You’ve done all the work – applications, endless essays, time-consuming testing – and now you’re finished! You’ve heard back from your prospective colleges, received many excellent offers of admission, and made your final decision. However, the journey to college isn’t completely over. Sure, you’re “in,” but before you head to campus this fall, take some time to consider what makes for a successful first year and beyond at your new home for the next four years.
Professor Richard Light, Ph.D., of Harvard has spent the last two decades studying what comprises a successful college experience – and it’s more than getting good grades! College, he tells students, will be much different than you expected: you’ll experience the joys of developing lifelong friendships and taking engaging courses in subjects you choose. You may also experience moments of loneliness and frustration as you adjust to a new life far away from home where you’re responsible for organizing every minute of your day. With this range of experience in mind, Professor Light, through his articles and presentations on the subject, provides insight and tips about how you can make your college experience a successful one. You’ll find our summary of his findings below along with some advice to maximize the potential of these recommendations.
As a new undergrad, you’ll want to get to know your professors (Light recommends getting acquainted with at least one per semester). But unlike high school, where you saw your teachers daily and perhaps even interacted with them in after-school clubs or athletics, you won’t find your college instructors as accessible. Yes, professors are required to hold office hours when you have opportunities to meet with them outside of class. Take advantage of these times to ask questions about the course and inquire about other ways you can dig deeper into the work. Some universities offer students and faculty ways of meeting beyond scheduled office hours in a more relaxed environment. Some schools offer special first-year courses allowing freshmen to immerse themselves in their new environment in a small-classroom setting – another great way to meet a professor or two! Take advantage of these opportunities to help you make meaningful connections.
While it’s nice to be surrounded by people like you, that’s not the reason you’re going to college, is it? Professor Light advises undergraduate students to explore new interests and connect with others from diverse backgrounds. There are a number of ways to spread your wings. Be sure to sign up each term for a class outside of your major– haven’t taken any art classes since your first year of high school? See if you can add one to next semester’s schedule. You can also pursue new interests in college through clubs and other extracurricular activities. Have you dreamed of playing in the marching band? Maybe you haven’t picked up a tennis racket since middle school. While you’re certainly welcome to continue an activity that you were heavily involved in throughout high school, college gives you the chance to try something new. Of course, you’ll also be exposed to new thoughts and perspectives through classroom discussions and late-night conversations in the dorm.
One important aspect of college life cited by Light that’s noticeably different from your high school years is the level of responsibility and independence you’ll experience from move-in day onward. No one will nag you to finish your homework; no one will remind you to wake up for your first class of the day. A critical step in successfully adapting to so much freedom will be developing time-management skills, such as keeping an agenda (digital or manual) to help you organize your educational and extracurricular life. While you’ll want to leave time in your academic schedule for interesting electives, you’ll also be responsible for fulfilling your major requirements in order to graduate in a timely manner – so, choose your courses wisely and be sure to meet with your academic advisor/s who will also provide guidance about keeping on track. Also, seek out real-world opportunities that enrich your education. You’re responsible for finding out about and applying for programs like internships, study abroad, and research that will enhance your classroom curriculum. All colleges offer an abundance of experiential learning experiences like these – and it’s up to you to find the right ones! The “buffet” of experiences that colleges prepare has been created for you! It’s all about you, so take advantage.
You’ve had a successful high school career, and now it’s time to make the next four years some of the best of your life! It’s a rare and singular time. College life will provide you with many unique ways to grow, and with a little reflection and preparation, you’ll make that time meaningful and successful.
Interested in learning more about Professor Light’s work? Follow the links below to read further.
- Understanding the first year: https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/14/06/first-look-first-years
Enhancing the college application experience through reflection and some tips for the first year: https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/16/11/apply-yourself
Professor Light’s 2015 New York Times article “How to Live Wisely”: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/education/edlife/how-to-live-wisely.html?_r=0