Last Updated: Apr 12, 2017
It seems like just yesterday we were starting college, back when Facebook was as new, awkward, and hard to monetize as the college freshmen it catered to. And as the years went on, we learned. With every seminar, crazy weekend, internship, summer break, we learned. And we emerged approximately 112% more awesome than we began. Now, we want to pass those hard-won lessons on to you.
Here are our top tips for kicking butt and taking names in college, from the academic to the social and everything in between!
- Work with your professors. Two words, one concept, you need to commit to memory: office hours. Visit your professors during these assigned periods to ask for help when you need it. The key is going at the first sign of trouble—not two weeks before the end of the semester with a string of failing grades in your wake. Professors will appreciate your effort, and don’t forget: they want you to succeed!
- Visit the academic center. Whether it’s a one-time visit to master an especially tough concept or you have regular tutoring sessions, your school’s academic counseling office is an invaluable resource. You should also meet with your academic advisor to ensure you’re on the path to an on-time, successful graduation—absolutely necessary if you’re a transfer student.
- Explore your major options. And don’t be afraid to be “undecided,” taking classes and participating in activities that allow you to explore majors that interest you. You just need to be strategic, having some idea, however vague, of what major(s) you might pursue and working closely with your academic advisor along the way. One caveat: if you’re considering an industry-specific major like engineering or nursing, you probably want to start in that program, as they tend to be focused from the very beginning. It’s easier to leave the program if you change your mind than it is to join late in the game.
- Get a study buddy. Or several. You can quiz each other before midterms and finals, you’ll have someone to rely on for notes if you miss class (due to legit reasons like sickness, not skipping! C’mon now!), and you may just bond over your shared love for the class . . .
- Budget your time. Use a calendar (online or paper) to map out everything you have going on. And we mean everything: classes, exams and projects, part-time work, vacations and school breaks, extracurricular meetings, and more. That way you'll know exactly how much time you have to study and be social. Time management is a hard skill to master, but it makes life so easy once you do that it's totally worth it.
- Sit up front. It’s a simple but effective trick. You’ll be right under the professor’s nose and close to the action, which can help hold your attention. It’s especially helpful if the class is in a large lecture hall. It’ll also show the professor that you’re in it to win it—and they really do notice.
- Don't get sucked into the Interwebs. First of all, it’s just rude to text or surf the Web in class—and professors can see you—so even if you use your laptop to take notes, avoid the Internet. And if you don’t think you’ll be able to resist checking your e-mail or the pull of Twitter’s siren song, try using an application to restrict your online activity for that time period. Second, eliminating distractions should help you focus on the material and ultimately do better in the class.
- Get your money’s worth. Don’t forget that you’re literally shelling out hundreds dollars per hour just to be in your classes, plus untold thousands of dollars for the campus resources available to you (like the academic center we mentioned above). You're paying for it whether you use it or not. Take advantage.
Health and wellness
- Visit the health center. You’re almost guaranteed to have a health center on campus, and it should be your first stop for run-of-the-mill wellness issues: persistent low-grade fever, cold and flu symptoms, possibly women’s wellness visits, etc. Visits are generally covered by your existing insurance, school-mandated insurance, and/or tuition, so don’t be afraid to go if you’re not feeling well. Health center practitioners can also refer you to an outside doctor or specialist as needed.
- Know what’s around. In addition to your campus health resources, you should have a general idea of the hospitals, clinics, and other wellness centers around you for after-hours issues or other health situations that do not require an ambulance.
- Keep stress in check. Sometimes stress is good, like when it fuels a super-productive study session. But too much stress can lead to mental, emotional, and even physical burnout. If you find yourself constantly overwhelmed, it’s time for a self-assessment. Ask for help from your advisors, professors, friends, and family, whether it’s to rearrange your schedule or just blow off some steam.
- Know thyself. By this we mean know when to seek help should you need it, particularly if you’re under emotional duress. If you’ve felt sad for an extended period of time, have lost interest in things you used to love, and/or have trouble sleeping or eating, it may be signs of a more serious depression. Your abovementioned campus health center is a good place to start; if they don’t have a therapist on staff, they can certainly refer you to someone nearby. Bottom line: don’t delay getting help and remember that you are never—ever—alone.
- Eat well. The cafeteria may offer unlimited options and servings, but all-you-can-eat isn’t all you should eat. Limit yourself to smaller servings when partaking in the buffet line, bulk up on healthier options, and try to avoid going back for seconds—setting rules and getting into a routine will be very helpful. To stop yourself from overindulging, keep healthy snacks in your dorm like nuts, granola bars, or fruit. Lastly, drink plenty of water!
- Exercise. In the school gym or outside. With a friend or on your own. Intramural or varsity. Do it a little or do it a lot, just do it.
- File the FAFSA. AKA the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. We’ve said this a bajillion times, but it bears repeating: you have absolutely nothing to lose by filing the FAFSA. Just remember to apply every year, as soon as possible after October 1 (the year before you plan to be enrolled). And, again, it’s free, so don’t be duped by FAFSA services that charge a fee. Apply on fafsa.ed.gov and ask college financial aid officers for help if you need it.
