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10 Common Mistakes to Avoid as a College Freshman

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

A sugar cone lays on the concrete, the ice cream has fallen out of the cone.

So you’ve finally thrown that cap in the air, picked up that diploma, and celebrated your long-awaited high school graduation. You’re ready for an exciting summer of beach days and drive-in nights.

Maybe you’re going on vacation with family and friends. Or, maybe you’re staying in town to earn that extra buck at a summer job. Either way, you’re spending your last summer before college with an array of thoughts and feelings of being a freshman all over again.

Although starting college is exciting, many college freshmen can find themselves falling into pitfalls. Some of these may not have huge consequences, but others can affect your health, grades, and even future image. 

Here are 10 things to remember when starting your freshman year of college.

1. Manage your credit load.

It’s important for incoming freshmen to remember that each university has a credit minimum and a maximum. The amount of credits you have to take at minimum each semester determines if you are a full-time student or a part-time student.

Understand the differences, especially when it comes to class scheduling. If you’re more comfortable with a flexible schedule, want more time to work while paying for your education, and prefer to pay for your education in small increments, then being a part-time student may be for you.

If you are interested in graduating at what is considered a normal four-year rate, want to pay for your classes in one sum rather than per credit, and prefer to experience student life while living on-campus, then being a full-time student may be the best option.

Being a part-time or full-time student also determines funding for your college education. If you qualify for financial aid, you will most likely qualify for less aid as a part-time student than as a full-time student. A wider variety of university scholarships are typically more available to full-time students.

With this in mind, registering to take just two classes your first semester isn’t the best idea if you want to be considered a full-time student. However, taking too many credits your first semester of college isn’t smart, either.

Remember: college is NOT high school. This means that the course load you will carry in college will likely be much heavier.

Many majors often require you to take three to four 3-credit classes a semester to ensure a timely graduation. Although taking four or five of these classes to add up to 18-20 credits seems like a good idea (logic: “It’s only 4 classes!), these classes will eat up a significant chunk of time.

Many 3-credit classes meet two to three times a week and for 90-180 minutes each class. Don’t forget how much time is needed OUTSIDE of class for projects, homework assignments, and studying.

What can you do to manage your credit load as an incoming freshman? First, familiarize yourself with your school and major’s requirements. Colleges usually provide guidelines that explain how many general education—or core—and major credits students need and what percentage of each need to be upper- and lower-division.

Course and major planning sheets can help you plan your schedule not only for your first semester but also for your entire college career. If you have any questions about specific classes to take, speak with your academic advisor to see what your best fit would be for your first semester. 

You should also plan to schedule your classes early. Don’t put off signing up for a required course you need until later in your college career. Required courses are the same for everyone, so those spots fill up fast. 

Think of each credit you take as an investment. In thought…it is an investment of your time and money!  

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2. Skip the takeout and explore dining hall food.

When speaking to a friend over the phone, I was fascinated to hear descriptions of the best places to eat sushi around her campus. However, her comment at the end of the phone call was enough to make my heart stop: she had spent over $400 in takeout in her fall semester. $400?? That’s a semester’s worth of textbooks, a new iPhone, or three months of my car payment.

Exploring local restaurants is fun and a great way to socialize. Although that $15 dollar expense for your meal may not seem like much, it adds up when you get takeout three times a week.

Many universities offer a variety of dining hall options, which typically offer meals to students on a meal plan. Best of all: these meals may be covered in your room-and-board fees! 

3. Know your way around campus.

Coming from a small town where the nearest train station was 40 minutes away, it was hard for me to adjust to a new and busy environment. Knowing your way around campus is important as an incoming freshman.

Most of the time, you only have two to three days after moving in to learn your way around campus before classes start. Once classes begin, it’s more difficult to explore your campus and what it has to offer. 

