Start College Smoothly- Advice for New Students

by Rae on September 27, 2011

New College Student, this is going to sound corny, but trust me- you are embarking on an incredible life journey. You are probably experiencing a gamut of emotions- excitement, hope, and perhaps trepidation. In addition, you’re probably overwhelmed and tired of all the advice your family, friends, educators, self-help books, and the Internet offer to prepare you for your first semester and even your very first day.

I won’t bore you with statistics or facts, although I’m drawing inspiration from a plethora of published scholarly research and years of working with students, who in many ways, were like me and yourself. As an undergraduate, I lived on-campus in a different state, paid my tuition bills through financial aid and carefully selected loans, served as a resident advisor to a large dormitory, double majored, and even managed to graduate early. Further, my sibling transferred from a community college to a four-year institution and commuted from home. It wasn’t always a smooth ride. There were times I flirted with the idea of transferring out or struggled with difficult situations, like financial concerns, roommate conflicts, relationship and friendship issues, and homesickness. There were moments when my sibling didn’t think they were going to college at all, or called me up in dismay, utterly discouraged. We overcame these things separate and together, not by any miracles, but through certain realizations I’m sharing with you now.

My Dorm - Freshman Year

Many students work with me now, from the first search in high school through college graduation, partly due to my educational credentials, but primarily because I want to help others meet their goals in a realistic, positive way. Here are practical tips for first time freshmen and incoming transfers, on-campus residents and commuters alike, to support a smooth transition:

1) Are your expectations realistic? Think about this carefully. Stay self-aware, and ask for support from the right people

Mary wanted to make Dean’s List, but spent the first three months of her free time partying. She arrived late to her class each Friday morning and occasionally had an unexcused absence to sleep in and nurse a hangover. 

Joan was a transfer who wanted the perfect roommate, but found herself living with someone who liked to go to sleep early and essentially ignored her. She felt like she was in the same situation as her previous college.

James wanted to claim a particular desk in his dorm, but there was no Internet cable jack nearby. Rather than move the furniture, buy a longer cable, or use Wi-Fi, James’s mother adamantly requested the university to re-wire her son’s room. They fruitlessly spent most of their day talking with administrators about this demand.

Cory commuted to college and felt excited to meet new people, but felt disconnected. He left immediately after his final class to go home and never talked to anyone after school hours.

Amy sent her admissions deposit to her first-choice school, but was having difficulty securing a loan to pay the semester balance.

The aforementioned scenarios are examples from real students who found themselves miserable and didn’t know how they ended up there until they thought it out. You might find yourself challenged in ways you least expect. Your natural lifestyle behaviors, attitudes, and morals will sometimes differ from those you meet; in fact, it’s plausible you’ll chalk your difficulties up to an awful professor, impossible roommate, or unsympathetic college administrator and not question how your words, actions, and thoughts play a role in the perceived outcome. Your actions might make your goals more difficult to reach or you might have set yourself up for failure without even realizing it. Sometimes, your research on the college before attending was lacking, and you could find yourself in a bind before you ever step foot in a classroom. Avoid stress by setting realistic expectations from the start.

Solution: Stay aware of your thoughts about college. Write down difficulties you face, including discouraging feelings or events.  Write down what you were thinking at the time. Also write what you hoped to do and what you can change to reach a more positive outcome.

For issues related to the college itself, write what you like and dislike so far, or what you don’t know (like what career paths you can eventually take in your major, where the best places college students hang out and shop in the local area are, etc.), and discuss it with someone you trust. Then, ask someone on campus- a peer, faculty member, or college employee about the resources offered on campus to discuss your concern. Don’t leave it at simply talking. Come to terms if something falls short of your expectation, and set an action plan in motion to improve the situation.


playing a very unique game of checkers- Sophomore Year

2) Transition takes time. Make the most of it by actively settling into your home away from home (this applies to commuters as well).

You may feel like earning a college degree is a need or societal expectation, but it’s still a big change. You’re leaving your comfort zone in many ways. For instance, if you live on-campus, you might never have shared a bedroom before or washed your laundry. Perhaps you’re used to eating dinner with family, but now you’re rushing to the college cafeteria alone, in between classes. Maybe you feel lonely and homesick, misunderstood, or like the college isn’t meeting your needs or wants.

Try to stay open-minded to others and patient with yourself. Keep some familiar objects and people in your life while allowing room for the new. You will feel better if you keep in touch with close friends from your childhood and adolescence, but all students adjust better if they allow themselves time to get used to their new surroundings, become acquainted with classmates outside of the classroom, and carve out a reliable daily schedule. You won’t feel as comfortable or like you truly belong if you spend most of your time trying to keep up a lifestyle or routine you no longer live.

Remember, you are more than likely joining an established community set up to help your success, not diminish it. There are full committees and initiatives usually arranged to support student re-enrollment/retention (students are not usually aware of this). In short, there are people who can help you feel at home, but nobody will necessarily reach out to you first.

Don’t feel shy or ashamed about talking to the campus counselors or show up to a club meeting without a friend to go with you. In fact, joining extracurricular activities is one of the best ways a student bonds with their college and fellow classmates. Students who involve themselves on-campus are less likely to transfer and report higher levels of satisfaction. Several people I know who were on the verge of transferring, including myself, decided to stay after participating in a few campus events and organizations regularly. It helped us find our niche. I didn’t feel fully comfortable until the end of my sophomore year.

