I feel like I was more prepared for college than most people are. I had been dreaming of a place where I could sit and discuss books at length in an academic setting with other people who were equally invested in the subject matter since I was in the second grade. Once I realized college was where I could do that, I spent a lot of my time researching what I would need to know. Even though I feel like a lot of my life experiences had prepared me for things like living on my own and handling school, from the academics of it to all the bureaucracy.
Still, there are a few things that I wasn’t prepared for, and I think they’re well worth discussing. These definitely aren’t the only insider tips about getting through college in existence, but they are the ones that kept me sane for four years and still help me keep it together now.
1. Be flexible. Sometimes, you don’t get the class schedule you wanted and you have to scramble to find something else to take. This will not ruin your semester. Nor will realizing you’re crunched for time and can’t complete assignments with the level of quality you usually consider your best. Do what you can, and move on.
2. Use your syllabus to ground your schedule. This is extremely helpful if you regularly use a calendar or a planner. When you get your syllabi, start penciling in the dates assignments are due and when exams are supposed to take place. You’ll be thankful later when a paper is due in two days and you completely forgot it even existed, but your calendar reminded you.
3. You are allowed one major screw-up with each individual professor. Use it wisely. Some professors are tougher than others, so this may not always work, but I’m adding it here because I think it’s important to let all of you know that I screwed up pretty badly more than once while I was in college… and everything was fine. Did I forget the day of the final for my Comparative World Lit class and not go? You bet. Did I not realize I was supposed to turn in my Human Sexuality paper on the last day of class? Of course! But despite these mistakes, I passed both classes with flying colors. Why? The professors knew I cared about the coursework, and I reached out immediately to ask for help. They were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. Be consistently good and people will forgive your mistakes.
4. This one is super important. Never forget that your professors are people. If you’re struggling, talk to them. Not every professor is flexible or willing to work with you, but the vast majority of them are, especially if you’ve proven yourself to be trustworthy and consistent. (See #3 above.) Your professors are there to teach you specific material, yes, but they are also available when you need extra guidance, whether it’s with coursework or other life stuff. They are people, and most of the time, they care about you and just want you to succeed. Most professors aren’t trying to set you up for failure.
5. Write your schedule and to-do list down regularly. I’m not a huge fan of pre-organized planners, but I always carry a notebook everywhere to write down assignment details and notes that would help me compose a to-do list. When I was working shift jobs, I always put my shifts into Google calendar, along with my class schedule for the upcoming semester and any important due dates for different papers. Whether you use bullet journaling, a day planner, a calendar app, or just a plain old composition notebook, getting stuff written down somewhere you’ll see it is hugely important. Figure out what works with you and do it consistently. Organization often feels like half the battle in college.
6. Create a class schedule that works for you. I lived super close to campus, so I preferred to have my days really spread out. 2 hour breaks between classes were ideal, because I could walk home, eat, gather my notes for my next class, and then walk back. I also liked loading most of my classes into one or two days because that made scheduling work a lot easier. And, after I stupidly signed up for a 9 AM class my very first semester, I promised myself that I would never take a class before 11 AM again. Your freshman year, experiment a little to figure out what’s best for you. This is your education. Figure out what kind of schedule will help you learn best.
7. If you have to take out student loans, start paying them down ASAP. Future you will thank you. I put a significant amount of money toward my loans while I was still in school. I made a small dent in my loans and kept my loan interest in check, and I also created the habit of paying my student loans regularly. Now that I’m in repayment, it doesn’t feel like a huge deal since I’m already used to putting a significant portion of my income towards my loans. Even if you can only afford to put $10 toward your loans and it all goes to interest, I’d say that’s worth it. It’s a super important habit to build!
8. Consider a more minimalist lifestyle. I’ve been in the same apartment since I moved into it before freshman year started, and I’m grateful to my past self for not buying a bunch of crap I’m just going to have to get rid of once I move. Really think about what you’re bringing into your space, especially if you’re living in a dorm and have to pack up at the end of every semester. Check out this post I wrote about the decluttering challenge I did last year. I highly recommend trying one of your own if you feel like you’re getting overwhelmed by stuff. Clutter makes it that much harder to succeed in school, and it makes life ten times better not to have it around.
9. Your local library is an extremely valuable resource. If you’re an English major, the library will probably have all the books you’ll need for the semester, along with tons of other helpful resources. Many libraries (especially if you’re in a large city) put on events pretty regularly. They also offer classes on everything from budgeting and money management to coding, making your own lip balm, and yoga, all for free. You may also be able to get into some local museums or other local attractions for free with passes obtained from your library. Most libraries also have extensive resources online. I’m able to get tons of audiobooks, movies, music, comics, and video games for free through my library. Take the time to get a library card. It’s free and it could save you a ton of money.
