How to Thrive in College

A rising sophomore tells it like it is

There is no other setting quite like the college campus, where thousands or even tens of thousands of young adults live, study, work and play in one place. There are no kids around (usually), and except for faculty and staff, there are no adults.

Contrary to what many parents think, the formula for an all-around successful college career goes far beyond academics and financial planning.

Based on my experiences during my first year of college and after talking with a number of other students, here are a few tips to help new college students make the most of their education. I don’t have all the answers but I can share these:

1.) Build a good relationship with at least one professor.
The most overlooked college resource is your own professor.

All professors are required to hold office hours at least once a week. Making use of their availability will almost always help you do better in class and who knows, you might even gain a mentor. That professor might come in handy when you apply for an internship or job down the road.

Once they notice your extra effort, professors will usually help you as much as possible. They want their students to succeed. There is always more to be gained when you’re conversing one-on-one rather than one-on-100 in a big lecture hall.

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2.) Take advantage of all resources.
If you’ve been assigned a paper and have questions about sourcing, style or anything else, don’t be afraid to stop into the writing center. Skilled professionals can share advice or guidance. People will help you. You just have to ask.

Tap a TA. In most cases, this is the main reason teaching assistants are there in the first place, to assist the professor in guiding students. The resources are yours (you — or your parents — have already paid for them), but not if you don’t use them. With the rising cost of college, there is no reason not to cash in on every last service available.

3.) Be a planner.
Ever hear anyone say, “Once you become a pro at college, it’s already time for graduation”?

These “pros” know how to make a schedule and stick to it. Get a planner and use it (not as a paperweight). In the midst of a busy college life, it can be incredibly easy to forget about a test, project or paper.

The last thing you want is to find out you have an essay due the next day as you quickly check the syllabus before bed.

The student workload guidelines of the University of Iowa say students should expect about six hours of work-study time for each course per week. Although this time will vary depending on the student and on how demanding the class is, it shows how critical planning is. The last thing you want is to find out you have an essay due the next day as you quickly check the syllabus before bed.

Related: The Truth about Freshman Year

One advantage of planning involves how you absorb information. When a professor tells you about a project or you read about it online, that news enters your brain in only one way. Write down what your professor has told you, and the information enters your brain in other ways — aesthetically and visually. Your brain not only hears it, but sees it and mirrors it onto paper. Try it; it works.

4.) Do something you wouldn’t normally do.
College is the time to find yourself, academically and socially. So start looking. Even if you are already comfortable in your own skin and know what you love and what you hate, try something new. Ask yourself: What do I have to lose? Will it be memorable? Will I be a more knowledgeable human being afterward?

A friend of mine, never having rowed crew in his life, tried out for Syracuse University’s Division 1 Crew team. During the first week of school he was asked, “Do you want to be a Division 1 athlete?” That’s all it took. But after four weeks of grueling hours spent on the water, and of hours spent running, biking, and giving the rowing machine everything he had, he didn’t make the team.

No one is happy after failing, but it’s what happened afterward that’s noteworthy. Only a month into freshman year, he became friends with the guys on the team, then became friends with their friends. As more time went on, more and more people entered his circle. “Even though I almost killed myself during tryouts, the connections I made were unbelievable,”  he said.

Many people strive to achieve independence in college, but potential is at its apex when you achieve interdependence.

Anything that results in new relationships is always a win. And who knows, you may end up finding something you love to do.

5.) Branch out.
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Although what you know matters as well, you won’t be able to express that unless you have the connections to do so.

Branching out in college will help you be successful before you even graduate; it will also help you be successful after you get that piece of paper. When you know more people, you gain new perspective, hear about events worth attending, and learn about things that will help you grow as a person. One of the best ways to study is to study in a group.

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Value your fellow students. Many people strive to achieve independence in college, but potential is at its apex when you achieve interdependence.

6.) Be active.
Everyone knows exercise is good for you, but evidence of enormous cognitive benefits has been piling up. In experiments done at the University of Illinois, researchers compared mice that ran regularly on their wheels with mice that did not. The results were astonishing. The regular runners had more brain cells, developed more intricate connections between neurons, and performed better on cognitive tests (completing mazes). The New York Times entitled its article about the study, “How Exercise Could Lead to a Better Brain.”

Exercise can aid students in every way possible. It increases focus, concentration and memory, boosts your mood and quality of sleep, and alleviates stress. Also, who doesn’t want a better body?

More than a decade and a half ago, a Duke University study on the effects of exercise on depression found the same results. One group was prescribed exercise only, while the other was prescribed antidepressant medication. In the end, the group that only exercised showed the same improvement as the group on medication. With all of these proven benefits, working out can help make a busy and stressful college experience that much easier.

7.) Learn about yourself, not just your class subjects.
If high school is the time for trying to fit in, college is the time for trying to stand out and embrace your true self.

Some argue that college is all about getting the degree and learning course material, while others pour all of their energy into their social life. The best thing to do is find the middle ground. Be social, explore your interests, join a club, maybe even look into Greek life. What better place to find a group of friends that you truly fit in with than a college campus?

Some kids from small high schools may think this is impossible, but odds are if you put yourself out there, you will find your niche. There is nothing like the college campus experience. Don’t regret not making the most of it.

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