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“What I Wish I’d Known”: Upperclassmen Share Their Best Tips

Amy Baldwin, Ed.D.


Few things make me happier than the fresh start of a new academic year. Autumn leaves crackling under my leather boots, the faint sound of the college band playing at a football game...

And this fall, after a year of pandemic restrictions on campus, there's even more to look forward to.

The excitement inspired me to reach out to several of my former students to ask, “What advice would you give incoming freshmen?” Here is what they had to say.

Just because it worked in high school doesn’t mean it will in college.

Sadie, a high school athlete, was used to getting to school at 6 a.m. for swim practice and heading to her first class by 7:50 a.m. “I thought 8 a.m. classes in college would be easy, but I was wrong. An early morning schedule didn’t work for me when I got to college.”

While your student may thrive in 8 a.m. college classes, Sadie’s point is well taken: Just because it worked in high school doesn’t mean it will in college. Early classes are not the only thing that may not work when your student gets to college — here are a few more tips from my former students:

  • Get 6-8 hours of sleep a night. While all-nighters may seem a rite of passage, getting too little sleep can have major negative effects on student health and well-being. Your student should aim for 6–8 hours each night to be at their best.
  • Spread out studying over days before a test. If your student got by with cramming in high school and still earned good grades, they will definitely need to change their study habits. The simple task of spacing out their study sessions over several days will make a positive difference in their college grades.
  • Ask for help. No one gets through college by doing everything themselves. In fact, professors expect students to ask for help during office hours, work with classmates to learn the material, and go to tutoring when they need extra support.

Plan the work, then work the plan.

If there was a common piece of advice among all the students I interviewed, it was the suggestion to get a planner or calendar and use it regularly. Some students used a personal planner that they wrote in every day; others used a large wall calendar to plot their tasks and due dates.

Claire, who confessed that she was a poor high school student, said scheduling homework and study sessions made a huge difference in her attitude and lowered her stress. “I felt in control of my time. Using a calendar made it easier for me to stay on track — and my grades were better because of it.”

Other strategies for managing time and tasks:

  • Read the syllabus. Your student will find information about WHAT they'll be doing and WHEN they'll be doing it in a class.
  • Create reminders. Setting an alarm or reminder on their phone or using a sticky note will keep important tasks top of mind.
  • Prioritize tasks. Coach your student to learn how to prioritize tasks by importance and urgency. Studying for that quiz tomorrow? Important and urgent. Hanging out with friends to watch Netflix? Maybe not so important or urgent.

Find a community, make a friend, get involved.

Danny, the treasurer of his fraternity, shared that joining organizations and finding ways to develop leadership skills allowed him to open up and meet new people. All the students I interviewed emphasized the importance of making friends, finding groups to hang out with, and getting involved with organizations on campus.

Like Danny, many mentioned joining a sorority or fraternity, which provides opportunities to do all three of these things. But Greek life isn't the only way to get connected. Encourage your student to do any and all of these:

  • Practice speaking up and introducing themselves to other people. It's only awkward for a moment.
  • Attend campus events like movie nights, guest speakers and musical acts. Chances are good your student will meet people who have similar interests.
  • Sign up to volunteer. People who work together often play together. Many campus groups schedule regular volunteer projects and it's a great way to make an impact on the community.

Explore what the college has to offer.

Hannah came to college with a plan to major in nursing, but then she took an anthropology class. “It blew my mind. I didn’t realize that I could study something so interesting! I talked to my advisor about changing my major to anthropology.”

Not every student will have an intellectual epiphany their first year, but every student should explore all that their college has to offer. This includes courses, events and guest speakers, and special experiences such as internships, study abroad and community service projects.

Here are some other things your student can do to make the most of their first year.

  • Do something different. If your student loved math and science in high school, then encourage them to take an acting class or get involved with the arts community on campus. Doing something different will help them stretch and grow — and may create a new interest.
  • Keep an open mind. As students encounter new people and viewpoints in college, they have an opportunity to grow intellectually and personally. Encourage your student to frame everything as a learning experience.
Amy Baldwin, Ed.D., the former Director of Student Transitions at the University of Central Arkansas, currently teaches student success and literacy to first-year students. She is co-author of a number of books, including A High School Parent's Guide to College Success: 12 Essentials and The College Experience. Amy and her husband are parents of a college student and a recent college graduate. She also blogs at www.higheredparent.com.

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