My freshman year checklist

academic advice adjusting to college
By Nathan

Ah, the first year of college. It’s a time many of us look back on with nostalgia, a time to which we crave to return. But in the moment? It’s terrifying!

Suddenly, your whole life is uprooted. New people surround you, expectations and social norms differ, and you’re expected to do this confusing new thing called “adulting.” And somehow everyone around you seems to know what they’re doing (spoiler alert: they don’t). If only there were some checklist to follow, some map to help guide the way.

Well, dear reader, fret not, for I have just the checklist for you. Is it comprehensive? No. Will it help with those feelings of homesickness? Probably not. Will it help you to make sure you carpe each diem, setting yourself up for success once your college “land legs” finally arrive? I certainly hope so!

And so, without further ado, I present to you: 20 things to do during your freshman year to set you up for success!

1. Have a meal with people you don’t know

Those first few months of college are a unique time in which friend groups are fickle, the slates are clean, and everyone is actively searching for a place to belong and for people to befriend. Seize the opportunity! Interact with those in your classes and those outside – asking to join a table for a meal is a great way to meet people outside your major.

2. Spend a couple hours scrolling through your university’s website

If I had a nickel for every time a senior said “if only I’d known about that my freshman year.” Universities have SO many resources that go underutilized by their students – resources that you’re paying for! So take some time to familiarize yourself with your university’s offerings, which can range between everything from free meals in the dining hall if you’re joined by a faculty member (Duke University) to free massages in the wellness center (University of Cincinnati)! 

3. Join a ton of clubs… then quit most of them

Most universities have some sort of “club fair” to welcome new first-year students, where you are inundated by sometimes hundreds of organizations to join. The common dilemma, then, is how to choose the clubs you want to sign up for. Well, why should you choose? For now, just focus on signing up for whatever you’re interested in – once you have a chance to go to a meeting/event or two you’ll know if the club’s one you want to continue with! And don’t pressure yourself into choosing the clubs you thought you’d enjoy; oftentimes, it’s the people far more than the group’s topic that will make your experience!!

Use your club fair as an opportunity to try something new! College is a time for exploration – and student organizations are a great way to try something you’ve never had the chance to before! Push yourself a little outside your comfort zone; you never know what you just might fall in love with (speaking from experience).

4. Remember why you’re here

College is one of the best times of your life, but make no mistake: your coursework should always be a priority. Without sacrificing your health or well-being, make sure that you don’t get so caught up in the fun parts of college that you miss an exam or find yourself put on academic probation! It’s far easier to maintain your goal GPA than it is to try to recreate it after a few rough semesters. And for a lot of the careers y’all are interested in, GPA can matter, so make sure to reap the rewards of the effort you’re devoting to four years of college by keeping your GPA competitive!

5. Let your hair down!

I know, I know, this checklist is all over the place. First I tell you to focus on schoolwork, then I immediately tell you to let your hair down. But remember that whole “not sacrificing your health or well-being” part of checklist item #4! Taking some time away from your academics to just enjoy your college experience is absolutely crucial, both for your mental health, your social relationships (hey, think of it as networking!), and, honestly, even your ability to succeed in courses. So make sure to take some time to enjoy the ride – college can be a whole lot of fun.

6. Practice gratitude

That moment? When you first step foot onto campus, and realize that this place is yours for the next ~4 years of your life? Remember that. Remember how much you wanted to get that acceptance letter in the mail. Remember how attending the campus you’re standing on right now felt like a dream just a year ago. Research in positive psychology tells us just how impactful practicing gratitude can be on our mental health. Even during the tough moments, remember: your life is someone else’s dream right now.

7. Start thinking about potential roommates early

Back to boring logistics – but this one’s important! Often, apartments and sophomore housing are allocated early in your first year of college – blink and you just might miss it! It’s much better to be proactive about identifying potential housing/roommates early than it is to try to figure things out when people have already paired up and most leases are already signed!

8. Stay back after class/go to office hours

No checklist would be complete without this classic advice. Talk to your professors! You’ll learn a lot from them, be able to ask them for recommendation letters later, and, above all else, they’re generally a lot of fun to talk to!

9. Explore your university’s career center

Your university likely has a career center or a general office that can advise about life after college -- take advantage of their services! Before you get too deep into your coursework, it’s important to confirm that this is truly the career path that you want to go down, and these offices will be able to provide the shadowing opportunities, career panels, networking events, etc. that can help you do just that!

