Advice for new college students

Here’s a few things that I think would have made my undergraduate career more successful:

  • Consider waiting until after your first semester to declare a major. I started my first semester majoring in Computer Science and never really considered majoring in something else until I was a sophomore. My friends and I were proud that we knew what we wanted to do. Actually, it’s better at this stage to keep your options open. For every degree there are related degrees. The related degrees may have a better department, with more professors, more money, and more research opportunities. Math or Physics would probably have been better choices for me.

    If you’re undeclared, you will have an advisor who’s job is partly to help you pick what to major in. You also may get useful advice from teachers in what to major in when you talk to them after class.

  • Get to know your professors, not just in your the field you’re majoring in, but in one or two others. You may find, after you graduate, that you want to go to grad school or work in the field you have a minor in. It will be a lot easier if you have several references from the new field. In my case, I got a job working on a fascinating project that would greatly benefit from both programming and mathematical expertise. I decided to pursue a graduate degree in Mathematics. I’m applying for admissions right now, and wish that I had built stronger relationships with the faculty in my school’s Mathematics department.

    The learning itself is also a good reason to get to know people in another department. Organizations everywhere want people who are good in multiple disciplines. For example, anyone with a science degree should have a good mathematical background, and that comes partly from getting to know your professors and excelling in courses in the Math Department.

  • Don’t skip classes just because you’ve already taken them at a community college or high school. To me it seemed obvious. Since I’d taken Calculus I and II at the community college, I was ready to take Calculus III. I heard of some other students that were taking Calc I even though they took two semesters of AP calculus. I asked a guy why and he said that he didn’t think he was ready for it. I foolishly assumed that his class must have been a joke and was glad I took it from a fairly good teacher. Only later did it sink in that it may have been a good idea to start with Calc I. First of all, I could have got sorely needed A’s in my first two semesters. Secondly, I would have had more time to build relationships with Math professors. Finally, I would have been less stressed and had more free time for academic exploring during my freshman year.
  • Keep your scholarship. “I can do anything I put my mind to.” It’s good to think this, but only to a certain extent. Confidence is good, but so is rational thought. If you got two A’s, one B, and three C’s your first semester, and need to have a 3.5 GPA by the end of your second semester in order to keep your scholarship or tuition waiver, don’t do it simply by trying to work harder. Do it by taking a lighter load and/or easier courses. If you’re a science major, take business courses, if you must. I made the mistake of taking what the advisor recommended for completing the degree in the shortest time possible, and lost my tuition wavier. For the next several years I worked, and the distraction brought down the quality of my education considerably. I also ended up with a mediocre GPA of 3.01.
  • Have study buddies. I’m not the person to give advice on social skills, but I have seen how important they are. Seek advice on this matter. I’ll be doing the same. I am trying to put into practice the advice in the book Never Eat Alone, which has a lot of interesting suggestions.
  • Go to the library. Chances are, the university library has fewer distractions than your dorm or apartment. So if you’re having a hard time concentrating, go there. Also, browse the bookshelfs in any subject area that interests you. Even if you’re looking for books on Computer Science and most of the books are old, there are sure to be things you haven’t learned yet, even if the examples are in archaic programming languages.
  • Exercise frequently and maintain a balanced diet. One big danger for college students is turning into insomniacs. Sure, you will probably have to pull the occassional all-nighter. But don’t let that become a habit. Frequent exercise and a healthy diet will help you to balance out your sleep schedule. It will also help you to avoid sickness, and to concentrate on your classes.
  • Learn to ask for help. Don’t wait to ask for help until you’re deparate. Ask for help from your teacher if there’s something you don’t understand. Ask for help from your advisor if you’re worried about your grades. Ask for help or advice from parents or other relatives if you see financial troubles on the horizon. Don’t wait until you’re desparate to ask for help. If you do, you will make it harder on yourself and on those who care about you.

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