Navigating Your First Year in College

The day has finally arrived. You have spent many waking hours working on college applications, writing personal statements, completing the SATs, and deciding which college you are going to attend. You are filled with excitement, worry, anxiety, and ready to conquer the world. Going to college for the first time is a big change. Changes can present opportunities & challenges. Here are some tips to help you survive your first year in college.

Supportive people on campus: Many college bound students I talk to really look forward to making new friends and meeting new people at college. It can be fun. It’s also really important. Just think about it: If you are living away from home for the first time, many of the people you’ve always counted on may be miles away. So what happens if you find yourself feeling out of place or alone? How do people actually build new support and friendship circles at college?

I love to hear about the creative ways that college students build their new support networks. Here is some of what I’ve heard. Attend freshman orientation. Go to school sponsored activities during your first week. These are great ways to connect with other students that are also developing their new life at college. Some students have gotten involved with community service organizations on campus or clubs or other groups. These can be a wonderful way to meet other people, develop your passion, and do something productive & fun with others. Attend a meeting to see if the organization is one you would enjoy. This will help you feel connected to others and help you remember you are not alone. Research and get to know what support services your school offers. Tutoring, academic advising, and the counseling center’s programs are all great resources.

Learn to manage your time: One of the frequent challenges I hear about from college students is time management. There are so many interesting things to do–and there is so much to learn. Sometimes important things get put off. Have you ever waited until the last minute to do your assignments or class projects? Let’s face it; all of us have procrastinated at one time or another. Waiting until the last minute can leave us feeling overwhelmed, tired, anxious, and exhausted.

Learning how to manage your time is a survival skill for college and life. Here are some things that may be helpful.

  1. Use an “accomplishment list”: Before you start your day, write down all the items you want to accomplish. You may want to determine which ones are the top priorities (give these a number one) and which ones are second level priorities (these can be numbered two). Tackle the ‘ones’ first. You may want to consider how much time is involved with completing each task–and then prioritize again based on what is realistic. Check things off as you complete them. That can feel really good. This strategy can help you stay focused and manage your daily activities. If you want to learn more about time management, see if your school offers a workshop. Stephen Covey has a really good chapter about this topic in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
  2. Learn to set realistic expectations. Too often we overwhelm ourselves with what we want to accomplish and set the bar too high. We end up feeling defeated and anxious. Learn to use an agenda to write down all your class assignments or due dates. This will help you plan ahead and avoid procrastination.
  3. Take time to study. Find what study environment works best for you. For some people, listening to music while they study can be helpful. For others it can be a distraction. Know what works best for you.
  4. Make sure to give yourself breaks and down time. Take a 10 minute break to get a cup of tea, walk outside for some refreshing deep breaths, or do some relaxing stretches. Research shows that these short breaks can be revitalizing and can help us be more productive and creative.

Learn how you cope best: During your first year of college you will experience many changes. With any change comes some level of stress. This is normal. Learn to listen to your body when you are feeling overwhelmed. Learn what works for you to manage worries, anxiety, and stress. Maybe it is taking a walk, some form of vigorous exercise, talking to a friend, reading a book for fun, watching a funny (LOL) YouTube video, or taking a nap. Learn to know what works best for you and what grounds you in times of change and stress.

Stay connected: I know it can be hard sometimes between studying, socializing, and working on class assignments. Set time aside for connecting with supportive family or friends back home. This can also be a great way to help manage any feelings of homesickness.

It’s OK to ask for help: Sometimes college students tell me about wanting to be independent; to handle everything on their own. But there are times when things will be easier if you let others help out. Learning to ask for help is a valuable lesson for us all. A good sign to pay attention to: you feel overwhelmed. When this happens, who can you reach out to? If you’re stressed about a class, talk to your professor or TA and ask for assistance. If you are emotionally overwhelmed, talk to your RA, a good friend, or someone at the counseling center. A great question to ask a good friend: “how do you cope when things get overwhelming for you?” We can learn a lot from other’s skills.

The 411 on binge drinking: Did you know that several studies indicate approximately 40% of college students engage in binge drinking? Socializing with peers is an important part of the college experience. However, keep in mind that binge drinking can lead to poor decision making and life long consequences. There are a number of resources about alcohol use and binge drinking at the website I’ve listed in the Resources section.

Financial stressors: Every morning when I check my email or watch the news, I learn more about ongoing fluctuations in the economy. Our own families may be experiencing financial stress. If you are considering working part time to help with finances, find out what jobs your campus offers. On-campus jobs often allow for more flexibility and convenience. Also, if there is any change in your family’s income, talk to financial aid about options available to you. Most importantly, learn to recognize and manage your own anxiety and worry around money.

Learn to have time for yourself and for friends: Balancing it all can be a challenge. Make sure you find time to rest and relax. Find time to reconnect with yourself and do the things you love to do. Remember that having fun is also part of your first year experience. Remember to hang out with new and old friends. This will help you create a bond and connection with your friendships.

Balancing it all: Discovering & developing your academic & professional interests, keeping up with your course work, exploring your new found freedom and independence, being a good friend, dating; venturing into new hobbies, taking care of yourself emotionally & physically, being home for some family events–it’s quite a balancing act.

Here are a couple of tips to help you balance the many roles you will be juggling.

  1. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Too often we believe we can do it all.
  2. Communicate to the people around you about your goals & limitations. This will help keep the lines of communication open and allow for a better understanding and more success.
  3. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed; spending much of your time alone; having difficulties concentrating; feeling irritable, sad, or hopeless, it may be a time to reach out for your campus counseling center. Counseling on campus is usually offered free of charge to all students enrolled.

Click here for some additional resources on the topics discussed in this article.

PLEASE NOTE: Nothing in what you find here should be construed as medical advice pertinent to any individual. As is true with all written materials, and especially information found on the internet, you must be the judge of what appears valid and useful for yourself. Please take up any questions you might have regarding the content of this web site with your psychotherapist or physician.