How to Make the Most of Freshman Year in the Pandemic

COVID-19 has cast a shadow over many students' first year of college. Read on to see what one student learned after spending freshman year in quarantine.

Anticipating college is one thing: the glimmering future of new friends and exciting classes shining up ahead. But when actually entering college—managing friends, classes, jobs, and extracurriculars—you’ll likely find it’s a completely different beast. With the pandemic casting a shadow over a greatly anticipated and exceedingly important time, it’s easy to lose track of what you’ve been working toward. From doom-scrolling social media for hours to zoning out with your camera off during Zoom classes, there are a thousand ways to disrupt your learning and growth. While it’s easy to blame the pandemic and excuse these behaviors, it’s important not to forget just how important your freshman year of college is. Below, I’ll guide you through some of my own mistakes and lessons learned from being a college freshman during quarantine.

The importance of starting every day strong

With the smell of new pencils, the excitement of seeing new faces, and the fun of cracking open new books, it’s easy to start the year strong. But starting each day, week, and month strong is just as important. Creating a list of the most important things you need to do every day is one of the most well-recognized ways to start each day strong. Of course, you’ve heard it a million times, but that’s for good reason. Some people do best with an even more structured plan, while others need only the loose guidance of this list to move forward with each day. While you can be flexibile in the order and arrangement of each activity for what works best for you, creating and following through with a true priority list in any sense is a highly valuable practice for college students.

Your daily list should be short and simple. You shouldn’t put lengthy instructions, footnotes, or excessive requirements. With this in mind, don’t trim away the necessities of a good list. Be specific and thoughtful about all you’re putting onto yourself. Your daily to-do list shouldn’t overwhelm you, but you also shouldn’t neglect your studies.

Good ways to format your list

Bad ways to format your list

1.    Submit discussion 6 (POLS 202)

2.    Draft JOURN404 interview requests

3.    Turn in quarter 1 textbooks

1.    Have breakfast

2.    Practice the piano for fun

3.    Submit discussion for political science

4.    Call mom

5.    Work on JOURN404 interview requests 

6.    Organize binder and pencil pouch

7.    Clean up the kitchen ASAP

8.    Call the bank about refinancing

9.    Turn in overdue quarter 1 textbooks

10. Check with Jimmy about brunch on Saturday

By 1:00 pm: Turn in report on Oedipus (ENG550)

By 5:00 pm: Finish chapter 3 in STATS129 book

By 9:00 pm: Turn in midterm for ASTR100


Finish chapter


1: Run for heath ed, track on log

2. Attend Zoom call with Marina at 3:00 pm

3A: Take notes on Statistics 404

3B: Take stats quiz

Run, 3:00 Zoom, stats work

Another way to set yourself up for long-term success is by setting reasonable goals and expectations for the semester or the year. SMART goals can be a wonderful asset to your learning as a simple measurement of practical goal setting. SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. 

Related: Video: Organization and Time Management Skills

The importance of staying strong

Using planners as well as alarms and other well-known tools are highly useful in staying on track each semester. However, adding other more personalized tools will not only help you complete the work and turn it in on time but also remind you of why exactly you’re pursuing higher education. Some of these tools include collages and posters—a vision board, if you will—which direct your thoughts about your education and future career. (It sounds silly, but it can really help!) These should include photograph clippings and quotes that motivate you, perhaps a photograph of your college, or a postcard from a place you’d like to live and work in the future.

The importance of taking breaks

Billy Joel once wrote, “You're so ahead of yourself that you forgot what you need.” Does this sound familiar? It can be easy to work away day after day, constantly seeking approval through an A+. When you’re stuck in this rut, essentially running endlessly on a collegiate-level hamster wheel, it can be daunting to stop and take a break. Even just slowing down can be terrifying. In reality, slowing down can prolong your stamina and ability to look to the future. It’s important to not burn yourself out in any sense.  

Forcing yourself to take breaks is not only a test of strength but also an exercise in self-restraint. You could set an alarm on your phone for 3:00 pm, motivating you to step away and take a snack break, and then you can set a follow-up alarm at 4:30 pm to prompt you to return to work. Another idea: Place a note in your textbook on every 50th page reminding yourself to step away for 20 minutes or so. There are endless ways to push yourself to take a break. Whichever method you choose really has little to do with if you’ll succeed. The most important thing is that you follow through. When you find that note or hear your alarm, actually step away. When the time to dawdle has passed, turn back around and get back on your grind. Consistency is what will keep you truly afloat in a high-pressure academic environment—and in life in general.

Related: The Importance of Mental Health in a COVID-19 World 

The long-term benefits of student involvement

Most years, students are provided with the opportunity to socialize in clubs, sports, and organizations from the first day of college. While many schools have made efforts to maintain the student atmosphere, it’s a whole lot easier to fall out of the community when you’re trapped inside your dorm room or at home. Though it can be tedious to attend glitchy online meetings, it’s a way to network and let off steam with your peers, albeit in a distant way. It’s far easier to maintain group membership than it is to attain it, especially past freshman year. Many students who don’t join clubs freshman year struggle to take part later, as bonds between grades have been established. Even though it can be uncomfortable, there are far more reasons why membership is beneficial than reasons why it isn’t. Take a step out of your comfort zone and provide your future (and hopefully non-virtual) student self a good entrance into the social world.

Related: 6 Important Ways to Get Involved on Campus

The best thing you can do for yourself freshman year of college during the pandemic is to just keep going. The entire global population is still struggling to adjust to our new normal, and it hasn’t been easy for anyone. Try your best to start each day strong and utilize all the tools at your disposal so you can carry out your strength to the very end. Make an effort to get involved in your school’s community and remind yourself regularly of just why you are pursuing higher education. You’ve made it this far, so don’t lose sight of your goals!

For more advice to help you with the transition to college, check out our Student Life section.

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About Natalie Johnson

Natalie Johnson

Natalie Johnson is a film student and writer, doing her best to avoid a lifetime of debt. You can find her digging through CollegeXpress for scholarships or working on her art at


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