Making the Most of Your Freshman Year of College

By Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

It’s almost time. You’ve been to freshman orientation. You’ve contacted your new roommate on Facebook. You’ve decided who will bring the TV, who will bring the mini-fridge. You’ve begun to pack. You’ve started the round of goodbyes with high school friends. In only a few short weeks you will be entering a new chapter in your life. You’re excited. You’re a little scared. You are about to start your freshman year of college.

Make it Happen or Let it Happen

Making the most of your college experience means taking charge of it. It’s your four years. The decisions you make early on can establish the momentum for social and academic success. I’ve watched how my most capable and happiest students negotiate the important first few weeks and they do seem to have a few things in common. Here are some things to consider:

Major and Course Selections

  • Choose a preliminary major. Yes, you can change your mind. More than 80 percent of students do, at least once. But you’ve got to start somewhere. Do you have many interests? Choose the major with the most rigid requirements as your starting point. It’s much easier to switch from engineering to English, for example, than the other way around. Majors that involve many science and math courses tend to require courses in sequence. Changing into a major in the sciences later than the second semester of the freshman year often means adding a semester or two.

  • Make an appointment with your advisor. This person is your new best friend. He or she is there to guide you through the mysteries of required courses, prerequisites, and course selections. Most take that job very seriously and want to help. If your advisor seems uninterested or clueless, talk to the dean of your school about making a switch.
  • Work with your advisor to make a preliminary game plan for the whole 4 years. What are the graduation requirements for your major? What would each year ideally look like? Balance “hard” classes with the not so hard. Make sure to build in time for extracurricular activities and summer internships.
  • Do not believe what other students tell you about what is required. Do not go it alone. Talk to and believe your advisor and write it down. Requirements are different for different majors and requirements often change from graduating year to graduating year. You don’t want to get to the last semester and find out that, oops, you haven’t done the prerequisite for the last course. Keeping a written record protects you if your advisor moves on and a new advisor disagrees with your original plan.

Academics: How To Do Your Best

  • Consider your course work as your full time job. Like any job, it will take at least 40 hours a week with some overtime. Get a calander and map out a daily schedule of your “job.” A good rule of thumb is two hours of study for every hour of class. (This is college, not high school. Studying means going over material, doing reading, and thinking hard about what you are learning, not just churning out homework assignments.) Do you have blank spaces between classes? Make a choice whether those slots should be study time or whether you would rather do studying at night. Whichever you choose, write it down and stick to it for at least two weeks to see if it works for you.

  • Show up to class! At many colleges, teachers leave it up to you to be responsible for showing up. It’s a freeing feeling. It can also be a trap. Just because you don’t have to go doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Exams and papers will be based on what is presented in class as well as what you read.
  • Buy the book and read it! Yes those books are ridiculously expensive! But they are part of your education. Read assigned material. Think about it. Write down your questions. Use class time and teacher office hours to get those questions answered.
  • Be a consumer. Figure it out for yourself. What are you and your parents actually paying for each hour of class time? It can cost anywhere from $50 to $150 per class (depending on the total yearly cost for your school). It’s a lot of money. Probably you or your parents worked hard for it. When you are tempted to skip class, remind yourself that you might as well be burning up the money. Instead, work hard to get every penny’s worth. Listen to professors. Take notes. Get those questions answered. You’ve paid for it.
  • Don’t kid yourself. If you find you are having trouble with a subject, get help right away. It’s almost impossible to turn a failing grade around with the final exam or a fantastic final paper. As soon as you get less than a solid B average in a class, make an appointment and ask your professor how you can do better.

Writing, writing, writing

  • Papers are not just an exercise to make you miserable. They provide valuable practice in gathering information, organizing it, and presenting your original thinking about it. If you developed solid writing skills in high school, good for you. You can skip this part. But most students do need some help to bring their writing up to college standards. Fortunately, most colleges now have writing centers staffed by either peer or professional tutors who are there to help. Use it.

  • Do what is asked. Read the directions for a paper carefully. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your answer is if it doesn’t answer the question that was asked. If you have an idea for a different approach, talk to your professor first.
  • Neatness, spelling and grammar count. Your papers are a presentation of yourself. Taking the care to present yourself well often can make a difference if the content of your paper is hovering between two grades.

Relationships with Professors

  • Get to know your teachers. Most really are there to help. Introduce yourself. Participate in class. Go to office hours. An interested, engaged student not only gets more out of class but also develops relationships with professors who can help them on their way.

  • Focus on getting to know tenured faculty. More and more schools are hiring “adjunct professors” to teach some courses. Adjuncts are qualified professionals in their fields who work very part time for the school, usually just teaching a course or two. Some adjuncts, for reasons of their own, find the time to meet with students and develop relationships beyond the classroom even though they are paid only to teach. Most don’t. Tenured faculty, on the other hand, have a long-term commitment to the school. They are paid to be available as well as to teach their classes. They are likely still to be around when you get to your senior year and need recommendations.
  • Manners do count. Show up on time for class and appointments. Call if you can’t make an appointment. Say please and thank you. A little respect goes a very long way.
  • Be honest. Professors have heard it all before. The dog ate it. My grandmother, dog, uncle, died. My best friend, roommate, sister, went into crisis last night. Please. If the paper was too challenging, if you were confused, or if you fell asleep, meet with your teacher, fess up, and work out a plan for getting your work done. It’s not fair to pull on another’s sympathy for a tragedy that isn’t true. On the other hand, if there really are problems at home and you want to finish out the semester respectably, most teachers will work hard to help you. Professors, and your advisor, usually know what options are available to you and will do what they can.

The Other 123 Hours a Week

  • There are 168 hours in every week. Typically, a college student spends 15 hours in class and another 20 to 30 in study. Subtract another 56 hours for sleeping (averaging 8 hours a night which most people don’t get but should). That leaves 67 hours a week to be on a team, participate in a student organization, hang out with friends, eat, and party. All of those things are just as important as going to classes. (See College Activities: Not So Incidental Learning ) Make sure you give your social life the time and attention it deserves or you will end up burnt out, depressed, and generally miserable.

Students who graduate with honors, who get the awards, and who get into the graduate schools of their choice are the students who take themselves seriously, at least some of the time. They get to know some of their teachers and carefully build a college career that will get them where they want to go. They also know how important it is to balance schoolwork with other experiences. They use their social time to make lifelong friendships and to explore relationships. It really is a full-time job. You can do it. Go to school with a sense of purpose and enthusiasm. You can make college what you want it to be.


APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2007). Making the Most of Your Freshman Year of College. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 24, 2014, from
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    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
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