Five Tips to Survive Your First Semester in College

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By Samantha Castaneda, Student
Saint Mary's College & Students Rising Above

By October, most college freshmen have had a few weeks to adjust as they continue the transition into their first year of college. For first-generation students, this time of change can be especially critical. Data suggests that after six years, only 40 percent of first-generation students will have earned a bachelor's or associate's degree or certificate.

Once the excitement of the new experience wanes, the real work of courseloads, exams and potentially managing homesickness begins in earnest. It's important to take a step back to recognize and utilize important tools, and have the skills and habits to make the transition to college successful.

Below are five tips to help students successfully navigate their first semester of college:

#1: Get Organized
Remember that college academics are an entirely different ballgame from high school academics. Professors expect you to be well prepared. They expect you to follow the course outline and deadlines typically given at the beginning of the semester.

Do not procrastinate! Do not wait until the very last minute to complete homework, projects, essays or study. Use your planner and write down a list of what you have to do. Even though you may have waited until the last minute to complete tasks during high school, doing this in college will leave you extra stressed out. You could wind up getting low grades or missing an assignment or test.

#2: Develop and Nurture On-Campus Relationships
In addition to befriending other freshmen, build relationships with upperclassmen. They are the ones who can recommend the best professors and provide feedback about which classes are the most interesting. They can also clue you in on the best social events.

Also, do not be intimidated to visit your professors during their office hours, particularly if you need help with understanding a subject. Going to office hours will also help the professor get to know you, which is a huge benefit when you need recommendation letters for internship opportunities and graduate school.

Finally, make sure that you are regularly checking in with your assigned academic advisor.

#3: Re-evaluate the Balance Between Social and Academic Activities
When you first arrived on campus, it may have been tempting to overcommit to social activities. But with school now in full swing, you may find you are struggling to balance academic and social commitments.

Recognize that it takes time to create a juggle effectively between schoolwork and fun activities. There may be times when it's necessary to stay in during the weekend to finish an assignment or study for a big test. One tip is to try to do assigned homework the day it is assigned, and spread out studying throughout the week to free up Friday evening and Saturday.

If you attend a school where you are unable to travel home over long weekends and holidays, look forward to that time with friends to watch movies, cook and try different dishes, and have conversations near the fireplace. By making academics the priority over social activities, you will feel a great sense of accomplishment knowing you did well in your classes.

#4: Become Involved
Taking advantage of extra-curricular opportunities can combat homesickness and introduce you to life-long friends, relieve stress and help with time management. In addition, clubs and volunteer organizations can provide leadership and networking opportunities that pave the way to internships and employment.

Even if you missed the formal fall activities fair, it's never too late to become involved. Seek out organizations related to your major or interests. Remember to sign up for something completely random (boxing club, anyone?)

#5: Seek Online Support
Support is always just a click away from online resources such as Students Rising Above's (SRA) College2Careers Hub. The SRA Hub offers free one-to-one advising from professionally trained online advisers and often provides real-time answers to questions. The Hub's extensive resource center answers virtually every question about college, such as dealing with a difficult roommate, time management and effective studying strategies. Online communities like the Hub also enable students to chat, exchange ideas and share information.

Final Words: Strive to Thrive
The decisions you make during your first semester of college will likely have a major impact on the rest of your college experience and beyond. Take advantage, particularly as a first-generation student, of the resources available from your professors, peers and online communities. Strive to thrive-- not only academically but socially.

Samantha Castaneda is currently studying English Literature and Sociology at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana. She is a proud member of the Students Rising Above's Class of 2013. Students Rising Above provides personal guidance, information and resources to low-income, first-generation college students from the initial college application process, through graduation and into the workforce.

Do you have a favorite tip for first semester college students not mentioned above? Join the discussion below and let us know!