Guide to Surviving College
College is difficult, expensive, emotionally taxing, and for some, it may be difficult to adjust to a specific campus culture. How can you survive? Better yet, how can you thrive? Here are our tips on how you can survive college, get the most out of your experience, and walk away with a great degree!
Once you get into the college of your choice, you’ll begin a new journey toward graduation. But a lot of college students get lost or sidetracked on their way to this destination. So how can you ensure that your college experience is positive, that you stay on track in your discipline, and that you earn your degree in a timely fashion? This guide contains tips and resources for surviving and thriving in college, including advice on accessing academic support, maintaining physical wellness and mental health, declaring a major, transferring schools, preparing for graduation and more!
Read on or jump down to the topic that matters most to you in your educational journey.
You’ve completed the long application process, you were accepted into your dream school, and now you’re browsing Amazon for cool stuff to decorate your dorm room. You’re probably feeling a combination of excitement and anxiety as you embark on this new chapter in your education.
We know the feeling. College can be both enthralling and intimidating. You may be looking forward to independence, the new experiences and the educational opportunities. But the challenges and pitfalls of the college experience are also very real.
These challenges are so real, in fact, that a significant number of college freshmen will never go on to earn their degree. As of 2017, the 6-year graduation rate for undergraduate students at “4-year” degree-granting institutions was 60%. This means that 40% of all students who enrolled in college in 2011 had not earned their degree more than half-a-decade later.
College is not only difficult, but it can be expensive, emotionally taxing, and for some, it may be difficult to adjust to a specific campus culture. In other words, you may need some guidance and support as you navigate college. How can you survive the four to six years you’ll spend earning your undergraduate degree? And how can you thrive, get a stellar education, and get a good return on your investment?
This guide includes tips on how you can survive college, get the most out of your experience, and walk away with a great degree!
Critical Support Systems in College
When you’re facing academic or personal challenges, remember that you’re not alone. Your school comes with an inbuilt support system made of professors, T.A.s, academic advisors, mental health counselors, and your fellow students. Part of surviving college is ensuring that you know where to turn when you need a little help with your school work, when you are in emotional crisis, or when you just need somebody to talk to.
Make sure that you are aware of the services available to you on campus or through your online education portal. Take advantage of these resources when you are in need. And know where to turn for support when these resources are not immediately available or attendant to your specific set of needs.
Visit Your Professor During Office Hours
If you’re struggling academically, the first place to turn is your professor. Professors keep regular office hours. If you’re struggling, feeling overwhelmed, or you just need a little extra instruction, schedule a visit. Take advantage of the time that your professor has set aside for one-on-one discussion. This is a great way to get the additional support you need, and it could be the start to a fruitful relationship with an attentive instructor.
Seek Tutoring if You Need Classroom Help
If you need regular academic support, your professor may advise—or you may request—tutorship. Many colleges offer access to tutors—who may be fellow students, grad students, or T.A.s. Do not be afraid to seek tutoring support if you feel it could improve your understanding and performance in a subject area. Sometimes, this regular, personal support can make all the difference in your outcomes. This may be especially valuable for students on large campuses, or working through online courses, where one-on-one instruction is harder to access.
Meet with your Academic Advisor
Whether you’re struggling in your courses, you’re uncertain about your selected major, or you’re having difficulty getting into important prerequisite courses, reach out to your academic advisor for support. In fact, it’s a good idea to check in with your academic advisor at least once a year, whether you require additional support or not, just to make sure you’re on track to graduate on time and earn your intended degree.
Academic advisors are a great outlet for building and following a plan toward graduation. Advisors can also be a great source for navigating the bureaucratic challenges that can sometimes disrupt this plan. Part of surviving and succeeding in college is preparing for the unexpected by constructing a clear roadmap to completion. Your academic advisor will be one of the best resources for both drawing and following this map.
Consider Your Peer Group Part of Your Support Network
As the cliché goes, find your tribe. This is part of both surviving and enjoying college. Connect with your classmates. Making new friends makes for a better college experience. But there’s more to it than that. Your friends are also a critical part of your support system. Your friends will be your study buddies, late night cramming company, and a source for notes if you miss class.