- Pursue scholarships. Pursue scholarships tenaciously, even after you’ve enrolled. Seriously, hound them like a wild animal. If you have gaps in your school and/or government aid, you may be able to fill them with scholarships, but they’re not going to fall in your lap. You need to do research and apply for every one you’re eligible for, especially awards offered directly by your college. Scholarships go unused each year just because no one applied!
- Make a budget. Do we sound like your mother yet? Well, it’s perennial advice for a reason. Whether it’s on paper, an Excel spreadsheet, or an online tool like Mint, keep track of what you’re spending and where.
- Avoid debt. Credit card debt, in particular. It’s pretty tempting to just “charge it” with the intent of paying off that balance with your first fat postgrad paycheck, but that’s not a smart strategy. When it comes to regular purchases, from books and supplies to late-night pizzas, be careful not to overspend. You should be able to pay off your credit card, if you have one, every month. Otherwise, use cash or debit. Not only will this help you build a good credit score, but you won’t be stuck paying for all those late-night pizzas three years down the road.
- Pay down what you can. With inflated tuition and pretty stagnant minimum wage jobs amongst college students, it’s harder to pay one’s way through school. But it is possible. And if you have loans, you may be able to start paying them off while still enrolled, if just the interest, which can save you money in the long run.
- Do your research. You can find consumer reports and online reviews for every service and product imaginable, so before you buy anything of significance (or even less-than-significant things), learn as much as you can about it so you get the best deal. This certainly applies to those wallet-depleting textbooks; can you rent or buy pre-owned textbooks or use the library’s copy? Yes? Yes!!!
- Visit the career center. Campus career offices are staffed with full-time pros there to help students connect with alumni, polish their résumés and cover letters, and target career paths that fit. All those services and more are included in your tuition and usually available after you graduate—sometimes for life. Take advantage.
- Talk to people. Your college years will be full of opportunities to meet remarkable people, and you should chat them up not just to get an “in” at that company you love, but to learn more about fields that interest you, to gain an insider’s perspective, and more. Of course, don’t discount the networking aspect. If the importance of networking has yet to be impressed upon you, consider that an estimated 65%–85% of jobs are attained via networking!
- Get work experience. The ideal is a paid position in a field of interest, but any work experience is better than no experience at all. And you’re sure to find plenty of positions on and around campus, maybe even abroad, from unpaid internships and co-ops to work-study and local volunteering. Even the part-time job(s) you’re holding down to make ends meet has value in the postgrad job search.
- Join all the things. They say you learn more from your extracurriculars than you do your college classes, and though that value lies in the eye of the beholder, you do have an incredible opportunity to experience new things and meet likeminded (or totally different) people through campus activities. Scope out the fall and/or spring activities fair and sign up for everything that interests you—you can commit once you learn more about the group and its time obligations. It’s a great way to explore interests outside your major and gain job-related skills.
- Consider Greek life. And we mean really give it thought. Fraternities and sororities vary almost as widely as the students who join them, ranging from service-oriented to honors to predominantly social groups. You can forge lifelong friendships and join a network that may help you in your future career. Or you may discover that it’s not your scene, for whatever reason. Either way, it’s okay. Suspend your disbelief but also stick to your convictions—and never compromise yourself for the sake of a rush.
- Post thoughtfully. You probably have no less than a dozen social media channels through which to post your thoughts, pictures, videos, and more. That’s a dozen ways to stick your foot in your mouth, so to speak. Remember that college admission officers, scholarship administrators, and job recruiters (not to mention friends and classmates) will scope out your online presence. Rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t want your mama to see it, you probably don’t want to post it to the World Wide Web.
- Love where you live. Oh, dorms. Where you spend the most time but have the least space. Be sure to make the space you do have work in your favor: Communicate with your roommate so you can coexist peacefully. Keep your room clean and organized. And take advantage of the events and programs your RAs and residence halls offer. Your dorm or apartment doesn’t have to be dull; make it your sanctuary.
- Get off campus. Take advantage of public transportation to visit recreational areas, explore the surrounding city, or simply run to the grocery store. Also, don’t be afraid to leave the country too: studying abroad is a great way to see the world, earn some credits, meet new people, and gain valuable experience for the life ahead of you.
- Make new friends but keep the old. Whether it’s through classes, dorm activities, or extracurriculars, you’ll meet a ton of people at college. Enjoy hanging out with your new friends, but don’t forget the ones that got you through childhood and high school. Stay in touch through a Facebook group, e-mail chains, video chatting, or scheduled phone dates. It may feel like a lot of effort, but it’s worth it in the end.
Above all, remember that college is what you make of it. You can join the clubs, get the internships, front the band, go to the parties, and more, all while rocking a hard-won stellar GPA, but it’s not going to happen on its own. Get out there and make the most of your college years so you can look back and think, “I rock!” instead of “I wish . . .”