10. Speaking of libraries, your school libraries literally have degrees in how to research things. Ask them for help. I had more than one professor take advantage of the awesome library we had on campus and sit us all down with librarians who taught us how to use the university’s databases properly, as well as the basics of research. Even though I considered myself a strong researcher at the time, I still found a lot of their tips helpful and continue to use some of them to this day. If ever you’re working on a research paper or another project that requires finding X number of sources or that you just need to know more about, go talk to your librarians. They can help you find everything you need and then some.
11. Learn how to research! This goes hand in hand with #10, as your university librarian can probably teach you a lot of basic researching skills. This will save your butt in the future, both in college and in the rest of your life.
12. Good writing covers a myriad of ills. Knowing how to write and communicate well can sometimes cover up the fact that your paper’s argument isn’t all that strong. Taking the time to learn how to write well will help you so much, through college and beyond. But work on those arguments at the same time, though. Critical thinking skills are also super important.
13. Don’t feel stifled by research paper format. Whenever I read the papers my peers wrote, I was kind of stunned by how… boring a lot of them were. They were super formulaic and even if their arguments were strong, they just weren’t discussing them in a compelling way. I’m here to tell you that you’re allowed to have fun and be creative while getting your point across! You’re allowed to your own opinions! (Caveat: some professors really just want you to regurgitate what they taught you about the material. Those professors suck, but do what you gotta do. That said, most professors don’t really care what you’re arguing so long as you argue it well and have evidence to back it up.)
I highly recommend figuring out what argument you want to make and then just rolling with it. If it’s enjoyable for you to write and research, it will likely be enjoyable to read. Also, play with your papers’ formats and structures. The five-paragraph essay is a great starting point, but by the time you’re a sophomore in college, you should have moved beyond that. Look at the papers you’re reading in your field, especially the ones focusing on theory. (If you’re majoring in literature, that’ll be most of what you read anyway.) They don’t follow the five-paragraph format. They use whatever format it takes to make their argument. Those are the kinds of examples you want to try and emulate.
14. Learn how to study in a way that works best for you. Experiment with different methods. Different courses and exams may require different tactics, but overall, you should have a basic study method. I preferred to thoroughly read the material and make notes (even if they were silly, like writing “omg” in the margins when I was annoyed with a character) so that I knew I was staying engaged. Class discussions would allow me to cement that knowledge. My partner struggles more with that kind of intense focus, so he uses a method called junebugging. This method involves jumping around from one task to another, but knowing he always has to come back to his main project. There are tons of different study methods out there. Figure out what works best for your brain and your courses.
15. Avoid unnecessary shortcuts. You are paying to learn (or, at least, someone’s paying for you to learn). So learn the material. Don’t just learn it for long enough to do well on the test. If you actually take the time to absorb what you’re learning long-term and put it to use, you’re ten steps ahead of most of your peers.
16. When you’re giving a presentation, remember that no one wants to see you struggle. Everyone is rooting for you. Watching someone stumble and shake through a presentation is hella uncomfortable. I shake really, really bad when I present. It always helped to remember that even if people noticed, they weren’t judging me for it. I could just take a deep breath and keep going.
17. In the same vein, make sure to practice your presentations out loud, preferably more than once! This is extra helpful when you’re working in a group. Even if it’s right before the group presentation, meet up and take a few minutes to run through it together. All of you will be so much less nervous. If you’re going solo, practice it to yourself in the shower or while you’re doing other mindless tasks. Then practice it in front of your roommate or someone else you trust a couple times. Actually moving your mouth and saying the words before you get up in front of the class will greatly improve your presentation technique and soothe your nerves. You got this.
18. Know your limits. Don’t take on too much. You will burn out, which makes everything ten times harder. Yeah, I worked 55 hours a week and took a full courseload at school and lived. My depression and anxiety also got really bad and I was stressed to my limit all the time. Sometimes, I feel like I’m still recovering, even though it’s been over a year! Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many commitments. You need time to relax, spend time with friends, and recharge however you need to.
That’s all 18 tips! There is so much more I could say, but these tips are the most important. If you take nothing else from this post, remember these three things: ask for help when you need it, learn how your brain works and work with it, and make time for self-care. College can be hard. Don’t make it harder than it has to be.
Do you have any questions about college or tips to share? Leave a comment and let’s discuss!