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by Rachel Halpern | September 06, 2019

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Your first year of college is one of many changes. You’ll meet new people, gain new independence, and confront new ideas and experiences. As a result, you’ll grow as a person. 

Growth often comes with growing pains—the changes you experience in your first year of college can be overwhelming. But with change comes opportunity. Whether you’re eager to apply for internships, deciding to transfer schools, or striving to be your best self, take the opportunity to make the most of your first year at college. It’ll set you in a solid direction for years to come. 

Below are some lessons I learned in my first year of college.

1. Be open-minded but true to yourself

College is a time for self-discovery. In your first year, you’re especially susceptible to new ideas and impressions. Keep this in mind, and be open to new interests, major changes, and taking different types of classes. Unless you’re on a rigid pre-career track, chances are that as a first year you’ll have some flexibility in your schedule. Take advantage of that. Your first year is your time to take that class solely because it sounds interesting. In a few years, when you’re managing a more concentrated class schedule, you may feel nostalgic for that unrestrained, encouraged freshman curiosity.

2. Put yourself out there and say “yes”

Try not to compare your new college friendships to your friendships from home. Your nascent college friendships will be very different than those you had in high school because you’ll have experienced different things together. Your new friends weren’t there at prom pictures or graduation, and they weren’t in your high school English class with that eccentric teacher. And that’s okay. That’s normal. That’s almost everybody’s college friendships. But just because these people weren’t a part of your past doesn’t mean they can’t be a part of your future. Say yes to doing things with new people to get to know them and create new memories with them. Give it time. And don’t be discouraged in your first semester if you feel like you’re lacking friends. Remember that this feeling is temporary and ubiquitous among first semester college freshman. You’re not alone, even if you do feel alone.

3. Get involved with the community

At first, your new environment may seem foreign. One way to ease the transition is to get involved with your community. You can do this in different ways, including joining clubs and campus organizations and attending speaker events. No matter what you do, making an effort to contribute to your new community will allow you to meet people in a more focused and informal setting where you all automatically share a common interest. It will also give you an opportunity to speak with classmates outside of classes and formal meetings. And, by getting involved, you might just get promoted to a leadership position; demonstrating leadership experience is often a key criterion for job and internship positions.

4. Maintain your GPA

Your college grade point average will be one of the most important factors in applications for graduate school, internships, fellowships, and full-time jobs. The sooner after graduation you apply for positions, the more weight your GPA carries. Your GPA demonstrates academic success, implying strong time management and maturity. A higher GPA opens up doors and grants freedom to successfully pursue more programs and positions. It will strengthen your applications and offer you relief in knowing that your GPA will not be a limiting factor. And if your high school record isn’t so pretty, college is your chance to prove you can succeed at advanced academics.

5. Pursue research opportunities

During my first year at school, a friend and I were having a conversation about motivation and achievement among our peers, and he mentioned that one of his professors had said to him: “Freshman who do research are on a different level.” Engaging in research is valuable and especially impressive if done during your first year. It shows that you’re a motivated student and mature person—a professor entrusted you, a freshman, with his or her research. Also, research is often paid, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have some extra spending money. Letting professors know that you’re interested in research is a good way to find positions and open up opportunities—the second semester of my freshman year, I worked as a research assistant for a professor I had during my first semester. 

6. Get enough sleep

College is notorious for being a time in your life when you get little sleep. The average college student reports sleeping six hours a night. Some college students will even say that average is generous. But lack of sleep in college is glorified—pulling all-nighters, bragging about how little we’ve slept, as if less sleep equates to more productivity. If you’re someone who doesn’t operate well on low sleep, getting adequate rest might be just what you need to be your best self. 

7. Manage your time well

In college, you may feel pressure to study constantly—from your parents, the nature of your institution, or both—and you may feel guilty when you spend your time doing something else. You don’t have to be constantly studying, and feel guilty for it either. One of the most resonant pieces of advice I’ve received on time management was from a fellow college student. This student attends a self-described high stress-culture institution, and she advised me not to waste time, telling me if I’m going to study, study hard and efficiently, and if I’m not studying, then make the most of my time and go live my life. This means it’s entirely okay if you take some time away from the books but then enjoy that time—don’t spend it thinking about how you really should be studying. Be completely present in what you are doing. And be responsible about what makes sense to do with your time. If you have an exam coming up and need to set aside a few hours to study, make sure you do so and study efficiently.

8. Reach out when you need to

One of the smartest things you can do in life is to reach out when you need help. And sometimes, with all the change and growth during your first year of college, you might feel like you need help. Today, most universities have their own version of a short-term counseling service—if you think you’d benefit from this, don’t hesitate to reach out. These counseling services are staffed with impartial individuals who will focus on your problems in the moment, addressing immediate stress and helping you better function at college. University counselors are familiar with typical grievances of college students and are trained to be objective and understanding. 

These on-campus services are incredibly beneficial and you should definitely take advantage of them. But note that they’re meant to provide short term relief—from a specific stressor or if you just need someone to talk your thoughts out with. If you’re struggling with problems a bit more deep rooted, then searching for a longer-term therapy option may be better for you.

A final note

What works for some students may not work for others. Advice is all about application—take what you need. Hopefully you’ll find some of this useful for setting yourself up for success in college and beyond. And remember, there’s no one right way to do your freshman year of college. Have fun and enjoy yourself!

Rachel is a contributing Editorial Intern for Vault.com. She will be a sophomore this fall at Barnard College.

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