If you plan on taking the bus on campus, learn the bus schedule. Do some research on the name of each bus stop and where it’s located. Know how much time you need to walk to the stops from your buildings! Give yourself enough time to walk to your stop with an extra 2-3 minutes for anything unpredictable. 

There are many apps, such as TransLoc, that help you see when your bus will arrive in live time. If your college isn’t offered in this app, a bus schedule may be available on your university’s website.

Knowing your way around campus doesn’t just mean knowing how to get from one place to another. It also means being aware of where university services are located.

Do you like to work out? Most universities offer an on-campus gym or recreation center. Locating it before your classes start will give you the opportunity to incorporate it in your schedule. Tired of eating at the same dining hall that is nearest to your dorm? Explore more dining options by researching other locations that accept meal plans on campus!

Also, you should know where important facilities are located, such as your university’s police department and health center. Hopefully, you won’t frequent these places during your time on campus, but they are important to locate in advance should emergencies arise.

Finally, locate facilities you would normally have access to in your own home. Does your dorm have a communal kitchen? Locate it to cook a healthy homemade meal on the weekends or when the dining hall is closed. Is there a laundry room nearby? Make sure you know how to use the laundry room and where it is. 

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4. Do NOT procrastinate.

Procrastination is a problem for most college students. Whatever the reason for putting things off, it tends to create more stress in our lives. So, what can be done to overcome the tendencies to procrastinate?

The first step is to become aware of your procrastination, which can motivate you to make a change in your routine. Finding a solution is difficult if the root of the problem is not understood. Knowing the true reasons for procrastinating makes it easier to control.

Your motivation is strongly influenced by what you think is important compared to what you think can be accomplished. Many times, feeling micromanaged by professors and other “higher” figures in your life that determine what is important can be demotivating.

Give yourself long term goals and short term goals that are important to YOU. Personally, I didn’t find my motivation to study until I decided to become a part of my college’s ROTC program, even though I had parents and teachers my entire academic life giving me reasons why being academically successful is important. Finding your spark is key.

Another key to overcoming procrastination is to stay actively engaged. Students who are active learners in the classroom engage in learning through reading, writing, listening, and reflecting. By staying engaged, you have the awareness to know if you are falling behind. Procrastination leads to disengagement, and disengagement leads to procrastination. They feed into each other into an unbreakable cycle.

Hold yourself accountable for what you need to accomplish. By doing this in your first semester of college, you can form effective habits for the rest of your college career.

5. Don’t expect to be friends with everyone.

Point of view: You opt for a random roommate assignment. You both meet on move-in day, thrilled for a school year of early morning class rants and evening outings.

As the week progresses, you realize you haven’t become instant best friends. Not being friends with the very first person you meet in college may be discouraging, but don’t let it get you down – this is not a prognosis of your future social life!

Your university has MANY students with so many opportunities to meet people on campus, from clubs to sports to Greek life. Surround yourself with friends who are healthy for you. Befriend those who are on the same page as you with your academic, physical and emotional goals. Opt for the friends who decide to stay in and play Mario Kart rather than the friend group who go to a big party when you’ve made it clear you don’t like to drink.

Do not become a victim to peer pressure; it can be detrimental not only to your college and professional career but also to your physical and mental health.

Not going out at all can just as detrimental as going out with the wrong crowd. If you’re so focused on doing well in your classes, you may realize halfway through the semester that you’ve barely left your dorm!

While college is definitely a time for students to increase their knowledge and understanding of their world and gain new skills, social interaction is a crucial part of the college experience. Students who focus solely on academics can miss out on creating meaningful relationships and are prone to feelings of loneliness along with a decrease in mental health. 

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6. Take care of yourself.

Neglecting your body’s needs will decrease your productivity and cause you to perform poorly as a student. Being aware of common pitfalls in maintaining your health along with setting up healthy habits for yourself from day one will help you succeed in your college career. 

