College Survival Tips

In college I would volunteer to show new students around campus and give them tips about the meal plan. And by “volunteer” I don’t mean join a welcome squad, I mean cheerfully accost confused strangers holding maps, offering unsolicited advice. So you can bet I’m not going to let the Back to School season slip by without slipping in a few college survival tips. I don’t have to look far for inspiration, as we’ve just completed our College Primer Prize Pack giveaway of college tip books from some of our booksellers (congrats our winners Karina, Doug, and Kristine!). Along with my own tips, I thought it would be fun to share some of the wisdom gleaned from a few of the books from that giveaway. Tips are in bold, since I know you college kids are just going to skim for the parts you’re supposed to remember (I kid, I kid!).

College Survival Tips

College Is More Than A GPA

college-survival-tips Been-There-Done_that
From Been, There, Should’ve Done That

This college tip from the small gift book Been, There, Should’ve Done That backs up an important point with an interesting statistic. I can believe that 37% of students who drop out have a passing GPA because the people I know who dropped out were often the students who thought of college as high school 2.0. They thought it was about getting a piece of paper that proves you passed the ultimate test. Essentially they started college with a bad case of senioritis left over from high school. The second they got on campus they couldn’t wait to leave.

On the contrary, I advise college students to stay on campus between classes. Wander the student union on busy days, when the air is filled with incense and every club wants to put a flyer in your hand. Be a joiner.

College is a place where people find their identities, and not just from courses they’ve taken but from the new ideas that they are exposed to. I’m a different person today because of the beautiful, raging arguments that would happen in my college women’s center office Roundtable Discussions. I could read about women’s rights in a book, but I needed to be able to debate with my peers in order to sharpen my own thinking.

It’s surprisingly easy to gain a leadership position in clubs and agencies because so few people are willing to step up and take the responsibility. At big colleges agencies will even have paid leadership positions. For example I used to be a paid to work for Student Campus Entertainment, projecting movies at the campus theater and working as a bouncer at the student nightclub. I honestly believe the work I did running the free university on my campus was the gig that got me the career I have today. Getting involved in campus activities looks great on a resume, but honestly this tip is not about resume padding. It’s about how sad I feel for people I know who went to college in fast forward, always rushing home after class.

Besides, all those programs put on by student government (and yes, even the most politically incorrect or whimsical clubs are funded by student government) are a huge opportunity. For example, when I was in college I got to see lectures by Maya Angelou, Sherman Alexie, Connie Chung, Margaret Cho, and Michael Moore for free. I went to a big state school, so our student government had a working budget of 8.5 million dollars, all of that money spent to fund programs that students like you think are important. That includes everything from the free camping equipment protestors  used for sit-in to the Frisbees owned by the intermural leagues. Go see lectures and shows, volunteer. You’ll make more friends than you know what to do with, and they’ll be people with common interests. People who think like you, or who think differently from you in interesting ways. It’s these experiences that make college “the best years of my life” for so many people.

You Can Be Yourself in College

college-survival-tips The-Naked-Roommate
From The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College

I talked about this a little in our post on the ultimate list of best college movies. High school is not a melting pot, even the biggest high school is small enough that most people fear being outcast. Students in high school are pushed to conform, to be similar, because if you’re turned out from the group there is no other group to turn to. College is just the opposite. Sure, within the local glee club there going to be cliques and catfights. Every club has its drama, but if you tire of glee you can walk away tomorrow and join a different club. You can make an entirely new group of friends overnight and then you only have to say hello to those gleeks when you pass them between classes.

As The Naked Roommate book points out in this pull quote, college is the time to embrace the interests you love. Want to study the games of chessmasters? Want to learn to walk a tightrope? Want to perfect your flamenco technique or crusade for a cause? Your campus will be have a group of like-minded people pursuing the same thing. Don’t worry about trying to join the coolest club. The coolest club is the one that is filled with people who share your interests, and these are the kinds of people that you end up calling “friends for life.” Anyone who thinks you and your new pals in the Civil War Reenactment Club are like so super lame will be too busy doing their own thing to pay you any attention.

