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First year of college wisdom — For students, from students

Vicki Nelson


The first year of college is a year of transition.

As a professor, I often feel I have so much I could share with new college students to help soften the blow of the adjustment — if they would just listen to me. But students don’t always heed the advice of their professors.

However, they do listen to other students. They’re interested in the wisdom of those just a step or two ahead of them.

As the last academic year wound down, I had the opportunity to sit with a group of eight first-year students as they reflected on their experiences. I asked each of them one question: “What will you do differently next year as a sophomore?”

Their responses showed a firm desire to build on lessons learned. The eight students came up with eight common sense ideas that will make a difference for their success.

This is first-year wisdom straight from first-year experiences — great talking points for you and your own new college student.

1. Time Management

Marcus was quick to say he knew exactly what he needed to do differently next year: manage his time better. Although he’s a good student, he realized he needed to do more planning. Just assuming he'd find the time to get things done meant that he was always worrying about his projects and assignments and still sometimes missed deadlines.

First on his list for sophomore year is to buy a good planner, and use it to sketch out when assignments are due and what he will do when.

2. Discipline

Matthew already had a planner and put his assignments in it faithfully. What he didn’t always do during his first year of college was to follow through with his commitments. His calendar said it was time to study for an upcoming test, but he often found all sorts of things to do instead. This fall he's going to discipline himself to stick to his plans.

3. Sleep

Stefan also knew right away what he wanted to change: his sleep habits. He found it hard to stick to a schedule and the residence hall wasn’t always a quiet place. He struggled in classes and with assignments when he felt groggy from lack of sleep — and even missed a few early morning classes.

To make sure he gets more zzz’s, this year he plans to buy noise cancelling headphones and be consistent about going to bed at a reasonable time.

4. Procrastination

Shari said her problem wasn’t so much putting things off as consistently underestimating how much time things were going to take. Reading harder college material, writing papers and studying for tests all took way more time than they had in high school. She’d had to ask for too many extensions on projects and had taken too many tests feeling that she wasn’t ready. As a sophomore, she intends to start things earlier to avoid all that last minute panic.

5. Join in

As a freshman, James was so worried about getting his academic work done that he turned down chances to join clubs and participate in intramural sports. James loves basketball and wished he’d joined the campus newspaper so he could write about sports. He plans to sign up for a few things this fall so he can get to know people who share his interests.

6. Self-care

Hillary had some academic struggles as a freshman, often because she had trouble staying focused. She is determined this year to take better care of herself — especially by working to shut out the drama that can happen with roommates and with other students’ problems. Her summer plan was to learn more about meditation so she can use it to calm her thoughts and distance herself from everyone else’s high emotions.

7. Lists

Austin intends to become a list maker. His first year of college, he often felt overwhelmed by everything he had to do — both inside and outside of the classroom. He had a planner for big assignments, but it was the little things that got past him because he was trying to hold them in his head. He wasn't sure whether he’d keep lists on paper or in an app on his phone — just so long as he gets all of the to-do’s out of his head and together in one place.

8. Balance

Unlike James, Marisol got involved on campus — maybe to a fault. She’s a great student and managed to keep up her grades even while participating in several clubs, hosting a radio show, and saying yes to the many requests to get involved in special projects.

She wants to learn to say “no” — not to everything, but enough to be selective. She calls it “self-protection” and recognizes that doing less will let her enjoy what she does do even more.

Vicki Nelson has more than thirty-five years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also has weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She began her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance, appropriate involvement, and knowing when to get out of the way.

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