If you’re completely miserable or in an intolerable situation, that’s one thing, but don’t give up after the first semester if you’re a bit lost. One student I recently supervised said he was undergoing personal difficulties at home and didn’t feel accepted at a local school. He worked with me through our mutual affiliation with the college, though, and liked his internship experience with us. The internship kept him interested, but he ultimately branched out and joined a few student groups on campus. He loves it now.

College is about personal growth and the uncomfortable moments are part of it. I believe you can offer incredible contributions to your college, and in turn, your school will give back to you tenfold. It’s up to you to decide how to make it happen, but you’re only in that quest alone if you choose to follow a solitary path.


A note left for me by a friend- Freshman Year

3) Read everything the university has you sign and agree to, including keeping a copy of undergraduate handbooks and any contracts. This includes regularly checking your student e-mail, opening and replying to mailed notices, and reviewing instructions.

It will save you possibly hours of debating and arguing if something doesn’t go your way. Plus, it will let you know your rights, responsibilities, and the consequences of not abiding by the institution’s rules. Policies usually benefit all students while meeting the institution’s responsibility to follow federal and state regulations. They also allow administrative transparency. Signed agreements are legal documents. As an adult, you will be held to many legal contracts, so this is a wonderful time to practice in a safe, relatively understanding setting.

Additionally, residents will find this tidbit useful because many residential halls send lists of permitted and contraband items. Some students overlook these rules and sorely react when items are not allowed. At other times, family and caregivers do not understand a particular policy or reasoning behind a contraband item and will react as sorely, if not more so, than the student. Policies usually outline reasoning in these matters, or if exact reasons are not provided, students and families will then have a great basis for requesting further information once they are aware of the basics.

Lastly, students who have documented learning disabilities or psychological/medical conditions will learn how they can advocate for themselves by researching the college’s policies, resources,and taking any necessary steps for arranging accommodations before the semester begins.


My Dorm- Sophomore Year- Note the ancient Dell Laptop (256 MB RAM), Gamecube, and snack box!

4) Residents- Pack lightly and talk to your roommate in advance, if possible.

If you don’t do this, you will end up with at least two of every imaginable appliance and a mountain of shoes instead of space for something awesome, like a mini-fridge. You can always retrieve more from your home, but the less is more at mentality works here. It will cut down your unpacking time.

Social media is great for staking out your roommate and learning more about them; I found my first roommate on MySpace (before Facebook existed. Yes, I’m that old, okay?). We weren’t attached at the hip or friends by any means, but we still occasionally catch up with one another and stay on good terms to this day. If your roommate doesn’t use social media, it doesn’t mean they’re weird. It means you should consider giving them a call, e-mail, or maybe arrange a webcam chat or in-person meeting, if desired. This will help acquaint yourselves with one another before the start of the year and give you a tiny glimpse of who this person is; I recommend discussing ground rules and a written roommate contract (see tip #1 again) in the beginning of the year.


5) Take ownership of your student account and academic program.

For those whose well-meaning family members were always involved in your academics, knew your guidance counselor and teachers on a first name basis, and plan to finance some part of your education, I understand how difficult this piece of advice will be for you.

The paperwork alone can seem intimidating. Now, I’m not suggesting your family needs to stay out of your business entirely, but colleges consider the student as their main contact. They will address letters and bills to you, and all the privacy laws protect your account (grades, personal information, etc.) from everyone else, pretty much, except you.

The easiest way to cut through the red tape is to waive your rights to privacy so your family can contact departments on your behalf. I find it to cause more harm than good, however. For example, I’ve safeguarded student information from parents’ lawyers undergoing unpleasant divorces, well-meaning extended relatives, and non-custodial parents. The more productive, secure method is to give specific people semi-access, while you talk with college faculty and employees directly. Write e-mails to the college for yourself. Visit offices with a notebook and pen to jot down what’s discussed and ask them to teach or give you materials of anything you want to try to take care of independently, but may not understand completely.

You will need your families help and information at times, but your self-confidence will soar when you resolve issues on your own. It will help prepare you for the outside world too, and show to the campus at large that you are a mature, responsible student. I enjoy helping students cut the umbilical cord, and cry and laugh with parents as they come to terms with you growing up.


Old Vans Sneakers - Freshman Year

6) For traditional community style living: Get a bathrobe, comfy pair of waterproof/durable flip-flops, and a basket or mesh shower caddy.

It seems like a no-brainer, but these are functional, fun, and completely necessary items for the average gal just trying to start or end her day. Plush robes are great for colder months and looking cute (of course). My Okabashi flip-flops lasted for the entirety of my undergrad education without any sign of wear. The shower caddy should allow water to drip out and dry easily, to prevent a gross, moldy situation later. Oh, and this little item will save your life at least once.

7) Invest in an awesome alarm clock and set it 10 minutes ahead.

Seriously. I don’t regret much in life, but my alarm clocks were feeble and I loved the snooze button way too much. Do yourself this one favor now. Set it ahead and consider it as the real time- you’ll rarely, if ever, be late. Cellphone alarms aren’t reliable and should only be used as a back-up or last resort.


setting up a blacklight party campus event

The short and sweet: Take care of yourself and enjoy it!

  • Eat well
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Exercise regularly to combat the freshman 15
  • Take your studies seriously, but make time to have fun too; stay safe
  • Keep a journal/blog
  • Connect with others
  • Attend three campus events during the Fall semester (at least!)
  • Network
  • Find a favorite place to relax on campus
  • Decorate your dorm room so it’s a peaceful haven for you to escape to and unwind with friends
  • Share your experiences with your loved ones back home

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