Three Tips for Navigating Your Freshman Year

February 7, 2024

Maneuvering through your first year of college can often feel synonymous to being tasked with successfully completing a treasure hunt with no map. In your mind, you’ve imagined what you may find, but the path to get there isn’t clear. In fact, you may not even be certain that you’re on the correct path at all. Right now, it might feel like you’re stuck in quicksand. Maybe, you’re on a solid path, but you feel like you’re heading in the wrong location. This is not what you imagined and you just want to abandon your current position and search elsewhere.

Perhaps, there are obstacles in front of you that seem so insurmountable that you just don’t feel it’s worth continuing on. In reality, the treasure may be within your grasp. Sometimes, though, you may just want to give up. You find yourself asking: Is the treasure real or just a dream? Well, I wish I could tell you that I have a one-size-fits-all way to fix all of those feelings. Unfortunately, I do not. But, what I do have is advice that may help you stay on that path that will hopefully lead you to finding your treasure—whatever that may mean for you as an individual.

Tip #1: Ask for help
Let’s get this straight, asking for help is NOT a sign of weakness. I mean this in every facet of your lives. Ask questions about academics, mental health, or questions you feel are so simple that you’re afraid someone will laugh if you ask them. There are truly no dumb questions when it comes to needing help. Let’s face it, college is a new atmosphere, away from your “norms” where you’re surrounded by numerous unknowns. You’re away from most of your friends and living with strangers. You find yourself spending the majority of your time focused on attaining goals that you cannot yet fully imagine.

This is a difficult predicament to be in. What happens when you find yourself struggling? It may seem that questions are no longer leading to answers, but inevitably create more questions. What happens when you’re staring at your math problems and they just don’t make sense to you? You now find yourself listening to your history professor and all you hear is the sound of everyone else’s pens taking notes on their paper, but you don’t know where to even begin. What do you do when you find yourself focusing on all of your issues without formulating solutions? You don’t want to have a negative outlook, but you’re struggling with focusing on the positive aspects of your life.

A former student once told me, “When I was in high school and I fell down (was struggling), someone was always rushing to me and picking me up and pushing me in the right direction. They got me to a counselor, a trusted adult, or somewhere else. They guided me there. But now in college, I feel like when I fall (struggle) I just lay there. And by the time I get myself up, it’s too late.” I remember listening and being taken aback by how much this truth resonated with me. But, it also made me think about how I hear these stories all the time. One that starts with a struggle that a student was aware they were having and ends with the phrase “I didn’t get help until it was too late and I failed the class.”

The missing piece here is ownership. You need to admit that you have an issue and be proactive enough to reach out for help before it becomes unsolvable. Help is available at every post-secondary institution. Campuses have a variety of tools that they offer to support students. When you do “fall,” you need to find it within yourself to get up and seek out the help you need.

Asking for help doesn’t make you weak. In fact, I believe asking for help exhibits strength in one’s character. At the end of the day, who is going to have a better shot at success? Who is going to have a better chance at finding their treasure? The answer is undeniably the person who asks for help. The next time you can’t understand what a professor is teaching, go to their office hours immediately. When you find yourself stuck in a tailspin of negativity, navigate your college’s website and find the building where your campus counseling services are located and make an appointment! Don’t wait until it is “too late.” YOU can do this!

Tip #2: Set reachable and manageable goals
These are two powerful words stacked into one short phrase. I’m sure these are words you have heard time and time again during your senior year of high school and now as you enter your college world. But I think it’s important that every student on a college campus realizes the importance of not only setting goals, but setting them wisely. I’m going to break down each word and then explain how you can use them cohesively to set yourself up for the best chance at success.

What does this mean? It means setting a goal that will challenge you, but not defeat you. Set a goal that’s not so easy that you can achieve it with minimal effort, but also not so hard that it’s nearly impossible to accomplish. Be honest with yourself about your limits. Setting an unachievable goal will leave you feeling defeated and unsuccessful. Instead, set small goals, achieve them and then set new, challenging goals. Each time you achieve one of those goals it will help you to push your limits and get you closer to accomplishing a larger, more meaningful goal.

