The American college experience has often been likened to drinking from a fire hydrant: There’s so much going on and so many new people to meet that it’s more than a little overwhelming. Ambitious freshmen tend to sign up for a full slate of extracurricular activities and the toughest classes on campus. Sleep becomes a distant dream, exercise all but forgotten. By their second semester, some students are zombies—showing up to class in pajamas, clutching cups of coffee, hoping only that the professor doesn’t take offense at nonstop yawning.
But college doesn’t have to be this way, of course. A little preparation in the summer before school and soon after your arrival on campus can set you on the path to success.
Before you start college:
1. Establish routines. It’s a truism that your brain works best when your body is well rested. However, getting adequate sleep can be a challenge, particularly freshman year. College is such a novel experience—there’s so much freedom, but also more responsibility—that you can find yourself awake at night and asleep during the day. At times, you may skip multiple meals only to binge at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Exercise, too, may become sporadic.
To avoid these pitfalls, try to establish a routine for sleeping, eating, and exercising in the weeks before you get to college. Then once you arrive, stick to it. By doing so, you may avoid getting run down or sick midway through the semester—the snare of many a freshman.
2. Read, read, read. College success is contingent on the ability to read and write well. The best writers tend to be voracious readers who soak up ideas, vocabulary, and different ways of structuring an argument or narrative. So try to get your hands on the classics you missed in high school English, as well as leading newspapers and magazines to bring you up to speed on global politics, current events, and culture.
As you’re reading, it helps to highlight important passages, make notes in the margins, and look up things you don’t know or understand. By interacting with the material, you will retain it better. Your notes will also help you later to review it more quickly. These are vital skills in college, where you may be expected to go over hundreds, or even thousands, of pages of text before an exam.
3. Learn how to cite sources. Plagiarists beware. Once you get to college, the standard for research papers goes up dramatically. Students are expected to carefully reference sources in footnotes and bibliographies, and to follow standard style guides like those of the MLA (Modern Language Association), APA (American Psychological Association), and Chicago, as required by each professor. If you Google these manuals online, you can start to familiarize yourself with them. You might also want to explore software programs like EndNote—which some colleges provide to students for free—that effortlessly store and format bibliographic information for you.
But more important than getting every colon or comma right is making sure you carefully credit all source material. Plagiarism, of course, is a serious offense. Not only is it cheating, but you can be expelled if caught. Colleges have gotten quite savvy at catching plagiarists and often use special software to help detect copied material. Some schools even have databases now where they store past student work so future generations can’t recycle it.
4. Research which courses to take. If you know any upperclassmen or recent graduates of the college you’ll be attending, ask them for advice. Many schools have publicly available course evaluations posted online by students. You can also E-mail professors before the start of the semester to ask about their class and request a copy of the syllabus. Though some faculty members may decline to provide one in advance, it doesn’t hurt to ask. If you get the syllabus early, you can get a sense of the course workload—and maybe even get a head start on the reading.
In your first semester:
1. Take a variety of courses. College is more manageable if you sign up for a variety of classes that demand different levels of work. For example, if you enroll in four reading-intensive classes in one semester, you may soon find yourself swamped by the nightly assignments. But there’s another very good reason to take a variety of courses: You might discover you’re passionate about a field you didn’t even know existed. What you decide to major in, and even what career you pursue, could be shaped by a single course or professor.
2. Speak up in class. No professor enjoys standing in front of a class and asking questions only to be greeted with silence. Speaking up is your way of showing that you’re engaged, that you’ve done the reading, that you’re genuinely wrestling with difficult concepts—and that you want to further your own understanding. Show your interest, and seek clarity when confused.
3. Leave electronic devices behind. Given the ubiquity of iPhones, iPads, and laptops, this might seem all but impossible. But recent research suggests that students learn more and get better grades when not distracted by electronic devices in class. And while many students may find typing notes on a laptop more efficient than taking them by hand, it’s also true that most find it difficult to resist checking E-mail—or Facebook, or YouTube, or Twitter—at the same time. In fact, a growing number of schools are making it possible for professors to turn off the wireless signal in their classrooms to minimize disruptions.
4. Learn to manage your time. This is spectacularly obvious and yet very difficult for most students to learn. To keep up with your assignments, you need to be disciplined. If you wait until the night before a major exam to start studying—or the day before a 15-page paper is due to start writing—of course your performance will suffer. One strategy is to break big projects down into manageable bits that you can complete one day at a time. Try writing a page or two a day over the course of a week instead of dashing off 15 pages in a single sitting.
In general, turning in assignments late is a big no-no. If you know well ahead of time you can’t make a deadline, speak to your professor. Many will be flexible and understanding if you can make a compelling case—but honesty matters. In addition, don’t expect to get an extension if you routinely cut classes or seem unengaged when you do bother to show up.
At the end of the day, college is supposed to help you expand your knowledge and prepare for life. So, it is only to your benefit to take your classes seriously. Rare is the undergrad who scores really well on exams without consistent study. Similarly, the strongest essays tend to evolve over time, as students work through multiple drafts. If you are one of those who can’t stomach the idea of revising your work, take heart from Ernest Hemingway.
When asked what led him to rewrite the final page of A Farewell to Arms an astounding 39 times, Hemingway said what had stumped him was “Getting the words right.” Like a successful college career, there’s no shortcut to that.
A version of this story appeared in the 2012 “Best Colleges” guide published by U.S. News & World Report on September 15, 2011.