6 Important Tips You Must Know Before Starting College

August 15th 2015

Kathleen Toohill

The oft-quoted expression, “college is the best four years of your life,” leaves much unsaid. College is a time to explore, grow, and yes have fun, however, as with many major life events, college is not without its trials and tribulations.

As the New York Times covered recently, college students, especially those at elite universities, often feel pressure to succeed in every arena while presenting a facade that suggests that everything comes easily. According to the Times, a survey of college counseling centers revealed that more than half of their clients have severe psychological problems. The suicide rate among 15- to 24-year-olds in the United States has increased in recent years, and is the third leading cause of death for this age group. (Students who are working full or part-time to put themselves through school face additional pressure and time constraints, and the difficulties created by trying to fit in class, studying and work may further drag out the degree-earning process.)

More than ever, it’s important to ensure that college students are aware of the resources at their disposal, and that they feel supported, rather than pressured. College isn’t a race; it isn’t a competition; and it isn’t synonymous with job preparation. If I could do college over again, I would, but I’d do it differently: Here’s my advice for incoming freshmen based on a few things I wish I’d known.

1. Get to know a few professors well

I wish I could add more professors to the list of the ones I really got to know and maintained a relationship with after graduating. This is not just so these professors can write you good recommendations when you’re applying for jobs or graduate school (though that’s important). At few times in your life will you have regular access to people who impart knowledge for a living (unless you enter academia yourself). To the extent that you can, take classes based on the reputation of the professor—don’t avoid professors because they’re hard, but do whatever you can to get into the classes with the professors who have reputations for being fantastic.

When you find a professor that inspires and excites you, ask for feedback on your work and recommendations for improvement. Go out for coffee, or at least go to office hours. I knew someone who asked every professor for one book that they would recommend he read. This may seem more like parting advice for graduating students than for incoming freshmen, but having this long-term perspective is not unhelpful when it comes to thinking about what you want to get out of college. What do you want to have done, and how do you want to feel when you graduate?

2. Prioritize developing tools to manage stress and get enough sleep

I had a lot of trouble sleeping in college—both falling asleep and staying asleep—for a variety of reasons, including an excess of caffeine, an erratic sleep schedule, and stress. Once I graduated, my sleep schedule became much more normalized. I cut back on the caffeine, and cut it out completely after noon. I learned about meditation and breathing exercises, and found exercise classes that I liked so much, I wanted to go to every day (exercise is a major mood booster in and of itself, not to mention a sleep aid). I wish I had worked harder to improve my sleep habits and stress management techniques in college—I think I would have enjoyed the experience more if I’d been less stressed and exhausted.

3. Take advantage of travel opportunities and research grants

I went on one grant-funded research trip while I was in college; I wish I had applied for more grants and traveled more. If you’re not holding down a full-time job while attending college, you may have more time to travel now than you will once you graduate, and if you’re able to get a grant funded trip, this travel comes at little or no cost to you. Finding research grants through your university or national organizations (Dartmouth has compiled a list of external funding sources for research grants) may seem intimidating, but writing a grant application is a small price to pay for the reward of getting to explore an interest somewhere you’ve never been before. Find a professor or mentor who will help you supervise your research and assist with the grant-writing process.

4. Take safety seriously

Public service announcements about safety in college can come across as either corny or needlessly foreboding, but safety in college is no joke. Take note of the resources your school provides, whether this means call buttons located across campus or security escorts at night. When you go out with a group of friends, watch out for one another. Trust your gut if a situation doesn’t feel right. Letting a very inebriated friend wander off by himself or herself at night is dangerous, as is choosing not to seek medical attention for a friend because you’re worried that someone will get in trouble. Many colleges and universities have Good Samaritan policies that protect an individual who calls 911 from getting in trouble for alcohol or drug-related offenses.

5. It's never too late to find the right group of friends

If you don’t mesh well with your randomly assigned freshman year roommate, all is not lost. It may feel like everyone else has their cliques of friends cemented by the end of freshman orientation, but don’t be fooled by the groups of people who eat every meal and go to every party together: Many of them probably feel as insecure and awkward as you do. Seek out people you find interesting on the floor of your dorm, in classes, and through teams and clubs. People will move dorms, transfer in and out of the school, and go abroad: friend groups are often much more fluid than they may appear from the outside.

Don’t feel pressure to find one tight-knit group to do everything with—having multiple friend groups can cut back on drama that may result from only associating with a small group of people. Finally, don't be intimidated by impressive people; seek them out (it’s called shine theory—I'll let journalist Ann Friedman take it away).

6. Don't be afraid to admit you're struggling and ask for help

I was incredibly embarrassed to drop a class in my freshman year of college. It required me to admit to myself and my professor that I had given it my best effort and still wasn’t going to be able to succeed. This goes for mental health issues, eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual assault, and anything and everything else. Suffering in silence is not the answer. Loneliness is not uncommon on college campuses, and students, especially those at large, public universities, may feel like nothing more than a number, but it’s likely that there are resources on your campus to deal with your specific situation, and people who are willing to listen. Asking for help is not synonymous with admitting failure, and the number of people who support you and are able to help may end up surprising you.