They can also be your emotional outlet, your company for blowing off steam, and your first contact if you’re in crisis. Be open to new connections, join study groups, participate in campus activities. In short, say yes! Become an active part of whatever scene makes you feel comfortable and enriched. Find those who are a good influence and a positive presence in your life.
Contact Outside Organizations For Additional Support
If you are not able to locate or access academic support services, you may need to seek support through a group outside of your immediate academic community. This may be true for students on extremely large campuses, in small colleges with limited resources, or in online colleges with skeletal support systems.
Look around the local community for academic outreach, tutoring groups, or organizations dedicated to the needs of underserved students. There are also an array of online academic support networks that might be able to direct you toward local support, or else connect you to online tutors, advisors, or support groups.
Some notable groups include:
- The National Center for Student Parents
- CLADEA: Council for Learning Assistance and Developmental Education Associations
- College Reading and Learning Association (CRLA)
- National Tutoring Association
- National College Advocacy Group (NCAG)
Review of Critical Support Systems in College
- Take advantage of your professor’s office hours.
- Don’t be afraid to seek tutoring.
- Check in regularly with your academic advisor.
- Remember that your peer group is an important part of your support network.
- Get help from an outside support organization if you can’t find what you need on campus.
Health and Wellness in College
There is a direct connection between wellness and your ability to learn. Your physical health, mental health, safety, and fitness can all contribute directly to the way you experience college. These factors impact your learning aptitude, motivation, focus, organizational strategies, and educational outcomes.
Learn how to get healthy and stay healthy in college. Skills such as proper diet, exercise, abstention from substance abuse, and use of mental health support resources can all improve your health and, ultimately, your college experience. And even more importantly, these life skills will serve you beyond college and throughout your life. Of the many things you’ll learn in college, perhaps none will be quite as valuable as learning how to take care of yourself.
Maintain Your Mental Health
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK (8255) right away.
College students may be at a heightened risk of depression, anxiety and suicide. By law, colleges and universities must provide students with direct access to mental health support resources, counseling and treatment options. Be sure that you are aware of these options and that you know how to access them if you are experiencing mental health challenges or if you are in crisis.
There is often a stigma around mental health issues but there is nothing to be ashamed of. Many college students grapple with homesickness, isolation, stress, burnout, and other challenges that may be directly related to academic difficulty. Talk to somebody if you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts or feelings. Start by making an appointment to sit down with the mental health expert provided by your college. But don’t be afraid to speak with friends, family, or other trusted relations about what you’re experiencing.
Remember, you aren’t alone. Make sure you take advantage of the support around you. You can also consider accessing support through one of several noteworthy national organizations including any of the following:
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
- Active Minds
- The JED Foundation
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK (8255)
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK (8255) right away.
Stay Active and Fit
Exercising and keeping an active lifestyle are important health factors that can contribute directly to longevity and wellness. Form these habits in college, especially while you have access to your school’s gym facilities, intramural activities, and a community of others who might be interested in working with you on achieving fitness goals.
There is a direct correlation between your level of physical activity and the energy, focus, and mood you bring into other aspects of your life. This includes your studies and your academic performance. Find physically engaging activities that you enjoy and make them a regular part of your college routine. Getting comfortable with a workout schedule now can pay long-term dividends in your life and your health outlook.
Keep a Balanced Diet
The Freshman 15 is very real. Factors like alcohol consumption, late-night snacking, and all-you-can-eat dining hall meal plans can heighten your risk for weight gain. This, in turn, can have a negative impact on your health, your mood, and your ability to focus on your studies. College is a great time to learn how to identify sources of nutrition, maintain a healthy diet, practice portion control, and achieve a more regulated eating schedule. Form these habits now, before your metabolism slows down. Healthier eating will make you feel less sluggish, give you a clearer head, and contribute to a greater overall sense of wellness.
