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First Year of College: How to Prepare

By Lisa Freedland

Lisa Freedland is a Scholarships360 writer with personal experience in psychological research and content writing. She has written content for an online fact-checking organization and has conducted research at the University of Southern California as well as the University of California, Irvine. Lisa graduated from the University of Southern California in Fall 2021 with a degree in Psychology.

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Edited by Maria Geiger

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Updated: September 7th, 2023
First Year of College: How to Prepare

The transition to college is a stressful, but exciting time in many students’ lives. Not only are you adjusting to a new school and location, but also new people, more classes, and more options than ever before. So, it’s important to know how to prepare for college, in order to succeed during this big change in your life.

Keep on reading to find out our best tips for preparing for your first year of college. We share handy tips for before you even step onto campus to those you’ll be using throughout your entire time there.

Research possible majors

Many, many college freshmen don’t quite know what they want to major in by the time they step onto their college campus. So, if you don’t either, just know that you’re not alone! 

However, knowing of specific pathways (e.g., pre-law, pre-med) or careers that you’re interested in will infinitely help when it comes to picking your classes. If you’re not quite sure about these either, though, we highly recommend making a visit to your university’s career center and/or scheduling an appointment with an academic or career advisor. They will be able to describe the different types of careers and paths you could take based on your interests. Perhaps they will tell you about some professions you may have never heard of before. Perhaps you already have an idea of the field you may want to go in? It might be helpful to schedule an appointment with an advisor who specializes in that major or field at your university.

No matter what type of advisor you go to, ask them to help you create a course plan for the duration of your time at college. This should include what classes you will take each semester. Following the course plan should lead you to an on-time graduation!

See Also: How to choose a major

Learn about safety resources on campus

With COVID-19 causing many schools to go fully online last year, universities will be seeing more students new to campus this year than ever before. So, with fewer college students actually having experienced being on campus, it’s important that all the new (and returning!) students know how to stay safe while away at school. So, how exactly do you do that?

Staying safe on a college campus is all about being aware of your surroundings and learning about your school’s safety policies. For example, you should know where you can go to report crimes, how your school handles sexual assault, and who to contact or where to go if you feel that you’re in danger. Most universities also have special phone numbers you can call if you feel that you need help, so make sure to add these to your contact list for quick access.

The majority, if not all, universities also require students to take short, 1-2 hour courses on topics such as alcohol, healthy relationships, and assault before arriving on campus. These will likely also go over safety protocols at your school and can sometimes be required to sign up for classes. So, make sure to take them!

Learn how to take notes

Now, onto classes! We know that this tip may seem strange at first. After all, you already (probably) took notes all the time during high school. However, college is all about gathering as much knowledge as you can. College prepares you for your future career and life in general. So, it’s in your best interest to learn the best possible ways that you can take notes in your college classes.

There’s a plethora of ways that notes can be written down. This includes outlining, using the Cornell method, mind-mapping, or even typing directly onto the lecture PowerPoint slides. For a more detailed list of note-taking strategies, we recommend checking out 7 Most Efficient Note Taking Methods. We recommend going through the list, maybe trying out a few of the methods, and seeing which works best for you.

Also, throughout your time at college, you will likely hear a professor or two mention that taking notes by hand is more effective than typing your notes. This is actually true! A 2014 study by Princeton and UCLA researchers found that students who handwrote notes performed better on conceptual questions than students who typed their notes. While we’re not saying that you have to handwrite your notes, the results of this study are something to keep in mind!

Know where to go for academic help

So, where do you go if you’re struggling in a class? Well, the first place to go would be your professor’s office hours (for the class you need help in!). If you don’t know, office hours are essentially time that professors (and teaching assistants) set aside specifically for students to have the opportunity to ask them questions or talk with them directly.

Alternatively, if you want help writing an essay, many universities have writing centers which students can go to (for free!) for writing help from more experienced writers and faculty. Tutoring services are also available at universities for nearly any subject. You should be able to find more info about your university’s tutoring services on their website. Do you already know somebody who excels at a certain subject you’re struggling with? Try contacting them as well to see if they would be willing to tutor or study with you.

With all this in mind, though, it’s important to note that each school is different. To find out exactly what resources are available at your school, Googling “your school’s name academic resources” will likely lead you to some helpful information.

Work on your time management

Time management, like in high school, is also a key to success in college. This is especially true in university, where students often no longer have their parents and teachers making sure they stay on track with assignments and other activities. Sometimes, even the most diligent students struggle to balance their academics, social lives, and other responsibilities at the same time. So, how do you make sure to stay on track?

