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Pivoting from Planning FOR College to Planning IN College

Congratulations! All of your efforts were successful! You got into college!

Now you have to figure out how to be successful in college and after…yikes!

While there are many pieces of advice that I have accumulated from my own experience and that of my students, I believe these five are the most important as a starting point.

Have a clear understanding of your degree requirements: You may be able to find this on your department’s website. I always recommend reading any posted information prior to meeting with your advisor. This will allow you to have informed questions and some background heading into the conversation, BUT I would not rely on this alone.

When I was an undergraduate student my department didn’t have specialized advisors but provided an online program that allowed you to plug in different classes and essentially plan out your coursework until graduation. As a type A planner, I was so excited to play around with this and map out my entire life…or so I thought. I skipped into a meeting with my faculty advisor at the end of my sophomore year convinced that I had completed all of my degree requirements. Well, I had completed all of my major requirements BUT had not completed the 120 credit hours for graduation. I was flabbergasted when she congratulated me and said I could fill the remaining ~40 hours with yoga for all it mattered, but I needed to complete those hours. It wasn’t a detrimental setback—I still graduated early—but I can only imagine how bad it could have been.

Make an appointment to meet with advisors EARLY in your first semester, or before if possible. High school and college planning can seem very similar but there are very important differences.

I was admitted to the Honors College of my undergraduate institution but had very little understanding of what that meant or how I should integrate those requirements into my broader plan of coursework. Again, without much guidance, I relied on my high school MO, to take as many highly rigorous courses as possible.

SPOILER ALERT: Between the general adjustment of transition to college, six heavy courses, family issues back home, and my new job, that Honors Psych course that focused on Skinner and Freud on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 8am was a terrible choice and ultimately was not a necessary one at the time for my degree or the Honors College.

Needless to say, this reinforces the importance of meeting with an advisor but it also emphasizes the importance of my next piece of advice.

Set realistic goals for yourself, especially in the first semester. I find that a lot of my students have a hard time with this as well. I promise, you will have plenty of time to increase your course load, take difficult classes, and push yourself. Allow yourself to take that first semester to learn how to manage your time now that you’re on your own, figure out what study strategies are the most effective for you, become savvy navigating the university library system, get comfortable engaging with professors and making new friends, find your favorite cup of coffee on campus… the list goes on!

Focus on setting short term goals in that first semester: showing up to class, doing well on assignments, and seeking help when you need it. A big determinant of achieving these goals is my next piece of advice.

Stay organized: Like everything else, you may have to play around with what works best for you to balance and keep track of all of your assignments, important dates, and commitments. Many students have apps that they like to use. One of my current grad students is “old school” and likes using a paper planner with multicolored pens. Others love Google Calendar for its convenience, color coding features, shareability, and reminders!

Similarly, taking notes and keeping track of your understanding of course material is incredibly important. Again, you will have to find the system that works best for you. Many of my students swear by Quizlet, while I personally have always retained more by writing by hand. However you stay organized and take notes, find a way to keep everything together and organized throughout the semester so that you are prepared and stress free when you have a cumulative exam or final. And for Pete’s sake, ATTEND CLASS!! It will pay off in high dividends, I guarantee it.

Then, once you have a good foundation and feel like you have hit your stride (hopefully by the end of your first semester), you should tackle my final piece of advice.

Make a personal academic four year plan (with the assistance of a counselor). Many classes aren’t offered every semester, so looking ahead and planning based on course offerings, specific professors, and prerequisites can be imperative. This is also a time to consider other potential opportunities to help boost your resume while in college—internships, research opportunities, study abroad, leadership, additional training, jobs—and also, where these will fit into your four year plan. Ask your advisor, of course, but also watch out for emails sent through the university or department because sometimes they will solicit great opportunities. Also, make sure you establish relationships with your professors- pay attention in class, raise your hand, ask questions after lecture- this will make an “ask” later seem more organic.

My first undergraduate research position came by way of a department email asking if students would be interested in participating in a data collection project over the summer for course credit. The following fall, I spoke to three different professors in my department offering to work for them “for free”. All three eagerly accepted. I received course credit for all of my work that semester, then earned a paid research position later in the year, and ultimately, gained invaluable experience that made me stand out in grad school applications.

While making this four year plan, also start thinking about your plans after college. You don’t have to make a decision December of your freshman year, but it’s good to start thinking about what you might have to add to your plan if you decide to apply to graduate/professional school (think standardized testing, application requirements, practicum hours logged, etc.) or on the job market (think skills, experience, networking, etc). Knowing what lies ahead and preparing will not only set you up for success in whatever you hope to do, but will also reduce a lot of stress later.

Finally, college is a special and fleeting experience; don’t forget to enjoy the ride. Planning ahead should help you make the most of your time in college and make room for fun as well.

If you feel like you’re not getting the support you need through your university, please reach out to our team. We are here to help!