Refrain from Drug and Alcohol Abuse
Every college campus has a different culture when it comes to drugs and alcohol. But in schools that have a reputation as “party schools,” the permeation of substance use and abuse can be widespread. The way you consume or abstain from substances can have a direct impact on your college experience. Binge drinking, routine excessive alcohol consumption, and drug abuse can damage your academic performance, make you susceptible to health and safety risks, result in self-harm, carry punitive or legal consequences, lead to long-term addiction and, in worst-case scenarios, can even carry the risk of fatality. As a college student, you have the power to make adult decisions. When it comes to drugs and alcohol, be sure that you consider the consequences of your decisions and take these consequences seriously.
Recognize Campus Safety Risks
College campuses are, in one respect, a sanctuary for learning and personal exploration. But on another level, campuses carry their own unique safety risks. The relative population density, the culture of college drinking, and the mental health challenges that often accompany the college experience can all create risks that are unique to the college environment. Issues like bullying, hazing, and sexual assault may be particularly prominent on some college campuses. As a student entering into college, it’s important that you understand these risks, and that you know how to take steps to mitigate your own vulnerability.
Know how to protect yourself, learn strategies for avoiding risky situations, and know where to turn for support if you are the victim of these behaviors. Important campus safety advocacy groups include:
- National Center for Campus Public Safety
- End Rape on Campus (EROC)
- Tyler Clementi Foundation
- Campus Pride
Review of Health and Wellness in College
- Practice mental health maintenance, and speak to a professional if you are struggling.
- Stay active and stay fit.
- Keep a healthy, balanced, and nutritious diet.
- Refrain from excessive alcohol consumption and drug abuse.
- Be aware of campus-related risks like sexual assault, hazing, and bullying, and know how to reduce your risk.
Practice Savvy Internet Use in College
The internet can be your best friend in college, but it can also be a powerful enemy. Equal parts valuable and dangerous, the web can shape a lot about your college experience. You must know how to navigate the internet to study, research, and, increasingly these days, to attend classes. This is also your channel for communicating with professors, interacting with classmates, and staying in touch with friends and family outside of your school.
All of these dimensions underscore the value and importance of knowing how to safely and effectively use the technology at your disposal, especially in college. Learn how to use social media responsibly, protect your privacy, maintain your security, beware of scams, and remain vigilant of cyber-bullying.
And always remember to use the web responsibly, whether crafting an email to a professor, collaborating with classmates, or navigating search engine results filled with cheating websites. Read on to find out how responsible web use can be an important part of your survival strategy:
Use Social Media Wisely
Social media outlets can be an amazing resource for sharing, connecting, and building communities. They can also be extremely dangerous if you aren’t aware of the risks. Predators, scammers, and bullies benefit from the anonymity and distance provided by the web. Know how to spot bad actors online and don’t let yourself be victimized. If somebody engages you with abusive, threatening or unwanted behavior on a social media platform, this is more than a violation of university policy. This is a legal matter. If you find you can’t put a stop to the behavior through your own efforts, through platform’s administrators, or through university channels, you do have the right to go to the police.
Of course, the other major element of social media that you need to watch out for is your own behavior. You should be cultivating an online persona that you’d be comfortable showing to your professors, or future prospective employers because, in essence, you will be showing this persona to professors, employers and anybody else with an internet connection.
This means that off-color posts, pictures of you partying, and embarrassing youthful indiscretions should be left out of your social media feed. Whether you know it or not, these artifacts will stick around forever, and they have a way of resurfacing at the worst possible time. Start cleaning up your old posts before you get to college. By the time you’re looking for a job, you want an online profile that sparkles with decency and employability.
Correspond Professionally with Professors
Whether you’re attending school online or on campus, you will likely need to correspond with your professors at some point through email. This is your direct channel to ask questions, discuss personal challenges, and even forge a meaningful connection. However, it’s important to keep these messages largely formal in nature.
