How to Succeed During Your College Years

How to Succeed During Your College Years was originally published on Leland.

Going to college comes with much anticipation as well as copious amounts of nervous energy. Will I be accepted to my top school? Who is going to be my roommate? What will it be like to live on my own?

All these questions are certainly ones about which to feel ‘anxious excited.’ Most adults will tell you that their college years were the best years of their lives. It’s natural to feel excited about pursuing a field of study that will lead to your future career, making life-long friends, going to football games, and beginning the first stages of your adult life. But along with those steps, it’s also only natural to wonder how you can make the most of the few short years that will comprise your college career. With so many options for degrees, extracurriculars, campus organizations, internships, and intramural teams, how could you possibly choose the right ones?

As someone who asked these same questions not too long ago, here are five tips for how to make the most of your college experience.

#1 Take advantage of orientation week

Your first week on campus as a freshman is going to be the most overwhelming week of your college experience—yes, even more overwhelming than exam week! Emotions are high as you move into your dorm room, say goodbye to your family, attend one too many orientation seminars, meet your roommate(s), go to the campus clubs/organizations fair, find where you’ll need to go for classes, buy your textbooks, learn which cafeteria has the best food, try to understand the campus lingo, and on and on. Trust me, you’re going to be tempted to pay attention to as little as possible because to pay attention to much more than that feels like trying to swallow a tidal wave. And for some of you, add college sports to the mix, and you can forget the tidal wave; you already feel like you’re drowning.

But, because I can promise you that your entire college experience will not be on overflow, I want to encourage you to take advantage of orientation week while you can. Nowhere else will you learn in one sitting, so to speak, about what your university has to offer than during that first week. Orientation week is a college’s way of handing you all the possibilities on a silver platter. You don’t have to swallow them all at once, but you should make note of the things that interest you. Carry a small notebook around, and when you hear about a program that piques your interest or when you meet someone cool, write down their name and contact information. That way, when you feel you’ve gotten settled in, you can circle back and further explore those opportunities.

#2 Get involved, but not too involved

You’ve made it through orientation week, and you’ve got your notebook full of the names of people and opportunities you want to reach out to. You’re ready to get involved, and that’s awesome. Reach out to those people; try something new! But remember to also manage your time because there are only so many hours in a day.

“How much is too much?”, you might ask. First, let me submit to you that as a college student, your primary job is to be a student. Therefore, choosing one or two opportunities in which to become involved during your first semester leaves room for your studies and room to grow. You can always add more as you learn about what it looks like to be a student in college, but it’s hard to take back a “yes” once you’ve given it. Even as an NCAA Division III athlete, I was involved in multiple opportunities on and off-campus, so you will have plenty of time and plenty of chances to say “yes.” It’s okay to pace yourself, give a few opportunities a trial period, and reevaluate each semester—or even each quarter—whether you are comfortable taking on more or want to make a change to find a better fit.

Prioritizing and planning your time is also why you carried around that little notebook during orientation week. You may not have the capacity to take on the investment club in addition to 16 credits, the school paper, and intramural pickleball until the second semester, but when you’re ready, you’ve got the information you need to reach out and extend that “yes.” Successful college students are those who get involved, but are not too involved.

#3 Cultivate relationships

While college is a moment for you to shine, it’s also not a season to go through alone. Finding the right people to champion you throughout the next four years is key. To the extroverts and the introverts, myself included, hear me when I say that you need to prioritize finding your people from the moment you walk on campus.

A great place to start is by getting to know your roommate. For some of you, this relationship may start before you ever get to campus. If you found your roommate on Facebook, give them your number and talk about more than just how you want to arrange the furniture in your room. But whether you know your roommate ahead of time or you’re one of the wild ones who went for the random roommate option, because you’ll be living together, your roommate is likely to be your closest friend or your greatest enemy for, at a minimum, your first year of college. I hope the first for you so am encouraging you to make that relationship a positive one from the outset. Your roommate is a great person to attend orientation week festivities with; they are a familiar face to sit next to and a friendship to grow through the icebreakers and other orientation activities.

You’ll also have the opportunity to find your people through the clubs, organization, teams, and communities you join. Whether religious, cultural, academic, athletic, hobby, or leisure, the groups you’re a part of have the potential to grow your friend circle. When you walk into a group like these, you know for certain that you have at least one thing in common with everyone in the room. Use that to your advantage and take the time to invest in these people; if they’re friend material, they’ll invest in you in return.

And don’t forget about your professors. They are there to teach you, but many of them are also there to mentor you. Take advantage of your professors’ office hours. They aren’t just for answering questions about that upcoming chemistry test; they’re also about building relationships. These are going to be the people writing your recommendations for your first job, so the better you know them, the better they know you and the more you can benefit from their wisdom and experience both in life and in your future career.

#4 Develop study habits that work for you

College isn’t high school. You may think that goes without saying, but you would be surprised how many people start college the same way they finished high school. In high school, studying for a Spanish test looked like making a million notecards, so why wouldn’t it look like that in college? In high school, the biology teacher required you to outline every chapter of the textbook, so wouldn’t your biology professor expect the same? The answer is they are absolutely not the same!

If you haven’t already, you’ll learn very quickly that college homework means more pages than you can ever possibly read word-for-word and more information than any number of notecards or spiral notebooks can hold. So, just like you did with those clubs and intramurals, you’ll have to find a balance with your studies too. Which professors lean heavily on the textbook, which prioritize class instruction, and which fall somewhere in between? If you’re not sure, Rate My Professors may be a great place to find preliminary answers.

You certainly can spend all hours of the night outlining, note-carding, and studying if you really want, but I don’t personally recommend it. Take the time in those early days to find what works for you. You might even conduct your own little experiment: try skimming the textbook and taking notes in class to prepare for a small quiz and see how you do. Then adjust from there. Even though you’re a student first, college holds so much more for you than spending all your time in the library.

#5 Explore your campus and its surroundings

Whether you find yourself a couple of hours from home in-state or halfway across the country, your college campus is a whole new world to explore. Each of the buildings has a story—someone they’re named after, unique architectural style and features, and a particular purpose. Use some of your free time to learn about them. Some of the coolest stories I heard in college centered around the buildings and the students who lived and learned in them. One building on the campus of the undergraduate university I attended was once a part of the Underground Railroad. One housed a famous missionary, now martyr. One even displayed the skeleton of a prehistoric beast discovered by a professor and some of his students. And none of this would I have learned if I hadn’t taken the time to explore the campus on which I was living.

Your campus is also part of a community, and by virtue of living on that campus, you are also part of that community. Maybe you’re near a city that boasts state-of-the-art museums you could visit with friends on the weekends. Many institutions like this also offer student discounts that you should definitely take advantage of while you’re in college. Or, maybe you’re in a more rural area and can get a group of friends together, find a few old shipping palettes, and host a bonfire. Your options are literally endless, so don’t limit yourself to your dorm because chances are, you’re missing out. In this case, a little FOMO doesn’t hurt.

Ultimately, whether you end up using all these tips or not, make a point to enjoy your college years. Learn as much as you can, invest in as many people as you can, take some risks to try something new, and grow into someone who can achieve your full potential wherever you’re planted. If you do that, then you’ve by far made the most of your college experience. I hope you enjoy what will undoubtedly be some of the most memorable years of your life.

If you’re getting started on your application or are heading to school this fall, I’d love to help you make the best decisions for your future. Message me on my Leland profile to get started!

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