I often see new students on forums, the discord server I frequent, or on multiple subreddits posting things like “I am drowning”, “I don’t know what I am doing”, “I am scared to fail.” I want to make it very clear that these feelings are normal and they do not make you a suboptimal student. The truth is, at least in the United States, the public education system has already failed millions of students, and chances are that new graduates are not prepared for the rigors and requirements of college. High school classes do not prepare students academically and give them the right base to hit the ground running. Furthermore, because passing classes in high school is relatively easy (in most cases), students end up never learning how to study, how to apply themselves, how to remain consistent and on top of their classes, or how to develop critical thinking skills that professors will demand in higher education. Add to this unfortunate mixture that college is, for most, the first time they are living on their own and the reality that the pandemic has put a hinder on us all and you have the recipe for dropping out of college. However, all is not lost.
I strongly believe that applying oneself and striving for greatness beats natural talent.
I have met multiple students in my life who are wickedly smart but drop the ball very often, causing them to be outcompeted by others who take their academic success more seriously. Which one of these two you will be in college is entirely up to you!
First-year success starts here:
101 classes are there for a reason.
I love the fact that 101 classes exist. As I mentioned above, the vast majority of students will come into college having zero clues of how to study, how to write a paper, or even how to properly use search engines. No, it is not your fault. The purpose of these classes is to teach you the tools to become a self-sufficient student. I promise you that if you cannot find something on google is probably because you are not searching properly. These are skills we must hone and this is the time to do it. If you do not engage in these courses with all due energy, you will be doing yourself a disservice, and paying the consequences later on when the second semester rolls around and they no longer walk you through the requirements of the paper, expecting you to know how to write in MLA/APA, etc.
The party life is not as real as TV will make you think.
I don’t know many students who partied during college. Sure spring break is great and all, but the vast majority of my peers were just as focused on class as I was and we spent weekends studying for tests or completing assignments regularly. The college triangle is a very real thing and if you choose parties, well, something else will have to give. If you came to college to party I would advise a less expensive recreational activity. Choose wisely.
The tools for success are at your fingertips but nobody will hand them to you.
I love the saying “ask and you shall receive” because nothing is more true in college. You have to advocate for yourself. In lecture halls that hold 200+ students with professors that must teach, grade papers, and work on their own research, you must take the proverbial bull by the horns and be in charge of your education and your success because nobody is going to do it for you. Speak up when you don’t understand, seek assistance from counselors, TAs, instructors, and friends. Join communities built around your interests. Be hungry to learn and show your professors that you want to succeed. When the season for recommendation letters comes, you will be glad you were present, emailing, and engaging with your professors because they will remember you. Think of it as networking. You are not being a nuisance.
Being organized goes a long way.
Developing a system to stay on top of your assignments will give you the freedom to really enjoy rest and relaxation time. I live by my calendar and while some may think this is a rigid way of living I can wholeheartedly tell you that this is far from the truth. Write out your tasks, use a calendar, set reminders. Never rely on your memory because it will eventually falter and usually during the times when we are most stressed out. Being organized beyond your schedule but also on your materials, your notes, your life will show the people around you that you take your career seriously and they will want to work with you!
Think about what you will need for class. Take inventory of your items. Have a comfortable backpack. I am completely paperless right now but this was not the case in undergrad and I can promise you there is nothing worse than hauling an uncomfortable and heavy backpack through an 8 hour school day. Bring food and water if needed. Make sure to have the appropriate gear on the days you need it so you don’t lose points because you are physically unable to participate. Cough Lab PPE cough!
Getting back on track:
So your first-year plan didn’t go as you had hoped. It’s ok! The important thing is that now you are looking into fixing your mistakes. Depending on how far in your journey you are correcting your course of action may or may not be a feasible thing. For example, if you just spent 3 years slacking, have a 2.5 GPA, and want to get a 4.0 by the end of senior year, well, that is just not mathematically possible. There will e plenty of time to be mad at past you for the situation you are in, but right now it’s time to work.
The best advice I can give here is to focus on the things you can change and have control over.
Take inventory of your current situation and your goals.
As I mentioned above there are realistic and unrealistic goals. Setting smart goals a huge part of being successful at anything and this is no different. Perhaps you need your last year to shine because you want to obtain glowing recommendation letters. Perhaps you need to raise your GPA to be able to graduate. Perhaps you only bombed the first year and are now ready to take it seriously. Determine what you want, and be prepared to adjust this goal if it is not realistic. Perhaps it is too late to get a 4.0 GPA but it may not be too late for a 3.5 GPA, which is the mark required by most grad schools.
Do not get discouraged by the unattainable goals.
I have seen many students throw in the towel and say things like “It’s too late!”, “What is the point?”, or “I can’t do this!” Know that, while it is okay to take time to feel your feelings, you should not let them define you. The unattainable goals will make us feel so inadequate we will forget about the attainable ones and this is why smart goal-setting is one of the key principles for success. Furthermore, having really tried, even if only for one year, will be casting a vote for the new you who actually cares about grades and achievements and will set you in the path for success for your further studies.
Be honest about what has gotten you here.
I think that one of the greatest signs of growth a person can demonstrate is being honest with themselves and those around them about the choices, circumstances, and actions that have brought them to where they are now. It is also very easy to spot when a student is lying to fluff their circumstances versus when they actually have things beyond their control. In the process of correcting your path, tell the truth to the people you are expecting help from. Not only is honesty refreshing, but it will help the forging of professional relationships. For example, I am way more likely to help a student who has admitted they made a mistake than one who is trying to cover it up, blame the universe, or avoid any culpability.
Find the help you need.
One of the first things to do when we face a challenge is to devise, what I like to call, an attack plan. Defining what you know how to do and what you don’t is a key component of getting started with anything you may face. You may not have at your hands the tools you need to succeed. Perhaps you don’t know where to start or you don’t how to organize yourself and prepare an attainable plan. Alternatively, you may already know how to do all this but struggle with accountability. Academic coaches specialize in creating attainable goals and balanced schedules to help students thrive while avoiding burnout. If you don’t know how to proceed or simply need help, plenty of services are available for retainer to help you where you are falling short.
The road ahead of you is not going to be easy at all but you will be very proud of yourself for pulling it off and that alone is worth the effort.
Do you have any tips for first-year success and getting your academic life back on track? Feel free to leave a comment below!