Preparing for College: Six Tips for Your First Semester
“Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to great places. You’re off and away!”
These are familiar words to anyone who received a copy of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh the Places You’ll Go” as a high school graduation gift. And for college-bound students, these words are incredibly accurate. Going to college can feel like you’re going on an adventure, and your experience can be transformative. Your first semester can set the tone for the rest of your college career. These tips can help you start off on the right foot.
Connect with Your Academic Advisor
Think of your academic advisor as a guidance counselor. This person is a trained professional who knows the ins and outs of your school’s academic opportunities. Not only are advisors well-versed in graduation requirements, but they can also give insight into the other services your school provides. It’s never too early to outline your path from first semester through graduation. They can keep you on schedule and help you graduate on time. Make the most of this resource and build a strong relationship from the start.
Find the Financial Aid Office
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 85% of undergraduate students receive financial aid. Whether that consists of scholarships, grants, or loans, most students don’t pay the full sticker price up front for their education. Meet with a counselor in the Financial Aid Office during your first semester – and at least once a year after that – to make sure you understand your financial aid package. A counselor can tell you what you need to pay now, what you’ll need to pay after graduation, and what you’ll never need to repay. Someone can also provide valuable insight into different types of loans, grants, and scholarships – as well as other opportunities like work study and loan forgiveness – available to you. It’s never too early to plan for your financial future.
Learn How to Use Credit Cards Responsibly
A study by Sallie Mae showed that 56% of college students have a credit card, and for many of them, it’s their first. Though the 2009 Credit Card Act put some safeguards in place to protect college students from predatory lenders, credit cards can still be a double-edged sword in the hands of a first-time user. On one hand, responsible credit card use can help you build a solid credit rating, which will be helpful when you’re ready to buy your first car or get a mortgage. On the other hand, high interest rates and poor money management can send young users into debt. According to U.S. News and World Report, 40% of college students aren’t educated about credit cards before they get one. However, many freshmen still have some sort of financial safety cushion – making that first year a great time to learn about financial responsibility. Take the initiative to learn about credit and money management before making any major financial decisions.
Extracurricular activities on campus can be vital to your success after graduation. Students who actively engage in their campus community have higher graduation rates and a more positive college experience overall. In fact, a Gallup-Purdue University survey found that engagement with extracurricular opportunities was one factor that predicted well-being in later life. Student activities can also be a great way to explore interests outside your major and network. Not sure how to get involved or where to start? Check your school’s website, bulletin boards, and social media channels, or just ask around! If you live on campus, your Resident Advisor can likely point you in the right direction.
Embrace the Fail
Getting into college can be hard. You’ve made it this far, so you’ve probably experienced a good deal of academic success – but you may be used to being a big fish in a small pond. Once you get to campus, however, you could look around and realize you’re surrounded by big fish. College-level coursework is much different than high school coursework, and it may be harder to keep up than you’re used to. That’s a good thing! Harvard University says it’s okay to not always be the best. Through their Success-Failure Project, Harvard researchers study various aspects of success, failure, and resilience. As you navigate a new, more challenging academic environment, you may need to respond to and grow from adversity. But remember: you’re “off and away!” on an adventure, and no adventure is without challenges. With hard work and an open mind – and possibly your college’s academic support resources – you’ll grow from the experience.
The freedom of living on campus can be overwhelming. College student affairs professionals have a name for the first six weeks of your freshman year of college: the “Red Zone.” That’s because it’s not uncommon for first year students try and recreate pop culture ideas of college. In the Red Zone, college students have a greater risk of accidental injury, alcohol poisoning, and sexual assault. Always use a designated driver, and avoid the Red Zone by joining a peer group that shares your values and finding campus activities that don’t involve high-risk behaviors.
You’ll also need to be careful about yourself and your stuff. Take precautions to protect your identity, and always lock your door and secure your mobile devices. Program your school’s public safety number into your phone. Whether you’re bringing your car to school or not, check if you can get a discount on your auto insurance policy for being a good student. Also check with your insurance provider about what your parents’ homeowners policy will cover while you’re living in a dorm or traveling abroad.
A successful college career isn’t all about academic achievement – it’s also your opportunity to grow into your adult self, to start developing your professional network, and to explore your interests. Take advantage of everything your school has to offer. Use the resources they provide to help you achieve academically and manage your finances. Find a club, group, or organization that lets you explore your interests or talents. Try something new. College is a time of your life where you’ll have lots of freedom without the weight of lots of responsibilities. Make the most of it!