It’s Never Too Soon to Follow Your Passion

college-survival-tips U-Chic
Networking advice from U Chic: The College Girl’s Guide to Everything


The above advice comes from the networking section of U Chic: The College Girl’s Guide to Everything. It’s not only great advice for networking though, these are good questions for any young college student to ponder. If you are thinking you are too old for a new interest, you are wrong, because not a second of your life is wasted if you’re doing something you love. I used to pick classes by going to the campus bookstore and seeing which course had books I wanted to read. At least then if you hate the professor you’ll enjoy the reading. Do not wait until junior year to take a course “just for fun.” You may find that fun course is your life’s passion, and you may end up changing your major—much easier to do as a freshmen with only a few courses completed. But it is also easier to change majors in your junior year than it is to change the course of your life after you’ve graduated. Adults often make dramatic life changes and risk everything to start second, third or fourth careers. We do this because adulthood is not a trial run. When we realize we love something and want to spend our lives doing it, we have to be empowered to make those changes because finding that perfect niche is a big part of what modern life is about. But college is a trial run. You have the freedom to learn a little of this and a little of that. You’ll need a variety of courses to fill out your associates degree, so it’s seldom that a fun course is a total waste. But you can’t find yourself if you don’t know what you want, so start asking yourself the big questions. What do you love doing more than anything? Who are you when no one else is around? What are you really good at? What do you enjoy so much that time flies by while you’re doing it?

Learn to Be a Grown Up

college-survival-tips Been-There-Done-That
Note-taking advice from From Been, There, Should’ve Done That

Here’s the cliche of the college drop out: kid has good grades all through high school because mom and pop were always there to make sure she did the right thing on time. Freshman year she is free and independent at last, and without a parent to guide her she never attends class, seldom studies, and when the big project is due she finds suddenly she has met a homework assignment that can’t be completed hungover at two in the morning.

This isn’t a lecture on responsibility though. It’s a reminder that college—and life—isn’t about passing tests. When you’re a kid, the teacher warns “you’ll not be able to get away with that in college” or “they don’t except late papers in the working world.” That’s not quite true. If I am ten minutes late writing this blog post, I could certainly get away with it. Rather, it’s that my working agreement means that people are counting on me to get it written. And that’s what being a grown up is about: saying you’re going to do something and being reliable enough that people know you will get it done. And just as important, choosing to do the things that ultimately lead you to the future life you want. Once you know what you want, hold yourself accountable for achieving those goals. After all, it’s your life.

I have a friend who was a college aid counselor and she told me that most places that require a diploma do so because they want to see that the applicant is capable of completing big projects. And it’s true that in college no one is there to force you to study. You do it because you’re a grown up now and you want that diploma, and you want the stuff that’s in those books to also be in your brain. This is practice for the real world, and any drop out or grad will tell you that it’s a million times easier to learn the ways of adulthood in college.

As soon as you know what the final project for a class will be, start breaking it down into smaller chunks. Set deadlines for the various parts of the project: a date to pick the topic by, a date to have the reading finished, a date to have a first draft of your essay. Plan your week, if not your day, so you know you have enough time to get everything done. Get a calendar and keep a To Do list. Time management is not something you do in order to survive college. It’s something you do in order to get the most out of life, whether you’re in college or running a farm in Peru. If you’re terrible at keeping up with that calendar and To Do list, may as well keep at it because it will be required in every good job. And by job I mean every thing you want to do with your life that requires effort.

A lot of these college tips books offer study tips, like the note-taking advice above. Perhaps that’s what you thought this post would be. But the truth is, if you care about college, you will show up and you’ll study enough to do OK. Whereas, if see college as something you’re trying to “get through” rather than an important life experience, you will struggle. It sets you up to treat all of life as a series of checkpoints to be advanced. That’s a sure way to get into the rat race, the corporate climbing that so many philosophy majors scoff at and scorn. Study abroad, learn a new skill, take a road trip, say yes to all that college has to offer. The truth is that if you focus on “surviving college” you may get stuck in the pattern of just trying to survive life. But if you see college as an important life experience, and throw yourself headfirst into its challenges, you’ll learn the truth of that old cliche: it’s about the journey, not the destination.

If you missed out on our College Prize Pack contest, that’s OK because now we’re running an even better contest. Want to buy books full of college tips? In our latest contest you can get whatever books you want for free, if you win our $100 shopping spree. We’re looking of photos that show your school spirit, whether it’s a selfie of you with a mug from your alma mater, an old pic of you at the college basketball game, or a tweet of you holding a can opener that says Old Miss, send them to us to win a $100 shopping spree.

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