Treat your email message as you would an assignment—write in complete sentences, address your professor respectfully, and get right to the point. (Your professors are busy!) Avoid slang or informality, do not use emojis, and certainly refrain from inappropriate language. This is not a text to your friend, nor is it an email to a family member. You are corresponding with somebody who will be grading your performance. Even if your professor chooses to respond in one syllable words and abbreviations, you should still make an effort to keep your messages polite and polished.
The internet will be a critical part of your learning experience. You will rely on the web to access learning materials and texts, conduct independent research, and connect with experts, leaders, and internship opportunities in your field. You’ll need to leverage search engines, use online libraries, and navigate academic journals. You’ll also need to learn how to differentiate credible scholarly sources from those which are not trustworthy, how to reinforce your findings with primary sources, and how to properly cite your sources.
It’s also important to be well-acquainted with the rules of plagiarism and how it relates to your school’s honor code. While the internet offers a wealth of legitimate support resources, the web is also teeming with essay mills, contract cheating services, and other entities that blur the line between editorial support and outright cheating. Part of conducting research effectively on the internet is understanding and adhering to the rules of academic integrity.
Online courses are becoming an increasingly mainstream part of higher education. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdown of all college campuses in the U.S., more than 6.6 million students were already taking at least one online course. With the COVID-19 crisis, online courses have taken center stage. Online education has been the only option for college students who are unable to assemble in physical classrooms and lecture halls.
There is no way to predict exactly when campuses will reopen, but it is clear that these events are changing the higher education landscape. Online courses will likely continue to play an even more prominent role in the delivery of education as colleges work to find a sensible path forward.
Whether you expect to take some online courses, or hope to earn an entire degree online, this experience will likely require you to make some adjustments to your work space, study habits, and time management strategies. And in light of recent events, even students who have planned for a traditional campus experience should consider the likelihood that some or all of their courses may ultimately be taken online for some period of time. This means it’s a good idea to develop effective strategies for succeeding in online education even if you don’t intend to take online courses. This includes:
- Creating a positive work space where you can focus and concentrate
- Making sure your technology and web access are current, functional, and reliable
- Learning how to navigate an online learning management system (LMS) as well as learning how to conduct online research and use online libraries and other scholarly resources
- Knowing how to manage your own time and work independently
- Connecting with other classmates and your professor through online channels
Review of Savvy Internet Use in College
- Keep a clean social media profile, the kind you’d be willing to show an employer.
- Be aware of predators, scammers, identify thieves, and other bad actors online.
- Keep your online correspondence with faculty and educators professional and formal.
- Learn how to conduct online research without breaking your school’s honor code.
- Adjust to the unique conditions of online learning if you expect to take one or more of your classes online.
Declaring a Major
At a certain point, usually toward the end of your sophomore year of college, you will need to declare a major. We don’t want to pressure you, but the sooner you figure out what degree you’ll be earning, the sooner you can begin completing prerequisites and plotting out the courses you must take.
But what must you consider as you choose your major? What factors should you weigh before declaring? And what happens if you change your mind after you’ve already begun your major?
Read on to learn more about how to choose a major when the time is right:
Sample the Course Catalogue
Your first two years in college are largely for finding your path forward. While there are certain basic courses that you must take, you often have a wide range of options when it comes to humanities and electives. If you don’t yet know what you plan to major in, this is a great time to play the field. See what’s out there and give yourself a chance to connect with a wide range of subjects. Hopefully, by the time you declare your major, you’ll know what you like and what you don’t like.
Choose Your Major Based on Personal Interest
You’ll take anywhere between one-third and one-half of your classes in this subject area, so it’s important that you really love it. The first step to choosing a major is seeking a discipline that you can really envision yourself enjoying, both as a focal point of your education and as an eventual career. Start with a list of subjects that might interest you, then match this list against your school’s degree offerings to narrow down your options.
Consider Career Prospects Before Choosing a Degree
There are also practical considerations when you select a major. Your degree may be a major factor in your career outlook. Every discipline has direct career implications, providing you with the skills and credentials to secure certain jobs and advance certain career goals.
