5 Healthy Habits of Successful College Students
Have you ever wondered why two smart, motivated and personable college freshmen could have two completely different outcomes by the end of their first year? In most cases, it’s not one contributing factor that took the less successful student off course, but rather a series of things. After all, transitioning to college requires a lot of preparation, adapting and discipline. You’re on your own in terms of organization, time management and making friends. And there’s temptation everywhere you turn—from alcohol and staying out all night to pizza delivery and naps! Surely, there are tricks to surviving freshman year, right?
Actually, there are. Perhaps more like guidelines—healthy habits that successful college students tend to adopt early. You may be surprised to see that most of them having nothing to do with taking good notes or outlining papers a certain way. Read on to discover some of the underlying components of college success.
1. Get enough sleep.
Whether it’s a solid eight hours a night or a shorter night’s sleep supplemented by a nap, getting plenty of Z’s can make everything easier. Staying out late on a “school night” or up all night to finish a paper at the last minute usually leaves students feeling tired, stressed and anxious. Sacrificing sleep often means you’ll spend the next day loading up on caffeine and struggling to focus.
“Since the average person needs an average of seven to eight hours of sleep each night, and the average college student receives a lot less than that, every little bit of extra sleep helps feed the brain the amount of oxygen it needs during a sleep cycle,” explains Lance Meche, dean of students at Southwestern Assemblies of God University (TX). “When we sleep, we breathe deeper than usual and we inhale a greater amount of oxygen, which feeds the brain but also helps heal the body at a faster rate. We yawn because our brain is sending us a message that it is starving for more oxygen. Our body has a way of warning us when we do things that create an imbalance.”
Of course, sometimes not getting enough sleep has nothing to do with partying or procrastinating.
Pam Holsinger-Fuchs, executive director of enrollment services at the University of Wisconsin-Stout suggests, “Use a noise machine, fan or download an app that will have several sound options, like rain, to help you sleep—especially for those living in residence halls for the first time. A good pair of earplugs doesn’t hurt as well with roommates having different sleep schedules.”
Sure, many students exercise because they want to look good, but most also know that it can help you sleep better, fight stress, ward off disease and even help your brain work better.
Heidelberg University (OH) Director of Wellness and Healthy Living Kayela Tidrick points out that a recent study conducted by Purdue University found that students who worked out at Purdue’s gym at least once a week were more likely to earn a higher GPA than students who visited less or not at all.
And exercising doesn’t have to mean hours at the gym. Take a dance class, sign up for an intramural sport or find a walking buddy.
3. Use on-campus support.
Disorganization, stress, ADHD, time management—whatever your struggle, you’re not alone. You’re also not the first, which is why colleges are set up to handle a variety of needs. Almost all schools offer counselors, office hours with your professors, study groups, tutoring and stress management help. (See “Give Me a Boost!” on page 20.)
Although homesickness, sadness and loneliness can strike any student at any time, it’s especially common among freshmen who aren’t used to being away from home. But there are things that can help. Join the Greek system to make new friends (some of whom you’ll have for life), get out in nature or join an on-campus support group.
“Get involved!” advises Dr. Nancee Bailey, vice president of student affairs at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (FL). “Students are more likely to be successful and feel at home if they actively participate in clubs and organizations.”
If your sadness begins to feel overwhelming, talk to a counselor and ask your doctor about your symptoms.
“Depending on what part of the country you attend college, you might want to consider purchasing a happy light that can help with depression,” advises Holsinger-Fuchs. “My daughter used one and she found it very helpful.”
4. Maintain your health.
If all goes well, your only trips to the medical clinic on campus will be for wellness visits. Successful students work to prevent illness before they have to treat it. Get your flu shot, take any medications your doctor has prescribed and get regular check-ups and dental cleanings.
A big part of maintaining your health is optimizing nutrition. In addition to eating healthy, avoid over-consumption of caffeine, limit your sugar intake and don’t skip meals. Need help? Check to see if your college has a dietician on staff or sign up for a health and nutrition class or workshop.
It’s also important to stay hydrated—even in the colder months. “Recommendations have been made to drink half of your body weight in fluid ounces a day,” says Tidrick. “Athletes should especially be hydrating properly because of the amount of sweat they are producing. Dehydration can contribute to lack of focus, headaches and fatigue.”
5. Take frequent breaks.
All work and no play isn’t good for your mind or body. Sometimes that means putting down the technology. Other times it means getting out to make new friends, explore the city, see a movie or enjoy a hike.
“Get off campus once in a while to get a new perspective,” suggests Holsinger-Fuchs. “Each campus also has a program board that plans events like dances, movies and comedy shows. Most groups welcome new members, so if you don’t see what you like, get involved to help plan something that resonates with you. You never know who you might meet as well, as I met my future husband at such a gathering!”
Meche agrees that breaks are essential to having a well-rounded college experience. “Taking a break and spending time developing community with friends and peers is also a significant part of the learning experience that is often missing in today’s graduates,” he says. “Developing relationships that help sharpen us and make us better leaders, not only helps us be more civil to one another, it encourages [us] to think and live beyond ourselves to serve the needs of the world around us.” Sometimes, you need to schedule breaks just like you would a class.
“Outline a schedule that focuses on time management and work to find balance in your life for crucial activities such as sleeping, eating, studying and playing,” says Bailey.
Indeed, if there’s one word that best describes successful college students—whether we’re talking about work, play, sleep or food—it’s balance!
Wendy Burt-Thomas is the editor of My College Guide.