Let’s says a student makes a goal to attain a 4.0 GPA and work 30 hours per week at the local convenience store during his first semester in college. Could this be an achievable goal? This might be achievable, however, it’s one that’s not considered practical and is certainly not a good idea for a freshman in college. Setting a goal like this can lead to a variety of issues. Eventually, some aspect of your life, if not all aspects, will suffer.

Think of this as a simple math problem. The more hours you work off campus decreases the amount of time you have for your schoolwork. Decreasing the amount of hours you dedicate to working on schoolwork will lead to a lower GPA. This can apply to anything in college, not just hours worked and GPA. Had this goal been manageable, there wouldn’t have been a give and take relationship between work and school. Working fewer hours and making a goal for an admirable GPA would lead to a more manageable goal. Be realistic and take a step back to evaluate all aspects of your goal. Ask yourself questions like: Will I still have time to study? If I work 10 more hours will it get in the way of my sleep routine? Stepping back and asking these questions will help ensure that your goals are not only manageable, but also realistic.

Tip #3: Find balance
Too much of anything can be a bad thing. Burnout, dropout, and bad habits can be the result of not finding a balance in your life. This can be a very hard concept for a young adult to grasp, but it’s essential to living a healthy lifestyle. Make sure that you’re not spending too much time on any one area of your life. This may seem like the opposite of what you think someone would tell you, but don’t spend all of your time on academics! On the flip side, don’t spend too much time in your dorm room playing video games.

If you spend too much of your time on academics, it’s very easy to burn out. If you spend too much time playing video games, you’ll probably not find yourself in college for very long. Work hard, but carve out time for yourself as well.

Back in “my day,” I remember being told a good college balance was like a good cell phone plan. This meant we received “free minutes” on nights and weekends. I still find this to be useful advice. If you spend your days working on academics, then you’ll notice yourself having more free time at night and on weekends. For example, if you have class from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. and nothing else until 2 p.m., you should go to the library and do schoolwork during your break instead of taking a nap. The more you prioritize your time, the easier it will be for you to make the right choices.

Creating routines will also help you be more successful in the long run. The best way to make sure this happens is to create a weekly schedule every Sunday. Plug in your classes and build in the time when you’ll hold yourself accountable to study and work on your academics. Be sure to allow free time for yourself as well. When you look at your entire weekly schedule, you’ll be able to easily recognize where you’ve found balance and where you’re overloading yourself.

If you find yourself spending too much time in the library, carve out an hour or two where you relax and do something that you enjoy. On the other hand, if you find yourself with way too much free time, schedule trips to the library or a quiet place to do schoolwork. Even if you don’t have anything that is “due,” you can still work ahead or dive deeper into the many topics you’re currently learning. Let’s be honest, sometimes college can feel like you’re walking a tightrope while juggling several different items in both hands. The good thing is that if you focus on balancing what you’re juggling you’ll have an easier time balancing yourself as you walk across that tightrope.

If you’re reading this, graduating from college is most likely your hypothetical “treasure.” On your trek to find this, there will certainly be twists and turns, paths you can barely see, detours and obstacles that seem like mountains in your way. Just remember, set realistic and manageable goals as you go. A treasure is not something that will be easy to find. It will not always be as easy as “X marks the spot.”

Take a variety of paths to discover which one is the best for you. With every path you successfully navigate you will become stronger, wiser, and closer to finding your treasure. Also remember, don’t attempt to take on more tasks than you can handle. If you exert too much energy and time right away then you may not be able to finish as strong as you would like. This treasure hunt is a marathon and not a race. It’s going to take time and balance. Discover routines and organize yourself in a way that allows you to achieve your goals and not burn out or quit along the way.

Finally, you don’t have to travel this path alone. When you get lost, confused, or encounter that seemingly insurmountable obstacle, just reach out for help. Who knows, you may find someone who traveled this same path and can lead you on new roads along the way. Either way, help is all around you, just look and never be afraid to ask!