It’s ultimately all up to preference, but some ways that you can help manage your time and keep track of what you need. Some ideas include a planner or “to-do” lists (I use the “Notes” app on my phone for these!). Some students like  smartphone apps specifically designed to help you stay on track (or limit your time on social media. 

Consider getting a job freshman year

On the topic of time, if you have enough spare time (and are looking to make a few extra bucks), you might want to consider getting a job freshman year of college. Day-to-day expenses often cost more money than students anticipate. Even a small part-time job of some sort can help. Students can better budget their money (and hopefully even save a little!). And, if you qualify for work-study at university, it should make it even easier to find a job. Many on-campus jobs prefer hiring work-study students. 

However, it is important to keep in mind that getting a job costs time. A job may take away time that you could spend preparing for tests, socializing, or anything else you may like doing.

Before you decide whether to seek out a job or not for freshman year, we recommend talking to your family about budgeting and your financial expectations.  

See Also: Is work study worth it? and Everything you need to know about work study

Keep an eye on your financial aid

From personal experience, it is very helpful to keep an eye on your financial aid in the few months before arriving at college (even after your freshman year!). It is not uncommon for you to have missed or forgotten to submit a financial aid document. Your school might even request new information at the drop of a hat. So, make sure that you’re not missing or forgetting about any financial documents that you’ve been asked to submit.

On a similar note, maybe your family’s financial situation changed in the past few months before freshman year. If so, it’s important to know that you do have options to change the situation for the better. For example, what if your family has recently had their income reduced due to a loss of employment? In that case, you can always write an appeal letter to see if you’re eligible for additional funding. Just know that if you have any questions related to your financial aid or funding, don’t be afraid to reach out to the financial aid office! They’re ultimately there to help.

Create a budget

Just as it’s important to budget your time, it’s also important to budget your money! Getting to the end of your first semester with no money left is disheartening. So, to avoid this altogether, we highly recommend sitting down with your parents and creating a budget. Honestly think about what you’ll likely need to buy and how much money you have.

Some things you should include in your budget are expenses for textbooks, food, transportation, personal care items, extracurricular activities, and for leisure activities (e.g., going out with friends). Depending on your specific situation, you may have more or less financial obligations than this. Just remember to include them all in your budget!

Participate in orientation activities

Typically, college orientation activities will begin in the week or two before classes start. However, your actual orientation might take place months before you arrive on campus). While your actual freshman orientation will likely include activities to get to know other students, it’s mostly about getting to know the school and signing up for classes.

Orientation activities that take place in the weeks before classes start, on the other hand, are often for introducing freshmen to each other. We encourage you to take part in these to feel more at home at your new school and to possibly meet some new friends. Just remember that everyone is nervous and adjusting to a new environment, so don’t be too worried (just be yourself).

Find out ways to get involved

College is full of many fun, unique organizations and activities just to keep college students occupied and entertained. To help get students involved in such activities, most colleges even hold organization or club fairs. This is where students can sign up for the clubs that sound most interesting to them. Before this club fair even occurs, however, we highly recommend looking up a list of organizations available at your school. This way, you’ll be sure not to miss out on any clubs you find interesting at the fair. If you can’t find one of the organizations at the fair for some reason, simply contact the organization or club. Club contact information is typically listed online, so send them an email!

Figure out your school’s COVID-19 protocols

Finally, it’s important to know your school’s COVID-19 protocols during these times (or during any pandemic). COVID-19 had a drastic impact on the 2020-2021 school year, which was not so long ago. So, try your best to stay safe and adhere to your school’s COVID-19 policies, whatever they may be. 

And with that, we’re done! We know that college may sound a little intimidating with all these things you have to prepare for, but that’s just because it’s such a big change in a student’s life. In reality, though, it should be a fun time in which you’re not only learning new things, but also being exposed to new ideas and meeting people from all types of places and backgrounds.

Frequently Asked Questions about preparing for your first year of college

When should you start preparing for college?

Great question. High school students should ideally start preparing for college the summer after their sophomore year or at the start of their junior year. Starting with standardized exam practice before researching prospective colleges is a common, and recommended, path to take. Knowing how you tend to score on standardized exams will give you a better idea of what schools are considered “safety”, “target,” or “reach” schools. For more advice on how and when to start preparing for (or thinking about) college, we recommend checking out High school checklist: Freshman through senior year and When should high school students start the college search?

What skills do you need for college?

Before getting to college, it’s important that students have polished up certain skills to help them thrive throughout their time at school. This includes those already covered in this article (e.g. studying skills, time, and money management). Other important skills include stress management, assertiveness, self-care, knowing when to ask for help, avoiding risky behaviors, and being honest and persevering.

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