Before you choose your major, be aware of the options and opportunities that await you. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is an invaluable resource for understanding the rate of growth, salary range, and occupational specialities connected with a given discipline.
Earning potential shouldn’t be your only consideration, nor necessarily even the biggest consideration as you select a major. But you should have realistic expectations about the career prospects and pay rate you can anticipate with a degree in your field.
Ask Your Advisors For Recommendations
Don’t hesitate to seek advice as you select a major. Your academic advisor is a good source for guidance if you’re having trouble narrowing down your options or you simply don’t know where to focus your studies. Make an appointment to discuss your interests and career goals. Your advisor may be able to recommend a degree program that is especially well-suited to your strengths and needs.
Choose a Backup Plan
Once you select a major, revisit your list of options and identify one or two others that you could see yourself studying. These will be valuable backup options should you decide to switch your major.
Switching Majors is Better Than Pursuing the Wrong Degree
As long as we’re on the subject, you do have the option of switching majors. If you are unhappy in your major, struggling with the work, or you’ve simply realized that it isn’t the right path for you, you can change majors. Altering degree paths may require you to complete additional prerequisites, and could ultimately extend the length of time that you spend in college. However, this is likely preferable to earning a degree in a subject for which you have no professional interest, and is most certainly preferable to non-completion or failure. Be willing to shift gears if you find that your first major is not a good fit.
Declare a Minor for a Well-Rounded Experience
You have another option if you’re torn between subjects. Declaring a minor allows you to focus a small portion of your classes in a subject area of your choosing. This is a great opportunity to explore something that interests you but which you may not pursue as a career, or to study a subject that compliments your primary degree program.
Double Major if You’re Feeling Ambitious
There is one other option if you have a serious interest in two disciplines. As a double major, you would pursue two separate degrees which may or may not be related. It is not uncommon, for instance, for an accounting major to also major in business, or for an English major to also major in literature. Earning a double major can help make you a more competitive candidate for a job in your field. But it can also be very challenging and time consuming. Be sure that you are up to the added workload, the increased commitment of time, and, in all likelihood, the added stress.
Review of Declaring a Major
- Use your first two years to fully sample the course catalogue so you know what you enjoy before declaring.
- Pick something you love because you’ll be spending a lot of time doing it.
- Ask your advisors for advice. They may be able to reveal hidden paths.
- Choose a backup major. This will come in handy if you ever decide to switch paths or declare a minor.
- You can declare a double major if you’re up for the challenge!
Sometimes, part of surviving your college education is making a major change. Whether you’re preparing to make the jump from a two-year associate degree program into a four-year degree program; you’re moving from on-campus classes to a strictly online college education; or you’re simply looking for a change of campus scenery, transferring may be the right move for you.
But transferring does come with a number of bureaucratic, practical, and personal challenges. Every school has its own set of policies regarding acceptance of transfer credits and degrees. The transfer landscape may be extremely complex and ridden with obstacles.
Still, it may be the best move if you find that your campus culture doesn’t suit your needs, that you aren’t enjoying the academic experience at your current institution, or because financial or personal needs require you to attend school closer to home. Certainly, transferring is a positive alternative to non-completion.
Read on for these helpful tips if you are considering a transfer…
Every transfer situation is different. Your ability to transfer credits will depend both on the school you’re leaving and on your destination school. There are numerous different transfer scenarios, and each can come with its own procedural norms or bureaucratic challenges:
- Transferring from a 2-year school to a 4-year school: Students who earn an associate’s degree at a 2-year college may have the most direct path for transfer, especially those seeking enrollment in public 4-year colleges. Most regionally accredited community colleges have direct affiliations with regionally accredited state schools that help to streamline credit transfer.
- Transferring from one accredited 4-year college to another 4-year college: Though Students transferring from one regionally accredited 4-year school to another should be able to transfer some credits, the actual number which will be recognized is not always clear-cut. If your destination offers no equivalent courses to some that you’ve completed, it may limit the number of credits you can transfer. This may also be true if your destination school is considered significantly more rigorous than your current school. It’s also possible that certain credits or courses that count as prerequisites or toward your degree in your current school may not apply the same way to the equivalent degree program at your destination school. These and other factors could impact the number of earned credits which you will ultimately be able to carry with you into a new school.