You’ve probably heard of the term “Freshman 15,” which is the fifteen pounds that many incoming freshmen tend to gain during their first year. While many college students don’t always gain exactly 15 pounds their freshman year, the tendency to gain weight is significant enough to earn its notorious title.

There are many reasons why this occurs. First, you have newly gained independence. When you lived with your parents in high school, the details of what, when and how much you eat are mostly planned out for you.

When you start college (particularly those with meal plans),  you’ll have unlimited choices on what to eat with the option of going back for seconds as many times as you want!

While some colleges offer communal kitchens in their dormitories, others do not. This can make it hard to replicate at-home cooking, which tends to be healthier. This can make a diet of fast food, chips, sodas, and pizza at 3 a.m. common and routine. Maintain a healthy routine and give your body what it needs.

Not getting enough sleep is also a common problem for college students. Between attending long lectures every day, going to soccer practice, and attending parties at the sorority you’re considering joining, you’re sacrificing valuable sleep every time you stay up late just to fit in some study time.

Not getting enough sleep has more consequences than just feeling tired throughout your days. It can lead to lower GPAs, worsened mood, higher risk of dropped classes, poor overall health (which includes weight gain, weight loss and compromised immune system), decreased mental health, and even a higher risk of car-related or work-related accidents.

What can you do to make sure your days start by feeling well rested? The first step is setting up a strict bedtime and a strict rise time. By forcing yourself to go to sleep and wake up at a certain hour, you can ensure that you’re getting enough sleep each night.

If you’re too busy to get a full night’s rest, learn to embrace naps. There is no shame in taking a 30-60 minute nap between classes to feel refreshed enough to finish your day. However, exercise self control. You don’t want to skip that biology class just because you took a four hour nap.

It is also important to learn your limits. Saying “no” is a crucial skill every college student should learn. Have fun, but make sure you are not compromising yourself as a student. While it can be tempting to say yes to every new social opportunity, remember that you have at least four years to devote to your college experience.

Self care can take many forms, but most importantly, you need to make time for it. Try scheduling your days and enforcing a routine that includes time for self care. Include basic necessities, like eating three meals a day, a time to shower, a strict bedtime and a strict wake up time. It will seem hard at first to follow, but your body will thank you.

Be sure to use your university’s health resources as well. Many colleges have recreation centers and gyms where you can find all types of exercise outlets. Universities may offer group sessions for different physical activities, such as the sessions at Rutgers University where people can cycle together every Thursday.

Therapy and counseling options are often available within your university’s tuition. If you need someone to talk to when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed and want confidential assistance, contact your university’s counseling services to get in touch with someone.

Remember that mental health is JUST as important as physical health. Set up at least one time a day where you mentally cool down.

Personally, I set up 15 minute intervals between long and exhausting activities and title them “Mental Breaks.” After, let’s say a 2 hour study session, I’ll take my Mental Break. In this time, I completely disconnect. I turn off my devices, set a timer, and do absolutely nothing for 15 minutes.

When scheduling your mental break, don’t try to complete another activity during that time. Your mental break is your time to recuperate. Checking off something on your list, even if it has nothing to do with your work, defeats the purpose of a mental break.

Although we are now considered young adults, we are still growing both physically and mentally. We need to help our bodies through that growth. 

7. Watch what you post on social media.

Today, it’s easier and more convenient than ever to access and provide information along with communicating with others. Students can stay connected with each other on social media and can make good use of these platforms for the benefit of their learning.

However, social media isn’t without its downfalls. Anything that reflects poorly on you, your school, a student organization you’re involved in, or your athletic team is something that should not be published online. Did you know that 1 in 3 people regret something they’ve posted online? Maybe you even have regrets of something you’ve posted before.

Make sure you understand exactly what certain privacy settings hide and be smart about not sharing photos of reckless behavior.

Here are some more tips to make sure you keep your identity and reputation safe online. 

