an internship for credit, or a paid position, there’s value in practically any professional work. Immerse yourself in relevant experience to better prepare you for what’s beyond graduation.

Join: Extracurricular activities are like the dressing to your salad (unless plain lettuce is your thing . . .). Start by attending an involvement fair on campus your freshman year. Sign up for what interests you, but don’t dive in too quickly, as you may get overwhelmed. As you progress through college and get more comfortable, you can sign up for more, and even take over some leadership positions.

Knowledge: Classes are about way more than just what you retain from textbooks and PowerPoint slides. A degree program is designed to integrate a range of courses with a range of topics, providing you not just with the smarts to tackle a prospective job, but the knowledge capacity to adapt to changes in the workplace, and world.

Library: Promise us you’ll visit the library at least once! You have thousands of books at your disposal, not to mention a study space that may have far fewer distractions than your dorm room. Not only that, but many campus libraries host lectures and forums, book readings, and other occasions to stimulate your mind.

Management: Manage your time and to-do list accordingly. Be realistic and don’t take on so many tasks that your brain will explode. Be sure that you’ve mastered time management too: staying organized is key to making sure you meet all your project deadlines, study efficiently, and make every meeting for your clubs and activities.

News: Support your student news organizations, whether it’s through radio stations, TV shows, newspapers, or other means of communication. Sure, watching the national news each morning keeps you updated, but these student-run organizations are in tune with not only national/international news but what’s happening on campus—get the best of both worlds!

Openness: Expect to meet people and encounter experiences that are unlike anything you’re used to, so keep an open mind. Try to experience other cultures, take an unexpected course, eat some new cuisine, or become friends with someone with a different background. Take it upon yourself to burst any bubble and embrace what this diverse world has to offer.

Philanthropy: Volunteer, whether during the semester, summer, or spring break. Colleges have an abundance of opportunities to go out and help the community, so take some time to do some good, and maybe learn a thing or two about yourself and those around you.

Quiet time: When you’re bouncing between classes, meetings, and study sessions, sometimes you forget to stop and smell the roses. Take advantage of downtime to ease your mind and collect your thoughts, and try some methods like yoga, meditating, reading, or anything that helps you relax and de-stress.

Roommates: You’re almost certainly going to have roommates at some point in college, so do what you can to make the relationship work! Communicate openly, have reasonable expectations, and know where to go if you run into any issues. You and your roommate(s) can be best friends, enemies, or anything in between, so be ready for anything.

Study abroad: When you start your career, it’s much harder to travel overseas, so if you can, do it now! There are myriad reasons to study abroad, so step out of your comfort zone (and country) and learn a bit about the world, all while working on your degree.

Test preparation: Get ready for all sorts of tests: ACTs, SATs, midterms, finals, the list goes on and on. But don’t worry, we’ve got you covered, whether it’s what you’re doing wrong in SAT prep or study smart tips.

Undecided: The world won’t come to an end if you enter college undecided, we swear! Just know what you need to do to explore college majors: take general education courses to dabble in a range of subject areas, talk to academic advisors, and get involved in activities to find out what you’re meant to do.

Varsity: Let’s face it: we love sports. And athletic events offer a wonderful sense of community at any institution Go to watch your favorite team play the school rival, or if you’d rather be on the field than in the stands, look into recruitment or join intramural sports. Either way, you’ll meet new people, stay in shape, and play the game you love. Not bad huh?

Workout: Speaking of sports, maintain your health and fitness at school. This can be reasonably easy to do since you’ll be walking from class to class, and you’ll probably have access to a campus gym (often for free!). But hours of studying on the couch doesn’t exactly raise your heart rate, nor does 10-cent wing night. Hit up the local gym, go for jogs around campus, or play Frisbee with your friends. You’re likely going to be sitting at a desk for the rest of your life, so get moving!

XOXO: Despite what some mothers say, college is a time for you to get an education and learn about who you are—not a time to solely find a husband or wife. If you date someone and are happy, that’s great, but don’t make it your primary focus! Also, be sure that your relationship is a healthy one, and know where to go if it isn’t.

You: Your college years should be about you and what you want for your future: not your parents, not your college counselor, not your boyfriend/girlfriend. Consult with these people for advice, but in the end, you know yourself better than anyone else, so choose a school, major, job, etc. that’s best for you.

ZZZ: Sleep is a beautiful thing—get plenty of it! You’ve heard all about the studies that recommend six to eight hours of sleep a night, and you should take that seriously so you can focus on your studies and activities. And please, avoid those all-nighters.

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