- Transferring from a Nationally Accredited to a Regionally Accredited College: Typically, a regionally accredited college will not recognize any credits earned from a national accredited college or career school. Beginning your college education at a nationally accredited institution can significantly limit your transfer opportunities.
Getting a Change of Scenery
Whether you’re transitioning from a large school to a smaller one, from a campus experience to online college, or from a local community college to a noteworthy private university across the country, take steps to ready yourself for a new experience. Tour the campus (or master the online learning management system). Reach out to professors, alumni, or current students. Look for clubs or groups that might enhance your experience. There’s more to transferring than just carrying credits with you. This is a new and exciting chapter in your education. Take steps to make the most of this chapter.
Review of Transferring Schools
- Every transfer is different. The number of credits you’ll carry with you will depend on the school you’re leaving and the school to which you’re transferring.
- Two-year community colleges often have simple transfer arrangements with affiliated four-year state schools.
- Regionally accredited colleges typically won’t recognize credits or degrees from nationally accredited or non-accredited schools.
- Prepare for your new experience by learning about the culture and student body at your destination school.
Preparing for Graduation
If you’re approaching the long-awaited date of your graduation, now is not the time to let up on your pace. Finish strong by preparing for the next several steps. This is the time to ensure that your credits are all in place and your debts with the university are all handled; to leverage connections that might help lead to entry-level job opportunities in your field; to lay the groundwork for continued networking with any educators, employers, or classmates who might prove valuable connections; and—if you haven’t already done so—preparing for the realities of student loan repayment.
Graduation is exciting but as you reach one finish line, you start on a whole new path. Read on for some idea of what awaits you on this path:
Review Your Credits One Last Time
In order to graduate and earn your degree, you will need to have completed all necessary prerequisite courses, all courses related to your major, and if you’ve declared a minor, all courses related to this discipline as well. Hopefully, you’ve been following the roadmap to degree completion and you haven’t made any wrong turns.
But just to be sure, now’s the time to stop and ask for directions. Make an appointment with your academic advisor a few months before graduation. Go over your completed credits as well as the courses you’re currently enrolled in. Confirm beyond a reasonable doubt that these credits add up to a degree on graduation date.
You don’t need any surprises as you prepare to march at graduation.
Address Any Outstanding Debts
The same is true of any outstanding debts to your college or university. Delinquent tuition, unpaid fees, unreturned library materials and even outstanding parking tickets can cause your school to withhold your transcripts and your degree. Take the appropriate steps to settle all debts before they can follow you out of college.
Solidify Your Contacts
Before you make the transition from student to working professional, make sure to reinforce your connection with professors, classmates, advisors, and others who have been an important part of your college experience. Some of these connections may also prove valuable as you take future steps in your life and career.
While you still have access to mentors, internship programs, and alumni, gather contact info and ask if it’s ok to reach out in the future for referrals, advice, or even job opportunities. As you make the transition into the working world, you’ll learn quickly that “who you know” truly does matter. Start networking now.
Prepare to Repay your Student Loans
For most graduates, repaying student loans is a fact of life almost immediately after graduation. Your repayment plan(s) will depend on the nature of your student loan(s) as will your interest rate.
Your responsibility is to understand how your repayment plan works, when you must begin making payments, and how much you’ll be paying each month. You’ll also want to learn about your options as you continue repayment, including loan consolidation, loan refinancing, and loan forgiveness.
Review of Preparation for Graduation From College
- Review your credits and make sure you’re on track to graduate.
- Handle any outstanding debts or unmet obligations that might stand in the way of receiving your degree.
- Solidify your contacts. This is the beginning of your professional network.
- Prepare to repay your student loans, and know exactly what is expected of you.
To learn more about student loan repayment and the options outlined above, Check out our Guide to Student Financial Aid.