A colleague once noted that he loved the week before classes each year because “you can feel the mix of excitement and terror in the air."
I often think back to this observation as each new term begins, largely because there is a lot of truth in it: Everyone is excited to start college, but their minds are full of questions and more than a few concerns.
How will I make friends? Will I get along with my roommate? Did I pick the right major? Where the heck is “Classroom Annex C21a?"
I’ve been a professor for a little over 20 years, at colleges and universities public and private, small and large. Over that time, I’ve been asked to share advice with undergraduate and graduate students (and increasingly high schoolers too), usually at orientation events or “here’s what college will be like" conferences.
A lot of this material comes from my personal experiences and observations, but a substantial portion comes from my students and colleagues, who have been great about sharing their “lessons learned" over the years. And yes, some of the hard-learned lessons were gleaned by yours truly and friends during the roller-coaster years of college.
But I also study successful students and adults as part of my daily work: How did they become successful? What strategies did they use to develop their talents? What mistakes did they make, and how did they recover? You’ll find some of what I’ve learned from this research sprinkled throughout this series.
The purpose of these articles is to provide some answers to questions that thousands of students have every year when they embark on their lives in college. Ideally, these pieces will help set your mind at ease (to the extent that’s possible!) and give you some strategies for success. And while each article deals with a specific topic, you’ll find several themes running across the entire set.
College is different from high school — really different. One colleague, who has a well-deserved reputation for being a great undergraduate mentor, recently noted that the students who frustrate him are the ones who treat the first year of college as “the 13th grade." That’s a great phrase, and I immediately knew what he meant: Some students take the identical basic approach to college as they used in high school, relying on the same strategies to manage their learning, activities, and social life. But college is an entirely different animal, and we’ll explore how this can be used to your advantage … and how it can occasionally turn to your disadvantage if you’re not careful.
These posts are generally optimistic because college can and should be a great life experience. Will these years be all puppies, unicorns, and rainbows? Of course not — you’ll occasionally fail, make a bad decision, have your heart broken, be stabbed in the back by someone you trust. As one of my students recently observed, betrayal is so painful because only your friends can do it to you. But more often than not, you’ll succeed when you thought you couldn’t, make great decisions, and create wonderful new friendships (some of which will last for decades).
College is a bit of a paradox when it comes to being successful: We act as if success and failure are up to you and you alone as an individual. And they often are, especially compared to high school, where many students have teachers, counselors, coaches, and family members, among others, looking out for them. In college, at least initially, those people who “have your back" often aren’t automatically present. But if you’re strategic about building your college support network, you’ll be able to create a nice group of peers, friends, professors, and staff who can help you turn a good college experience into a great one.
So, on the one hand, I’m going to beat to death the idea that you are the master of your own destiny. But on the other, I’ll reinforce that you need to use your autonomy and independence to build and maintain a strong support network. Striking this balance between independence and support is what will enable you to succeed in college — and to build the knowledge, skills, and relationships to meet whatever lies ahead.
Follow Jonathan Plucker to receive a notification when each installment of his series “How to Succeed in College" is published between January 4–15. You can check out current articles by clicking on the links below:
If you’re still in high school, you can use the free Noodle college search tool to explore 2- and 4-year institutions and learn which will be a good fit for you. Register for a free account to save school lists and share them with family, friends, and other trusted adults.