College is all about independence—it’ll be up to you to figure out your class schedule, the dining hall, how to handle awkward roommate situations, and how to balance your free time with your academic demands. But try not to stress—planning ahead is the key to successful adulting. You’ve already got a lot of the skills that will help you succeed in college. Get ahead by becoming more independent now so that college life doesn’t come as a shock to you later.
“In college, no one is there to tell you what to do and when to do it. You have more choices, but you also have more responsibilities.”
—Colin, sophomore, University of Iowa, Iowa City
“For me, the biggest transition was becoming more independent. Especially if you go away to school. Even small things like laundry, grocery shopping, getting around, and budgeting can be overwhelming at first.”
—Ryan, junior, St. John’s University, New York
You asked—we answered. Here are a few things you should know to make sure you’re set up for a smooth and successful transition.
“How should we create structure in college? How [can I] get organized and ready for it?”
—Judy, sophomore, Boston, Massachusetts
Make a weekly schedule that includes time for studying, chores like laundry and cleaning (yup, that’s all you, now), extracurricular activities, and relaxation. Try an app like Any.do or use a calendar to stay on track.“[In college] you have the entire course schedule of assignments the first day, so you can plan everything out way ahead of time,” says Brianne, a sophomore at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada.
“Will I be able to find ways to keep my health on track?”
—Victoria, junior, Scottsdale, Arizona
Getting sick and having to miss class can put you behind. Give yourself the best chance of staying healthy by learning how to take charge of your well-being now:
- Wash your hands regularly, especially before eating or touching your face and after using the bathroom
- Use your elbow to cover your coughs and sneezes
- Learn how to make your own doctor and dentist appointments and get regular checkups
- Pick up your own prescriptions
- Indulge in your need for sleep
- Learn how to prepare a few healthy meals and snacks.
“The biggest difference [between high school and college] was the individual responsibility to maintain my own health as well as to go to class and be studious.”
—Mike, sophomore, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Rapid City
Ninety percent of students we surveyed said they’re nervous about the cost of college, according to a recent Student Health 101 poll.
Learning how to handle student loans and budget your spending money can be one of the biggest shocks for college freshmen. To get the hang of budgeting for college, start now—keep track of what you spend compared to how much money you earn. Budgeting apps like Mint or Wally manage your money electronically. When you get to college, make use of the financial aid office—it’s there to help you make sense of it all.
“More responsibilities mean I have to prioritize a lot and learn to manage time and money, or it might affect my studies.”
—Doris, senior, University of Maryland, Baltimore
Lectures, term papers, and exams, oh my! You’re not in high school any more…
“What is the workload difference? How does an individual manage five to six classes with 16 credit hours and not feel overwhelmed?”
—Samantha, recent high school grad, New River, Arizona
“In general, college classes will be more difficult, cover more material, and move at a quicker rate than high school coursework,” says Dr. Kevin Jansen, associate professor of biology at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri. “Some college freshmen have never actually read a textbook and may not have had to spend much time studying to do well in their high school classes.”
Learning how to learn is one of the most important skills you can develop now to ensure your academic success later. “I never had to study before a single class in the [twelfth] grade, so when I got to college, I had to learn how to study,” says Michelle, a student at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina.
How to improve your study skills for college
Read, read, and read some more
Teachers love to assign reading, don’t they? Get used to it—college professors assign even more. Aim to consistently complete the required reading for your current classes to get you in the habit of reading a lot in college courses. Try to squeeze in some outside reading for pleasure too. Studies show that reading well-written works is one of the biggest predictors of writing ability—another skill you’ll need for college. When you finish a chapter for class, try to summarize it in your own words or answer the review questions to make sure you understand what you’ve read. If your choice is between skimming the reading and not doing it at all (we don’t recommend that), take the advice of our academic expert on the best way to skim.
