Admissions

First-Year, First-Semester Flubs

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Heading off to live on campus is something completely different for most students. Yes, some have gone to summer college courses or even attended college classes while in high school, but for most first-year collegians, living away from home is new turf. It can be fraught with problems, too.


Those of you returning home for Thanksgiving break will be nearing the end of your first full semester. I'm wondering what kinds of issues you may have encountered since you first "trod the sod" on campus in late August or early September.

In recalling my own first-year experience and that of my son and daughter, I thought I would cite some common mistakes made by new college students and offer some suggestions on how to deal with them. I found an interesting article that addresses this issue. Oops! The 20 Most Common College Freshman Mistakes: Expert Tips for a Successful (And Fun!) First Year of College, by Amy Nelson and Jessica Santina, lists twenty common academic, financial and personal freshman mistakes, along with ideas on how to deal with them.

Here are some excerpts from the article's three categories, along with some commentary by me, based on my and my children's experience in dealing with first-year flubs.

1. Not Going to Class

It's tempting after a night of partying to skip class. It seems easy enough to check online to get notes or assignments. But what you're really missing isn't posted online — it's the experience of being in the classroom, listening to professors' insights and participating in discussion.

The alarm clock seems harsh, but it's best to marshal your willpower and go to class. Increase your odds by signing up for classes at times that you're most likely to go. Remember, you're paying for every class, even if you aren't going. Plus, grades often are tied to attendance, so don't risk your academic success by skipping.

The first question I have to ask about skipping class is: Why are you skipping? I recall not going to some classes simply because I hated the subject, which was required as a distribution requirement. Then one day, I calculated how much I was paying for each of those classes, and the shock I got from that immediately propelled me back into the classroom. I'm a stickler for getting my money's worth, so seeing how much my sloth was costing me was a great motivator. I would hate to see what that cost would be today!

4. Not Establishing Connections with Faculty

Student-faculty contact outside the classroom contributes to better graduation rates, better academic performance and greater overall satisfaction with school. Yet two-thirds of students surveyed for a study published in 2014 said they had not attended instructor office hours at all for the course in question.

Instructors have office hours specifically for students to ask for help — but it's not necessary to wait until problems arise. Establishing personal connections with professors can demonstrate a student's good attitude and willingness to work, and can translate to higher grades and more opportunities.

This problem is easy to fall into. Many college students feel intimidated by faculty and don't view themselves worthy of approaching their professors. I recall getting to know quite well one of my first-year professors. My music history prof and I shared a common interest in classical pianists, and when he would have some free time, I would go to his office and we would listen to some new LP releases and compare opinions about the performances. We stayed in touch after I got my degree until he passed away. It's not just about grades; it's also about connections and possible friendships.

6. Not Making and Following A Budget

Aside from tuition, college comes with costs ranging from food to books to transportation. It's overwhelming and can derail students who don't have a budget to keep them on track, according to Amy Nelson, who manages the financial literacy program at the University of Nevada, Reno. "Students don't understand the components of a budget — where the money is coming from and where they're spending it — or how those habits will carry them into future semesters," she says.

Fortunately, many schools have financial literacy programs for incoming freshmen, offering tips on forming a budget and sticking to it. Nelson also recommends checking out advice from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Students with a parent-paid credit card and campus bookstore account are always in peril of overspending. A friend of mine once told me that he got a great college sweatshirt from his freshman son for Christmas and then had to pay for it in January when the bookstore bill arrived. Some gift! One way for parents to keep a lid on student spending is to keep a close eye on credit card receipts and review them with their collegian every month. Once this review becomes routine, spending vigilance usually becomes part of the student's campus lifestyle.

11. Not Keeping Track of Financial Aid Deadlines

Those deadlines seem months away, and then, all of a sudden, they aren't. But students who miss deadlines for filing paperwork won't get their money on time, and that can cause financial havoc. "I completely understand that financial aid is complicated, complex and confusing," says Nelson, but that's why the financial aid office is there. "They should be able to provide students with the tools and information to understand their offer letters; to break down the amounts of grants, loans, etc., and to understand all the deadlines."

At the beginning of the semester — or possibly sooner — students should sit down with a financial aid adviser or counselor to discuss what needs to happen and when. Put all the pertinent dates on a calendar and, ideally, set your phone or email up to deliver reminders.

This is where the student's ever-present phone can save the day. Being redundant, by noting deadline dates (with a warning note well in advance of the deadline) on both a paper calendar and the phone's calendar is the way to go. Then, during one of the several thousand daily glances at their phones, students will be sure to know when paperwork and other financial aid requirements are due.

14. Using Social Media Irresponsibly

Not only can social media be a distraction from academics, it can also take a toll on a student's reputation. In June 2017, Harvard University withdrew 10 admission offers after the prospective freshmen participated in Facebook communications that were derogatory to others. Students also need to be aware of future ramifications: More than two-thirds of employers use social media sites to research — and sometimes reject — prospective employees.

Students should remember that once they post something online, it's there forever. It's important to maintain secure settings so they can approve who views profiles and posts, and perhaps create separate networks for business contacts, family and friends, so they can tailor posts to the appropriate audiences. And, of course, it's best not to post any negative comments, offensive jokes/photos or compromising photos.

This is one of the most common mistakes by ill-informed young people, in general, not just college students. My advice is simple: Never post anything on social media (or any other web-related platform) that you wouldn't want to see on the front page of The New York Times. The comment above about posts staying alive on the internet forever is true, and the stories telling about ancient and ill-conceived emails, Tweets, Instagram posts, etc. coming back to derail writers are legion. Think before you type!

15. Not Getting Enough Sleep

Being away from home and free to keep any schedule often results in students staying up way too late and missing out on sleep. But studies show that college students who don't go to bed or wake up at consistent times every day are more likely to have lower grades and be sick more often.

The amount of sleep is important, but so is the regularity. There will always be exceptions, but students should aim to keep to a somewhat regular sleep schedule.

This is both a physical and mental health threat. It's is also why parents wonder why their son or daughter sleeps in until 1 or 2 p.m. when they're home on break. First-semester colds and/or flu are famous byproducts of all-nighters and persistent partying. Living with a roommate also can be a challenge to establishing a regular sleep routine. Youth can overcome many physical abuses, but long-term lack of sleep can damage both one's body and GPA. Dorm life offers an array of sleep deprivation opportunities, so work on overcoming them. Ear plugs are an inexpensive way to start.

Those are just six of the twenty problems addressed by Amy and Jessica. I encourage you to read the entire list and get some excellent advice that can make you more savvy for the upcoming spring semester!