The freshman year of college is a time of transition from adolescence to adulthood. Living independently for the first time and directing your own life -- academically, socially and organizationally -- can be daunting but it need not be a time of upheaval. With planning and forethought, freshmen can be empowered to own their own destiny and achieve success independently on both the personal and professional levels.
To help freshmen rise to the myriad challenges that await, I'd like to offer five suggestions to keep in mind during the first semester and beyond:
1) Set goals: While you do not need to settle on a career from day one, take these few weeks before you arrive on campus and make a list of what you want to get out of college. The list should include both long- and short-term goals. If it's a high GPA, write down a number to aim for; if you're interested in activism, list the causes you're passionate about and see which clubs you can join that will enable you to turn that passion into action.
2) Find Balance: In college, and like many things in life, it's as much about the journey as the destination. Many believe the purpose of college is for students to learn the skills they'll need for their professions after graduation. And that's accurate, but it's not the whole truth. In fact, your primary objective is to learn; it's called a college education, not a career education. Someone who's pre-med shouldn't only take courses in science; if you're planning to be an accountant there's nothing that says you can't take an English or history class, in addition to those in math and economics; and an aspiring psychologist can always enroll in the humanities. For one, it's important for everyone to broaden their intellectual horizons. For another, employers have complained loudly in recent years that new hires just out of college are lacking critical thinking skills. Challenging yourself by engaging in subjects outside of your comfort zone is key to developing those skills. And you never know, this supposed diversion from your plans may lead you to something you like even more.
3) Pace yourself: Don't feel like you have to get the full college experience right off the bat. Usually it takes four years to finish college, but even if you're planning to accelerate your education, you'll still have plenty of time to get the lay of the land, hone your interests, choose a major, make friends and, of course, learn about yourself and what you want to accomplish in life. You'll reach your goals faster if you try to tackle them deliberately, taking short breaks when necessary and dividing the work when you can. If you rush into it, not only are you less likely to succeed, but you won't have much fun, either. And make no mistake, despite the hard work required and the stress it can induce, college is supposed to be fun, too.
4) Don't Panic: The weight of what you need to accomplish in college and all that you have to do can be overbearing. Remember that this feeling is not unique to you; every student experiences it from time to time and the feeling is both normal and expected. After all, college is a huge lifestyle change, usually one that comes at a relatively young age during which most freshmen are getting their first real taste of independence from their parents. It can be freeing, but it's also daunting to realize you are in charge of your own life. However, it's these increased responsibilities that will teach you to manage your time efficiently and provide you with the tools you'll need to complete all your tasks. Your professors understand the pressures students are under and if you give them enough lead time, they might be willing to give an extension or make some temporary accommodation to make your life a little bit easier. So take a deep breath. It's going to be OK.
5) Beware of drugs and alcohol: It seems clichéd in this day and age, but this can't go without saying because nothing will threaten your success in college and beyond more than abuse of drugs and alcohol. While I'm not referring to any particular school or campus regarding this issue, if you're living in dorms and away from constant parental supervision, these substances may very well be readily available. Many of your peers will use and abuse substances as a way of "fitting in" with the group and an escape from serious issues. As you embrace your newfound independence, I urge you to make nuanced decisions and learn to cope with difficulties, rather than alter your consciousness so you don't feel them. While complete abstinence is not realistic, knowing and practicing safe limits is an attainable goal. No one would equate half a light beer with highly addictive narcotics, but everyone needs to be honest and assess whether his alcohol intake falls under the category of moderation or if it's headed towards abuse and addiction. Abuse will impede your studies and career and may eventually destroy relationships with friends and family.