I overslept by maybe 30 minutes, but it was too late. I knew I’d missed the exam. And I was well-aware of my professor’s rigid policy: Show up or fail. No exceptions. Even so, I skated as quickly to the auditorium as my little skateboard would take me, hoping to get there in enough time to beg for mercy—but the room was empty. Later, my professor’s email response (to my pleadings for a retake) showed no glimmer of empathy and no sign of budging. My previous A exam scores for the course would just have to get cozy with my new F, and because of scholarship requirements, I’d have to retake the class the next semester to replace my final course grade. All this because my alarm battery died overnight.
That was freshman year, and I learned my lesson: set two alarms.
Pretty much everything—from finger- painting in kindergarten to senior English essays—has focused on one thing: getting you into college. But here’s the thing: High school can be good at preparing you for harder classes, but rarely does anyone talk to you about the challenges you’ll face that can negatively impact your grades; mainly the new environment and the level of self- management it demands.
Here’s a look at how to make sure you succeed freshman year.
Being Your Own Manager
One of the biggest obstacles facing freshmen is a new responsibility of managing their own time and focus. “Students often struggle with the level of self-management that is required of them when entering college,” says Steve Graham, the dean at Laidlaw College in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Graham goes on to list that some students struggle with poor time management, lack of studying disciplines, overcommitment with extracurricular activities, worrying about career choices, missing home, etc. “We strongly advise that students see such personal challenges and growth as part of a hidden curriculum,” he says.
When Bekah Haddock, now a mother of three, was accepted at the University of Tennessee, she excitedly began her journey toward a nursing degree. But she admits it wasn’t long before challenges stood in her way. “I was extremely overwhelmed by the course load. In high school I never had to study to make A’s and B’s, so I never learned how to study and apply myself—nor did I care to.”
Then the distractions of college life only exacerbated these roadblocks. “I allowed being overwhelmed to let me give up. I was in a sorority and basically was the stereotypical sorority girl. Late nights led to skipping a lot of classes, falling behind, not catching up. You see where this goes.”
Sadly, Haddock never finished college. Over the years she’s played the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” game over again in her mind. She believes several things could have helped her succeed. “Obviously it would have helped to learn how to study. I would not have partied as much, or at all, actually! Surrounding myself with different people, seeing the big picture and how much my decisions in college would affect who I am today. I just didn’t have guidance. And I needed it.”
Haddock’s story highlights several obstacles and stressors all students may struggle with at any given time, if not all at once. It’s important to devote some time to thinking through these upcoming scenarios or evaluate any current issues you might be struggling with now.
Your new freedom also brings new responsibilities. There will be a lot of new decisions in an unfamiliar environment, and everything weighs on you to make things happen. So become your own cheerleader—pushing yourself into a new level of responsible self-management.
Another contributor to students’ stress and possible cause for failing is the move from restrictions to more freedom. Kevin Otos, an associate professor of theater at Elon University, suggests: “When students fail out, it seems related to the transition of moving from a very structured environment to one that is less structured. As an adult college student, one has to create their own structure.”
Long gone are the days of solid blocks of classes through the week. Rather, you’re the one who arranges your weekly schedule each semester and selects your professors. And since classes are held at various times of the day, you have to manage your time between classes and plan ahead for upcoming assignments. Check out your campus and local area for prime studying locations. Many students find a place that works best for them, like a quiet corner of a library, a buzzing cafe or the sprawling campus lawns. Figure out what environment cultivates your creativity and fosters productivity.
There will always be something going on around you, vying for your attention— whether it be campus events, parties, part-time jobs, faith gatherings, Greek life or volunteering. Learn when to say no. Overcommitment is never healthy, especially when you are in a season when academics should be your main focus.
Good Habits to Keep
Graham has noticed that although many bright students sometimes can cope with the first stages of college by “winging it” at the last minute, their ability to do so won’t last long. “Students will hit a wall where they realize they can no longer wing it but need a more disciplined, methodical and planned approach. They will only realize this by failing to meet some requirement.”
Get into the habit of organizing your assignments according to what’s most important that week. Evaluate how long each assignment will take, and structure time for completing each task. Create a to-do list and keep track of your schedule and assignments in some sort of calendar, whether it’s with a phone app, computer program or a good old-fashioned planner. Jotting things down on miscellaneous pieces of paper isn’t going to help you.
Once you’re in your creative work space, turn off distractions like your phone or computer and dig in. We are a multitasking generation and need to master the art of discipline.
If you’re looking for more dynamic study methods, get creative. Make flash cards, create study guides, write out summaries, quiz yourself with friends, make up a mnemonic song. When reading textbooks or working on long assignments, set a timer and take breaks. Learn what works for you.
When it comes to completing assignments, nothing is more important than planning ahead. Mark Petitmermet of Oregon Health and Science University emphasizes that students should avoid procrastination. “Start on assignments, homework and activities as soon as possible,” he says. “This reduces the stress of knowing you have something due but not really knowing the details of what it will entail.”
Reflecting back on his college days, Otos says: “When I was a student and I was in a production, I had to begin major writing assignments a month or more in advance so that I could chip away at completing them in a way that worked with theater commitments. Some people could pull all-nighters writing and get the grades they wanted. I never enjoyed that and ultimately had to develop a strategy that worked best for me.”
What helped him was breaking up large, complicated assignments into 60- to 90-minute chunks and working on parts of an assignment over time.
Figuring out a method that works best for you is a major key to success.
Helping Hands on Campus
When Zoe Morgan, a business student at the University of Colorado, was struggling to pass a class, she met with a study group. “I had some friends in the class and we got together at the library,” she says. “We read over notes and asked each other questions.” She passed the course with a C. Morgan says she still could have improved. “I think it would have helped a lot to go into office hours and get help studying for tests, asking about the test format, etc.,” she says.
If you’re finding a course too difficult, it can be beneficial to email your professor or arrange a meeting to discuss the material and assess your progress. Most professors have open office hours and are willing to meet. Graham says sometimes students who need the most help wait until it’s too late. “There also seems to
be a shame dynamic where students just say, ‘I am fine,’ and then they are gone—withdrawn. We strongly encourage people to come to us early on if they are struggling—not come after the due date and say they have not been coping.”
There are also other academic resources available to you. Most campuses have a tutoring lab, a writing center and academic advisors. Dalton Dennis, who studied English at Metropolitan State College of Denver, believes these resources can be helpful. “If you really are clueless as to how to study or can’t figure out why you’re
not doing well in something, talk to somebody,” he says. “College is full of people with experience and wisdom, [who are] willing to help. Your tuition pays for them to help. Don’t waste it.”
Look into what your college offers. Some campuses have a first-year advising department where freshmen can meet with advisors, attend workshops or receive tutoring. Writing centers can also offer assistance with assignments such as research papers, lab reports, essays and grad school applications.
Whatever your strategies may be, setting goals is crucial. But if you do happen to feel burned out, take a breather and get away for the weekend. Reflect on the season you are in and reassess short-term and long-term goals. It can be easier to accomplish the short- term goals when the big picture is at the forefront of your mind—graduation and the next season of your life.
You can thrive in college. Success isn’t necessarily dependent on how smart you are, but rather it’s dependent upon how you spend your time. As with most things in life, success is achievable with one element: effort. But with that it’s also important to realize sometimes the unexpected happens. What matters
is that you try. At the end of the day, a poor grade here and there doesn’t really matter—your future employer doesn’t care if you got a B instead of an A in psychology. What’s important is that you are learning, growing and preparing yourself with long-term goals in mind.
But make sure to set two alarms on exam day—just in case.