Expert Advice For College Freshmen Avoid These Common Pitfalls
For most freshmen, college brings with it newfound independence, hopefulness about adulthood and excitement about new friendships.
But for all the positives, there are also pitfalls—common obstacles that plague first-year students. Chances are you won’t be able to avoid many of these situations; however, just knowing they’re coming may help you address them when they arrive.
To help you recognize these issues, we’ve asked six college experts to share their advice on what they see most often and how to lessen the sting.
According to Christine Bowman, Southwestern University’s (TX) dean of enrollment services, roommate matching is one of the hardest jobs anyone could have. Because many students don’t share a bedroom or bathroom at home, this transition can be very difficult.
“Not only do you share a sleeping space, but also personal space with someone you have never met,” Bowman says. “The best way to succeed with roommate matching is to complete the housing form in the most honest fashion. If you’re messy, own it. If you wake up early and want to go to bed at a decent hour, admit these qualities. If you can learn to navigate living with someone, then you should consider it a successful first year.”
Chris Beiswanger, director of the Office of Admissions at University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS), reminds students that communication solves many problems: “Don’t be afraid to have difficult conversations, respectfully. Ultimately, dorm life and roommates are great preparation for life because … at some point in the future, your roommate may have the title of husband, wife, partner or significant other, and you can’t just move out if you disagree on something.”
Loneliness and Homesickness
Justin Roy, Georgian Court University’s (NJ) dean of admissions, says he’s always seen homesickness as a positive. “Embrace the feeling knowing you took a big step into adulthood, you took a big step in investing in your future and you took a big step in learning more about yourself,” Roy says. “Call home each week, but not every day. Stay on campus, and resist the temptation to go home and lay on the couch on the weekend. It will only make it harder to return back.”
Denton Sederquist, assistant director of residential life at Purdue University (IN), encourages students to join a club or organization to meet new friends and try new things. “Your residence hall will also have many events where you can meet new people,” Sederquist says. “You never know when you will meet your new best friend.”
The Freshman 15
Bowman of Southwestern points out that it’s easy to enjoy the luxuries of college dining offerings and slowly discover that you’re gaining weight. “Keep healthier snacks in your room for those late-night munchies, and limit the number of days that you go out eat,” she says. “One of the biggest reasons [for the freshman 15] may be that you are not moving like you did in high school.”
Beiswanger of UCCS agrees: “You’re paying for a recreation center. Use it.”
Of course, you don’t have to go to the gym to get exercise. Roy of Georgian Court says that after gaining weight in college, he decided to walk whenever he talked to friends and family on the phone. “I didn’t change what I ate,” he says. “Three years later, I lost 95 pounds and have kept it off using the same technique.”
Although oversleeping once or twice isn’t an issue, a pattern of missing classes is cause for concern. “School is the primary reason you are at college, and if you’re staying up too late to wake up for class in the morning, then you are wasting money and missing valuable learning,” says Ann Tohme, director of student care and engagement at Trinity International University (IL). “Set multiple alarms—not near your bed—so that you have to get out of bed to turn them off. If you have a friend in the class with you, work out an accountability system where they stop by your room on the way to class.”
Tohme points out that each class session you miss has a dollar amount associated with it, and you want to get everything you can out of your investment. “Studies have shown that the students who are most successful in college are those who attend class regularly,” she says. “The effort you put into prioritizing class will show in your grades.”
Although missing class can be a major reason students fail a course, Pennsylvania College of Technology research has found other contributing factors. “We believe a fear of asking questions and failing paralyzes many students from seeking the help they need to be successful,” says Carolyn Strickland, vice president for enrollment management and associate provost of Penn College. “Asking for an explanation of class material they don’t understand, seeking out assistance when studying for a test, effectively managing stress and anxiety that results from a bad grade—these are all indicators of whether a student has a high level of academic buoyancy, an ability to overcome everyday challenges and obstacles in the academic setting. The inability to manage the everyday obstacles turns into more serious issues, including dropping out.”
By addressing these fears and obstacles, Penn College has increased its retention rate of first-year students by almost 11 percent since 2009. Tohme of Trinity discloses that around mid-semester, a good number of freshmen will find themselves failing a class. “The important thing is not to let this realization defeat you but to let it serve as a wake-up call,” she advises. “Academic success at the college level takes more time, energy and effort than what most students realize. It is important to take stock of current study habits and time management and look for changes that need to be made. Set up an appointment with the professor to discuss ways you could improve your grade. Then go to your university’s academic success center. Many schools will offer free tutoring, writing workshops and help with time management and study skills.”
Trying To Maintain High School Relationships
Beiswanger of UCCS says he often sees freshmen trying to maintain their high school relationships, but it’s especially difficult when their significant other goes to a different school.
“Students have told me they felt like they were cheating if they went out and had fun, regardless of what their significant other was doing at their college,” he says. “Some have told me they wished they had ended it in high school to allow them to move on and mature. However, I’ve also seen it work.
“But students should remember they are growing and maturing and experiencing different things in college and shouldn’t be afraid to meet new people—even if that means their high school relationship ends,” he says. “College relationships are far more adult than anything they have previously experienced and can be far more powerful.”
People joke about college kids being broke and eating ramen noodles, but it’s true for several reasons: overspending, lack of income and living off credit cards.
“One of the habits I am most concerned with for this generation is the coffee habit,” says Bowman of Southwestern. “The daily $6 coffee (and for some students they have two or three a day) means you are spending at least $40 per week. Add that to the two or three trips out to eat with friends, tickets to the game and the fun T-shirts being sold by your favorite club, and you can easily blow through several hundred dollars each month.
“Another challenge is that your budget may be very different from your friends’ budget,” Bowman says. “If you don’t have as much money as they do, it can be awkward to turn down opportunities to go out. One suggestion may be to find a way to do free things together on campus so that no one has to spend money.”
Bowman warns that students should never live off a credit card in college. “Credit cards often present an unrealistic freedom for students, but the spending can quickly add up at a very high interest rate,” she says. “That $10 pizza can wind up costing you $40 in interest over time.”
Sederquist of Purdue recommends students have a job on campus every year. “This will not only provide you with money, but also, more importantly, it will provide you with an increased work ethic, better time management skills, and last but certainly not least, a reference letter from an employer.”
On the flip side, once you understand budgeting, you can borrow money more responsibly. “Don’t be afraid to take out loans if it will afford you a better living situation,” advises Beiswanger of UCCS. “You have to treat yourself as a priority to be successful. The student who is constantly hungry, overworked and unhealthy will struggle to be successful in college. You are investing in yourself.”