Preparing for College

College-Life Strategies

If you are a college-bound high school senior, you've no doubt made your decision about where to go this fall. Among your considerations for “getting your mind right" about being a college student should be how to take advantage of the various resources and circumstances that college will offer you.

Over the many years since my college days, I have thought about the kinds of opportunities for both learning and growth that I missed when I was a student. There are many reasons for missing these opportunities, but I'd like to bring out some practical points for you to keep in mind for when you land on campus. Your parents may also be interested in what kinds of things you can take advantage of.

My colleague, Sally Rubenstone, has been kind enough to share with me her thoughts about this topic. She has provided me with her answers to a number of questions about this topic. I'm sure her insights will enlighten you.

So, here we go with our College-Life Q&A:

– Why is it important for students to set themselves up for success in college from the start?

College, like youth, is often wasted on the young. Families sometimes shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars with no real sense of the return on the investment. Today's job market is extremely competitive. So it's wise for students to take advantage of the resources and opportunities that are available to them in college. Lots of adults look back on their college years and kick themselves, saying, “Why didn't I do it while I could?" … whether they talking about the chance to learn to speak Chinese or to eat 200 pre-paid buffet breakfasts. Four years may seem like an eternity to an 18-year-old, but the years go fast so it's important to hit the ground running.

– Is it important for students to get organized and create a solid schedule?

Freshmen can be overwhelmed when they first encounter a course syllabus, and one of the critical lessons that successful students is learn is how to distinguish between what they have to do and what they can get away with skipping, and it's not a lesson learned overnight. So a schedule is important but it should be a flexible one. The Tuesday-night study session earmarked for English Lit might need to be shoved on the back burner in order to finish a critical chem lab. Even in this electronic age, a big desk-blotter-size paper calendar may be more effective than the one stuck inside an iPhone when it comes to plotting (and spotting) due dates and seeing the big picture. It's also a good place to “rough out" a weekly schedule to see if everything … including sleeping … actually fits.

– Should students establish priorities when it comes to class schedule, coursework, and extracurricular activities to avoid getting overwhelmed?

By roughing out a weekly schedule that includes in-class hours plus the anticipated amount time needed to complete each assignment plus extracurricular commitments, students can see if their choices are realistic. Except for recruited athletes on scholarship, extracurricular endeavors are usually the place to make cuts when the schedule looks too crammed. But “cuts" can mean merely lowering the level of involvement rather than bailing out altogether from a favorite activity. Freshmen would be wise to get at least a full semester under their belts before taking on extracurricular leadership roles or agreeing to spearhead major extracurricular projects.

– Is it vital that students are energetic about what they are studying and challenge themselves rather than just going through the motions?

Think of a college class—even a huge lecture—as interactive. It's more like a video game than a TV show, so he who snoozes loses. Here are some tips to make this happen:

-Having an energetic experience starts before the first day of the semester. Students should choose classes wisely. Read course descriptions carefully; don't shy away from unfamiliar options (e.g. a “Seminar on Penelope Fitzgerald" might be more engaging than one on F. Scott); seek out campus scuttlebutt and online review sites to help learn more about courses and professors. Even when a class is required, there can be different section options. You may be able to land the rock-star prof and do an end run around the one nicknamed “Bernie the Bore."

-Sit in the front of the room or as close to the professor as possible. You'll be more likely to feel involved–and less likely to play Angry Birds on your Android–if the teacher is looking right at you.

-Participate in class when possible. Don't dominate discussions or speak out when you have nothing to add just because you think it will help your grade (profs will see right through this, and it won't), but you're more likely to feel engaged when you actually are engaged.

-Seek out extra help at the first signs of trouble. Take advantage of faculty office hours (more on that below) and campus academic support centers before you're too far behind to catch up.

– Is it recommended that students to speak up in class/after class with their TA or professor and establish relationships and ask for extra help?

Write down each professor's office hours and use them … for extra help, if needed or, if not, to pop in at least once for an introduction. You want your teachers to know you by name and not just as the “girl in the pink hoodie who's always knitting." At some point, almost every student needs a recommendation for a job, an internship, or for graduate school. So it's wise to get to know faculty members … and vice versa … so that they can write on your behalf when the time comes. Some professors may also suggest specific graduate programs, internships, and even jobs, so the more the prof knows about your interests and abilities, the better your chances of cashing in on those helpful connections.

– Is it just as important for students to surround themselves with the right people as it is to choose the right major?

College should be about preparing for the future via both academic and extracurricular activities, but it should be about having fun, too. So make sure that the others around you reflect that balance. Spend time with those who share your academic goals and outside interests and also with those whose company you enjoy for whatever reasons. You may find some people who tick all the boxes … or not. Limit contact with the party animals if you feel that they're taking you off the road to your goals. Joining campus clubs and pre-professional organizations is a good way to meet others with common aims and interests.

– What other habits can college students start now to help them be successful?

Visit College Confidential. Keep in mind that CC isn't for admission angsting alone. The “College Life" forum and many others on CC are full of information from fellow collegians at a wide range of institutions. Even when SAT's and ACT's are in the rear-view mirror, CC offers the inside scoop on internship and grad school opportunities and even, if necessary, on transferring.


Going to college can be a major culture shock. There are so many new situations to deal with. However, rather than go around campus in a daze wondering what to do, take advantage of the resources offered by your school. As Sally has pointed out, there is help available that can make your campus life, both in and out of the classroom, a quite positive experience.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.