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Dive into College

Besides being a writer, I’m also ajournalism professor at SUNY Oswego, and I work as an academic adviser to freshmen. For students leaving for their first year of college, and their parents, I’ve put together a list of my favorite, time-tested tips.

First-year students, let’s start with academics.

Go see your adviser. Really. Make sure you know and understand why you’re taking each of the courses you’re signed up for. Colleges place a huge emphasis on advising these days, especially for freshmen. Students need to take advantage of that.

I know it’s hard to recognize that it’s really up to you now, but it is. We may email that it’s time to come see your adviser, but the student actually has to arrange an appointment, remember the appointment and show up. Studies show that students who meet regularly with their advisers are more likely to graduate in four years.

Don’t complain about General Education courses. Actually, complain about whatever you like, but try to learn something from these courses you “have to take.” Liberal arts colleges require General Education courses so students become familiar with a broad array of topics, from literature to math to natural sciences to history. Many students discover their majors by taking one of these courses because they “had to.” Many others discover areas to minor in or just enjoy the topic.

Read and study. That may sound obvious, but believe me, it’s not! (Sorry, parents.) Find a time and—more importantly—a place where you can get studying done. My husband swears he studied in front of the TV with his roommates all around in college. That would get me nowhere.

My senior year of college (under threat of not graduating in four years), I finally found a good studying location and time. After having a social dinner with my friends or roommates, I made my way across campus to the library. Once there, I headed to the back of the Periodicals Room, right past the Reference Room. I would find a carrel next to a window and settle in. I had my own space, there was good lighting and there was some noise.

I developed a routine: I would work for an hour, then nap with my head on my arms and books for 20 or so minutes. When I’d awaken from my power nap, I’d walk around to a water fountain, see who was around, and head back to my desk. Then I’d study for another hour, at which point it was time to go to the library coffee shop or meet a friend for a break.

Don’t address professors as “Hey” or “Hey Prof.” College is a good time to learn the value of showing respect, especially to strangers in positions of authority. A safe salutation in emails, which is how much of the communication takes place, is “Hi Professor,” or even “Dear Professor,” if the instructor has not told you how she would like to be addressed. Professors are not your email buddies.

Which brings up another issue: Just because a student sends an email at 2:30 a.m. does not mean a professor will respond by 10 a.m. Many professors have 24-hour rules; they try to answer all emails within 24 hours. This rule does not necessarily apply to weekends. While each student is important, professors may have from 75 to 300 students in classes each semester, in addition to advisees. Every midnight email cannot be the top priority each morning.

Parents: Ask open-ended questions. A colleague advises that students, children and many others very often will not elaborate on closed-ended questions like “How are your classes?” The college freshman will answer: “OK.” Try asking, “Which course do you like the best so far and why?” “Which course is the hardest so far?” “Which class is the most boring?” and the follow-up: “Why is it boring? Are you doing the reading before class?” Maybe they won’t like being asked that, but it’s a good reminder.

Also, while talking with college children, remember they’re exploring; maybe it’s best to just listen for a while before taking action or telling them how to fix the situation. In addition, due to federal privacy laws, if a parent contacts a child’s professor, he is not allowed to reveal any information about the student’s performance unless the student has signed a waiver on campus.

If a student is having trouble in a course, please tell your child to go talk to the professor or at least the teaching assistant (if there is one). Students should seek out a tutor. They are available for free or at a minimal charge on most campuses and there is no shame attached to working with a tutor, and the professor is not informed (in case a student is worried about that).

Students should also be prepared to be responsible for their own well-being in other realms of life.

Eat well and sleep well! The stress and the workload will build toward final exams, and surviving is easier to tackle if one is not worn out and living on fries and soda. Eating healthy in college has never been easier or more fashionable. Sleeping well may entail closing the door to one’s room at midnight at least every other night; remember, your friends or new acquaintances will still be there to hang with in the morning or the next night. Come February, everyone will get really bad colds or the flu. Those who aren’t as run-down stand a better chance of making it to spring break healthy.

Get out and meet new people. Freshmen have one ready-made pal in a roommate (until they decide they really don’t like one another in January), and probably several other people they like hanging out with who live on their floor in the dormitory. But those few friends may not be enough to get you through four years of college. Don’t be too shy to talk to the student sitting next to you in class every Tuesday and Thursday. Invite him or her to get lunch or dinner in the cafeteria or coffee at a snack bar after class. Or get together to study for a test. Going through the same experience is a great way to make friends and it’s helpful to have friends in different areas of your life on campus.

Keep up with your interests. “Continue the activities that made you happy in high school,” recommends my colleague Linda Loomis. “If you were in orchestra, band, chorus, art club, drama club or sports, don’t give those things up.” She says those are communities in which you’ll feel comfortable, providing you with a sense of belonging “to balance the inevitable sense of isolation and confusion that comes with new situations.”

I remember feeling awkward and isolated at times during my first few weeks of college. By the middle of the first semester, however, I remember thinking that I never wanted to leave. As a new college student—and, one hopes, a lifelong learner—give yourself time to explore, adjust, grow and learn.

Eileen Gilligan, an award-winning writer and mother of two, lives in Baldwinsville.


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