Take notes—with a pen and paper
If you don’t already, start taking notes by hand during class, then review them within the next few days to stay on top of what you’ve learned. Why not use a laptop? Because the word-for-word notes we tend to take when we’re typing can actually work against us. A 2014 study found that laptop note taking may prevent us from processing the information at a deeper level when compared to note taking by hand.
Write it out
Writing in college is more advanced, and more will be expected of you. Practice writing persuasively: Create a thesis statement and provide evidence to support your claims. Don’t be afraid to venture beyond the standard high school writing format—intro, three paragraphs, and conclusion—to explore more advanced writing styles.
“You’ll find occasions where you’ll succeed by summarizing a reading accurately and showing that you understand it,” write Joseph M. Williams and Lawrence McEnerney in their post “Writing in College” for the University of Chicago writing program. “There may be times when you’re invited to use writing to react to a reading, speculate about it. Far more often—like every other week—you will be asked to analyze the reading, to make a worthwhile claim about it that is not obvious (state a thesis means almost the same thing), to support your claim with good reasons, all in four or five pages that are organized to present an argument.”
Get more advice on the crucial differences between high school and college writing from the University of Chicago.
Make flashcards or create your own practice tests. Research shows these two study skills work better than just rereading your notes. Once you feel pretty solid on the material, find a study buddy or organize a study group and quiz each other. Just remember—the coursework may be different, but you’ve got a lot of the skills you need to succeed already. “My work ethic and disciplining myself to complete assignments will help me in the long run, especially in college,” says Lucia, a high school sophomore in Boston, Massachusetts.
And when you get to college…
Meet with instructors
College professors will expect you to be more independent, but they want you to succeed. “Get to know your professors, and meet with them if you need help,” advises Jack, a senior at Hawai’i Pacific University in Honolulu. “Just remember to make an appointment, and don’t wait until you’re in a crunch! If you’re really struggling, be smart and seek out some tutoring early in the semester.”
Show up to class
As Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” When class is no longer mandatory, it’s easy to feel like you can get away with not going. “College has a lot more freedom,” says Zoey, a freshman at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. “You can eat when you feel like it, you can choose if you really want to go to class or not…but the (relative) lack of structure can be hard for people to balance.”
So why should you go? College professors often cover material in class that can’t be found in the readings or homework, and you can bet that that information will be vital for the exam. Paying attention in class can also mean less time studying later. Discussing something in person can help us associate what we’re learning with information we already know—a key factor in memory retention.
Tap into campus resources
Universities have your back with a wide range of resources—from academic advising and tutoring to health services and counseling. Visit the writing center for free proofreading assistance and the library to boost your research skills. (The librarians are like magical unicorns when it comes to helping you do research for papers—use them.) The health center can be a vital resource for most of your medical needs. “The health center saved me a lot of money because I don’t have good insurance coverage,” says a senior at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.
Oh and there’s that thing that makes college one of the best times in your life: the people
“At first, I was a little shy and reluctant to accept invitations to go out with the girls in my dorm,” says Emma, a senior at University of California, Los Angeles, “but as I came out of my shell, I developed friendships that are still going strong today.”
Meeting new people from vastly different backgrounds and cultures is one of the most exciting aspects of college. Sure, you may have some challenges, like a twinge of homesickness, a difficult roommate, or the friend who only wants to party, but these will be the exceptions.
“People are more mature in college, and while there are still some cliques, it’s so much easier [than in high school] to find like-minded friends and you can just be yourself,” says Amanda, a sophomore at University of Arizona in Tucson.
Kevin Jansen, PhD, associate professor of biology at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri.
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MacArthur, C. A., Graham, S., & Fitzgerald, J. (Eds.). (2008). Handbook of writing research. Guilford Press.
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Stephan, J. L. (2015, March). Who will succeed and who will struggle? Predicting early college success with Indiana’s Student Information Center. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/regions/midwest/pdf/REL_2015078.pdf
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Student Health 101 college survey, September 2016.
Student Health 101 high school survey, September 2016.