1. Don’t skimp on sleep. My biggest regret fall quarter was only sleeping from 2-7 AM during the last three weeks so that I could study for multivariate calculus. It isn’t worth it. Nothing is more important than making sure your body gets enough rest, especially so your brain can process everything that is going on.
2. Eat well and exercise. Not just to stave off the “freshman fifteen,” but also to improve your general well-being. It might be a rite of passage for college students to live off of ramen, but it is one you can live without doing. You are what you eat: if you fuel your body with processed junk, you will feel like a piece of processed junk. It is possible to eat healthy on a student budget and to find healthy options in dining halls. And take advantage of the fitness center at your university: you are paying for it with your tuition money, so you might as well use it.
3. Go to class. Go to class. Go to class. GO TO CLASS. Seriously. Professors and grad students often test on concepts they teach in class, stuff that isn’t mentioned in your textbook. Also, you are paying a hell of a lot of money to go to college so that you can go to class and learn stuff. So go to class.
4. Go to office hours. Even if you don’t need help with a class, go to office hours, introduce yourself to the professor, and strike up a conversation. Ask them how they ended up being a professor. Ask them if they recommend any other classes, both in their field and outside their field. Ask them what they wish they would have done differently during their undergraduate education. Most professors are perfectly happy to talk to undergraduates and to answer these sorts of questions. Office hours are a great way to find out more about a field or a profession you might be interested in. And down the road, when you need a letter of recommendation for an internship/study abroad opportunity/job/scholarship, you will have a faculty contact who will be happy to write you one.
5. Take classes that have nothing to do with your major. What does “Harry Potter and Medieval Romances” have anything to do with economics? Nothing. But when life hands you the opportunity to take a class about Harry Potter, you go for it. Just because you are a prospective bioengineer does not mean that you should only take math and science classes. It is also important to learn about politics, history, literature, etc. And just because you a prospective English major does not mean that you should only take liberal arts courses. It is also important to learn how to code or to take the derivative of a function. The key is to be well-rounded.
6. Befriend your RA. Your RA is there to help you. Be nice to your RA, and your RA will be nice to you. Your RA will most likely have a ton of advice about just about anything you could need advice about. They can help you navigate your first year. Abiding by your floor rules will make your life, and your RA’s life, much easier.
7. Befriend upperclassmen. Like your RA, they will also have great advice. And most of them will already have been accepted into their major, so they will be able to tell you all about upper-level courses and fields you are considering.
8. Participate. Find something you are interested in doing, and do it. Join a club, join student government, write for the student paper, volunteer, do research, join a sports team, get a job. Take advantage of all the free events that occur on your campus, from concerts to movie screenings to glow-in-the-dark 5Ks. If you want to do something that doesn’t exist yet on your campus, create it. Your experiences outside of the classroom are extremely valuable. And if you try something and you aren’t as enthusiastic about it as you thought you would be, ditch it. You don’t have to stick with it until the end of the semester/quarter/year. Keep moving forward: there is so much out there.
9. Take it seriously, but not too seriously. Show up to class on-time, every time (unless you are extremely sick). Ask questions, take notes, do your homework, read the textbook (or skim for the main points). Don’t show up to class in yoga pants: dress well enough to be taken seriously. Aim for a decent GPA, but don’t worry about trying to 4.0 everything. It is better to have a decent GPA with quality experiences outside of the classroom compared to an unbelievably high GPA with no experiences outside of reading your textbook.
10. Set your own definition of success. Stop comparing yourself to others. Life is not a race; stop living like it is. Every once in a while, tune out the rest of the world: ask yourself, what do I want from life? What are my goals? How will I achieve those goals? This is your life, not anybody else’s. Every person has their own path forward, and trying to imitate somebody else will only make you miserable. Don’t worry about being “behind” compared to your peers. Don’t look around and think “I’m so insignificant compared to them” or “they have their life put together.” This is college. Nobody has their life put together. Everybody around you will be silently freaking out and doubting themselves, behind that cool façade they put on. The key is to not grind yourself down by thinking that you aren’t doing enough or aren’t doing well enough. Nobody does everything perfectly. You live and you learn.
11. Get your s*** done. Don’t be that student who has to have their parents figure out everything for them. Know when tuition is due so that you can pay for it on-time or remind your parents to pay it on-time. Take the initiative to sit down with an adviser and figure out your four-year plan, or better yet, go to an advising appointment with your four-year plan already sketched out. Register for classes on time. Get help in your classes when you need it, the sooner the better. Be organized; write down key dates and deadlines somewhere, anywhere. Do your homework, even though it will barely count for anything grade-wise, because that’s the best practice for exams. Don’t wait for opportunities to present themselves: go out there and seek them. Learn how to motivate yourself instead of needing others to prod you forward.
12. Take responsibility for your actions. It is up to you to decide how much to drink, study, sleep, and procrastinate. In college, you don’t get to just take credit for the good things—you also have to own up to the lackluster test scores and the write-ups from your RA. You don’t get to blame anyone else for your troubles—not your parents, not your roommate, not your friends. The decisions you make in college are your decisions, so you and you alone will have to face the consequences of those decisions. Practice taking responsibility for your actions, and you will start making smarter choices.
13. Ask questions and question the answers. This is what college is about. If you are going to class, memorizing a bunch of formulas, and then regurgitating them on tests, you are missing out on the whole point of college. Don’t accept things just because your professor said them or because they were written in your textbook. It is perfectly acceptable to disagree with your professor or what the textbook says as long as you can substantiate your claim and provide evidence to the contrary. Innovation and progress only come about when people question the status quo.
14. Reflect on your place in the world. As a college student, you are in a privileged position. You may not feel like you are privileged, considering how much money you might be taking out in student loans, but as a student, you will be privileged with the opportunity to learn and to expand your horizons. Not everybody will attend a university or have the same opportunities extended to you; be grateful for being where you are, and strive to understand how you ended up where you are today. Don’t look at your education in terms of “what will this get me?,” but rather as “how will I use this to improve my community?”
15. Surround yourself with good people and take it all in. You will meet some of the coolest people ever and wonder how you ever lived without them. For four short years, you will live almost exclusively with people your own age: the sight of children or adults other than professors and administrators will become novel. Take it all in, enjoy the moments playing Frisbee in the quad and wearing flannel all the time. In four years all you will have as you go into the world is a degree and all these little moments (and if you’re lucky, a job).