10. Fulfill some major requirements

Relatedly, try to take a couple major-specific courses during your first few semesters in college. Check them out, and make sure you like the content you’re studying. It’s important to enjoy the journey and not just the destination – make sure you can imagine yourself studying this stuff for four years and, potentially, a lifetime!

11. Try new things

Rarely will you find a place with as many diverse experiences, perspectives, and people as you’ll find on a university campus. Seize the opportunity to engage with and learn from them! Whether you’re attending your first Shabbat dinner, learning more about Ramadan, or befriending that non-traditional student with a wife and kids, there are so many opportunities to expand your horizons. Take advantage of them!

12. Become Gordon Ramsay

If you don’t know how to cook, now’s the time to learn! You’ll save a ton of money by getting off that meal plan ASAP – make sure that you’re able to nibble on something more complex than raw carrots! And if you have trouble affording healthy foods to eat, don’t survive on cup noodles alone! Ask for help from your university – many have food pantries and staff that can help you apply for federal benefits programs to help make ends meet!

13. Find hobbies that sustain you

Being “a college student” shouldn’t constitute your entire identity. It’s important to continue the passtimes you enjoy, whether that be DJing or gardening. Ideally, see if you can find ways to engage in your hobbies with the broader community outside of your college campus. Like yoga? Join a local yoga studio! Prefer to read? Join your local library’s book club! Find some activities that fulfill you and which (ideally) take you off campus – it’s good to have some respite from “college living” every now and then!

14. Pay attention to what you’re passionate about

As you’re going through your college years, take note of those moments in which time seems to slip away, when hours pass in the blink of an eye. What were you doing? Identify the activities you get lost in and the causes you can’t stop talking about – are there ways you can integrate these passions into your career path?

15. Take care of yourself

It’s cliché, but the old adage rings especially true during college: “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” Not only do you need to be mentally and spiritually fulfilled to perform at your best, but don’t forget about your physical health too! Frequently, college students push their health to the backburner, but it’s crucial to begin practicing the self-care you should demonstrate throughout your life. Go to the dentist! Get that yearly physical! In college, you’ll be establishing the “adulting” habits that can stay with you for life - set yourself up for success!

16. Journal

Believe it or not, your college years will be over in the blink of an eye. Not only can journaling be incredibly helpful for your mental wellness and preserve memories you’ll want to reflect back on for a lifetime, but it also can serve a practical purpose too! Writing down your college experiences can be incredibly helpful when you prepare for job interviews or professional/graduate school applications. You think you’ll remember that impactful service trip second week of freshman year, but you’ll be surprised at how fickle memory can really be!

17. Keep in touch with family

If you have a good relationship with your family, it’s important to schedule time to stay connected with them. Not only will it help you stay grounded, but knowing what you’re up to can be the absolute highlight of their day! It can be hard to find time to call, but remember how impactful those calls can be to the people you love!

18. Be uniquely you

Students frequently report a pressure to “conform” to their conception of what they consider the ideal student/applicant/job applicant. But it’s that precise act – conforming – that turns people off! Interviewers want to talk to people who are interesting, who aren’t average, people who break the mold and think differently. They want to meet people who engage with things that they are truly passionate about (see #14), not just what they think will look good on an application. Whether you’re being true to yourself shines through far more than you know – let people know who you really are. 

19. Send a cold email

Youtuber Ali Abdaal lists sending them as his #1 tip to become a millionaire by 30. TED talks espouse their utility. Can they be awkward, or hard to write? Yes. Should you still challenge yourself to write at least one your first year in college? Absolutely. Reach out to someone you admire, a dream employer, or someone you’d just love to talk to, entirely unsolicited. You may not hear back, but if you do, you might just be amazed at the doors a cold email can open.

20. Don’t go it alone!

Here’s a secret: you’re not supposed to know what you’re doing in college! So don’t hesitate to reach out to others who have gone through similar experiences to those you face now, whether they be peers, staff advisors, or even your friendly neighborhood Cambridge Coaching tutors.

College has its ups and downs. There will be moments you feel on top of the world, and moments when you just want to rewind back to when you were a toddler with no cares in the world. But this is your time, your moment to figure out who you are, what you enjoy, and what’s most important to you. So go exploring! You never know what you just might learn about yourself.

Nathan graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a BS and MS in Molecular and Cellular Biology and minors in Bioethics and Music. Selected for a 2023 Marshall Scholarship, he will be studying for a DPhil in Paediatrics at Oxford through 2026 (researching tuberculosis diagnostics), after which he will attend Harvard Medical School to pursue his MD.

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