Achieving Success in Your Freshman Year

Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland
Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland

Dear Gavin (and all incoming freshmen),

Congratulations on the start of your college career! I know how excited you must be about your achievements to date, as well as this chance to begin the next phase of your life. As a college president, I want to pass along a few words of wisdom as you begin your college careers in the next few weeks.

I want to begin by dispelling a few misconceptions about college. I know you just graduated from a challenging high school with a strong college prep program. You are certainly well-prepared. That said, you can't expect to coast on your high school work ethic and succeed in college. Higher education requires more diligence and focus than high school. Here are some tips:

• Don't be fooled by the schedule. Two or three classes a day would appear to leave free time to do your own thing. Actually, your professors will expect you to use that open time to study vigorously. Meetings, study groups, and assignments will dominate this "free time." Be prepared.

• Don't expect to get all your homework done in a few hours each night. College work requires you to spend more time on task than you did in high school. However, the hours at the library or study lounge will pay off in success.

• Avoid the misconception that class attendance is optional and all that matters is the final grade. You may find that professors don't take attendance. You might be inclined to think they won't notice if you're not present. Trust me -- your attendance will have a direct impact on your learning. Go to class, sit in front, take good notes, and participate in class discussions. It's your education, so make the most of it.

• Finally, many new college students think that an education is simply about acquiring as much knowledge as possible, and it's the professor's job to provide the answers. Not true. An education is based on learning how to think critically about a wide range of topics, and then putting those ideas into action.

Now that I've addressed some misconceptions, let's focus on the learning opportunities:

Own Your Education

An education is about making your life more meaningful, and it's your job to "make the meaning." Learning is an active endeavor. Your professors are there to help you, and they actually care about what you think and do. Respect your professors and yourself through active learning and participation.

Professors will expect you to learn the material before you come to class. Your time in class will be devoted to in-depth exploration. You will critique, test, and apply ideas. It takes a while to get used to this switch, but this is how you learn to become a self-directed, lifelong learner. You are extremely bright, but in college, you can't get by on natural talents alone. You have to do the work, seek additional help from professors and learning specialists, and schedule your time wisely. If you do, you'll still have time for co-curricular activities and leisure time.

You have to be disciplined. Don't expect an academic counselor or professor to monitor your progress, like in high school.

Beyond the Classroom

You are going to meet people from diverse backgrounds. The range of backgrounds you encounter in college will be even more diverse than what you experienced in the past. You might meet people who won't agree with your views on politics or religion, and I encourage you to suspend judgment and be open to new and different ideas. Don't be afraid to respectfully ask questions about other students' backgrounds. You will find that getting to know a person unlike yourself not only helps you strengthen your own values, it also allows you to appreciate and enjoy that very difference.

While you and your roommate will probably get along just fine, roommate conflicts are a natural part of going to college. Try to work them out on your own. If you can't, get help from your resident hall advisors. Challenges with roommates or classmates actually provide excellent practice in conflict resolution, a vital lifelong skill. Above all, be kind and practice the Golden Rule.

Family and Independence

It will be an emotional time when you say goodbye to your family. These emotions are good. They demonstrate the bonds of love that you have for one another. Part of that love includes your parents letting you take flight. I encourage you to become engaged in campus life. Make the campus your new community. This is your chance to write the next chapter of your life as a young adult.

Try to keep your family informed. Don't be afraid to share your successes and struggles; both are natural. You are an independent young person, so you won't need to rely on your parents when you encounter difficulties. We all have the confidence you can handle the challenges, but we're also here for advice if (and when) you need it.

Remember: you are ready for this next step in your life's journey. Go make the most of it.

With all my love,