As a high school student, you hear a lot about how fun and exciting college will be. No curfew! Tons of friends! All that freedom!
And all that studying.
No doubt about it, college is cooler than high school. It's also a lot harder. College is work. It takes effort, discipline and sacrifice. Getting everything done and keeping those grades up may mean a few late nights and an occasional early morning. But take it from two guys who've been there, done that: It's well worth the effort. So as you prepare for your first year, here's how to get started—and get started right.
First things, first
College should be fun, it really should. Hey, we had lots of fun! But, it also takes getting your priorities straight. And your top priority is class work.
Think of it as having a 40-hour-a-week job. You need to split those 40 hours between time in class and time completing assignments. When you've put in those 40 hours, then it's time to play and have fun. An honest employee wouldn't think of sneaking out early and cheating their boss. It's kind of like that for you, too. Only as a college student, you're both "boss" and "employee." So don't cheat yourself!
Now to get real practical: Let's say you just finished your 1:00 class and don't have another one until 4:00. This is not the time to take a nap or play Ultimate Frisbee—especially if there are assignments to complete.
But skipping that Ultimate Frisbee game is only half the battle. You can still waste your study time if you don't find the right place to study. Loud dorms with a football flying down the hall (and whacking your door every 10 minutes) is not ideal. OK, it's the last place you'd want to study, right? You need to find a place that's quiet—and that's away from your bed. Naps can be major distractions and time wasters.
Student lounges might work, but they still can be pretty noisy. A quiet study desk in the library? Now that's a place where you can get some real work done!
During my junior year, I (Chris) finally realized that serious studying did make a lot of sense. (Yes, sometimes I'm a rather slow learner.) So I found a little secluded area in the library's rare books collection. It may seem strange, but studying around all those old classics was kind of inspiring. I guess that musty smell just stimulated my brain cells. Seriously, I could concentrate in the quietness, avoid distractions from other students, and get down to business.
A friend of mine studied in an empty Sunday school room at a nearby church. The building was open all day and she got permission to use the room. On her way to her "study room," she would stop by the sanctuary first to pray about her academic life.
Getting serious early on about your studies will help you avoid a lot of frustration, stress and regret in the long run. As one serious college senior told us: "Get eight hours of sleep a night, do all your homework, do the work of a student nine to five, and you'll most likely get straight A's." OK, so maybe you won't get all A's. But you will have a better chance of learning what you need to learn if you commit yourself to disciplined study times.
As you prepare for your first year of college classes, it's a good idea to get answers to four basic questions:
1) What are you required to take? Most colleges have some form of core curriculum you're required to take before graduation. For a list of these required classes, consult the college's course catalog. Then plan to get those requirements out of the way as quickly as possible. We know, you may not be interested in taking one more English class. Or maybe the thought of another math class makes you a bit ill. But get those courses out of the way so you can move on to stuff you're really excited about. You'd be surprised how many college seniors end up in lower-level language classes because they didn't take them early on.
2) What classes would you like to take? The options may be limited for a first-semester freshman, but you probably will have a few choices available to you. Skim the course catalog just to see what catches your eye. This is the fun part of college studies. Even the various options for PE classes can be a wonderful break from the normal academic routine. Music, art and photography are also popular classes to explore. Not every course is available each semester, but it doesn't hurt to make a wish list for upcoming semesters. For specifics on what you can or can't take during your first year, talk to one of the college's admissions counselors or academic advisers.
3) Should you go for the "easy A" ? The easy answer: no. First of all, if you're taking a class just so you can get a good grade without any work, your attitude is all wrong. Second, so-called "easy A's" almost always require more work than you expect, and rarely get you an A—or at least an easy A.
4) Should you load up on honors courses and/or take as many credit hours as you possibly can? Not a good idea. Many well-intentioned freshmen start their first semester full of motivation—only to learn the hard way that six honors classes is way too much.
Here's a basic rule of thumb: Take no more than 15 credit hours—usually five classes—and avoid schedules where every class requires huge loads of reading and writing. If you overload your schedule, you are asking for major burnout before Christmas break. For further advice specific to your chosen college, talk to an admissions counselor or an academic adviser.
Let's say your freshman year starts and you still find yourself in a class that's not working out. First, talk to the prof. Get his or her counsel on the situation. If the class still seems like the wrong place for you, talk to your academic adviser. Still not satisfied? Fear not. Most schools offer a drop/add period that allows you to, well, drop or add a class. While it's not a good idea to rely too heavily on this option, it can be a great way out of a jam early on.
Connect with profs
Professors are people you need to get to know—and not just in the classroom. This is not about buttering up the grade-giver or trying to become "professor's pet." It's about building a relationship that will add to your overall college experience.
Most colleges require professors to hold office hours where they are available to students. Take advantage of these hours. Ask follow-up questions about the last lecture; find out what suggestions they have for getting all you can from the course.
If they're open to talking further, try to meet your prof for coffee or hot chocolate (if you're like John). In fact, many profs hang out at the student snack shop or student union just so they can have informal contact with students. Take advantage of these kinds of opportunities. Along with helping you adjust to academic life, professors can also give great future references for future jobs, seminaries or graduate schools.
Major? What major?
During my first two years of college, I (Chris) changed my major four times. After losing faith in my ability to be major-committed, I latched on to the wonderful liberty of claiming "Undecided" as my temporary answer. No longer struggling with the need to have a major, I relaxed a little and enjoyed college a whole lot more.
The point: It's just fine (and good for your sanity) to decide to be undecided. In other words, don't make the formal decision before it needs to be made. At most colleges, students don't have to officially declare their major until the end of their sophomore year. This means there's some time to relax and think about it.
And as you think, here's a question worth asking: "What am I good at?" You're undoubtedly good at certain subjects and not so good at others. Let your gifts and abilities direct you as you look for a major and future career.
A second important question to think about: "What do I enjoy?" During my own time of "major uncertainty," I (Chris) discovered I enjoyed American history classes. That was it: History. I'd found a course of study I could happily sink my teeth into—and a major I could finally declare!
God doesn't call us into studies or future professions we hate. Instead, he has a way of giving us a love for things we are good at and leading us to a career that matches that passion. A good rule of thumb: When your gifts and abilities coincide with your likes and interests, you've pretty much discovered what subject to major in.
It's essential to remember that one career isn't more God-honoring than another. Our godliness isn't determined so much by what we do, but by how we go about doing it. God needs witnesses and people of integrity in all areas of life. If he's given you a passion and skills for certain subject areas, then why not go for it?
It's launch time!
Navigating through the pushing and pulling currents of academic life is a challenge. We can be tossed around by all the decisions we face in using our time, and in choosing classes, professors, majors and career directions. They all call for our attention, and many times we simply have to learn as we go. But it's an exciting journey and an adventure that requires our best efforts. So push your boat in the stream, watch out for the rocks and rapids, and enjoy the ride.
This article was adapted from the book The Incredible Four-year Adventure by John and Chris Yates (Baker, 2000). Throughout this hands-on primer to college life, brothers John and Chris offer solid advice based on personal experiences and on the experiences of friends and people.