  • Hold your content to high standards and post as if it were to be posted on the front page of the New York Times. 
  • If you’re pondering whether something is appropriate to post, ask yourself: Would I say this in person to a large group of people? If your answer even has the slightest bit of doubt, do not post it. 
  • Do not assume people online are looking out for your digital privacy. Stay mindful when posting content that might leak some of your personal information. Most recently, I’ve seen this with COVID-19 vaccination cards; people are posting their full name and birth date for everyone to see online!
  • Maintain only one digital identity. As a rule of thumb, it’s recommended that you own only one account for each social media platform (Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, etc), unless you own a second account for a business or organization. 
  • Never criticize the ones close to you online, including your peers and teachers. If you have an issue with someone, address it as quickly as possible in person.
  • Follow the three second rule: if you have to think about whether something is appropriate to post for more than three seconds, it’s not.  
  • A picture is worth a thousand words. Human Resource professionals often reject job applicants for unsuitable pictures posted online. Don’t let your dream job get away because of a potentially regrettable picture.
  • Be genuine, there is only one you!
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8. Avoid paying fines.

Dorm fees, parking tickets, you name it – colleges have tons of fines students have to pay if they don’t comply with university protocol. College tuition is already so expensive, and these fines can add up quickly.

Dorm damage fees can add up to over $1000 with the potential damage caused. Skip the wall adhesives as many popular room decorations, such as LED lights, have adhesives that can tear off dormitory paint. The paint chips can be at an expense to you, with $30-$200 in fines depending on the level of damage. Want to hang up some picture frames? Opt for removable wall hooks, not push pins.

Look out for parking fees as well. Universities often require a yearly fee for your car to be parked on campus. Not paying this fee can subject your car to parking tickets, which can be around $60-$80.

Make sure you are paying all of your semester fees on time. Be aware of term bill and housing bill deadlines, and note any additional student fees you need to pay for (ex: technology fees). If not paid on time, colleges can issue a $100-$300 late fee in addition to your tuition.

If you’re worried about being able to fully pay the term bill, plan ahead! Many colleges offer no-interest payment plans where you can pay tuition and room-and-board fees monthly rather than all at once. If this doesn’t help and you don’t want to take out a loan, consider switching to studying as a part-time student.

By paying attention to things like these, you can avoid paying unnecessary expenses.

9. Ask for help.

There is absolutely no shame in asking for help. In fact, it is strongly encouraged.

If you can’t find answers on your school’s website, you can try searching online for answers to questions like:

  • How late/early do the buses run?
  • Which dorms are the best?
  • Which dining hall meals should I avoid? Which ones are the best?

Don’t be afraid to reach out to students online or in-person. This will help make your adjustment into university easier and can even result in new friends. 

If you are struggling in class, the worst thing you can do is keep quiet. You’ll fall further and further behind. If you identify that you are struggling early on, communicate with your professors and academic advisor. Many times, they’ll offer extra help and tutoring options you wouldn’t have normally discovered to get back on track. 

If you are struggling mentally, speak to a trusted peer or contact your university’s counseling services. Talking out what overwhelms you can help you strengthen your mental health and productivity and become a more successful student. 

10. Stay (COVID) safe!

The pandemic drastically changed the way we live everyday life. When starting college, be aware of basic details both about the pandemic and also how your university is handling it.

Ask open-ended questions and be ready to listen and understand. Keep an open mind; never assume anything. It is important to be on the same page about certain precautions you can take with the people you plan to see in person this fall, especially if you are sharing a living space.

While your personal boundaries seem reasonable, others may have more strict boundaries they follow. Remember to be considerate as the pandemic has affected everyone’s lives and mindsets. 

Be aware of any on-campus COVID-19 precautions, whether that means weekly COVID tests, mask policies, or guest visitation policies. Regardless of how you have been managing during the pandemic, be compliant with university policies.

Many colleges are now requiring ALL students to receive full vaccinations prior to the start of the 2021-2022 school year. Universities such as Yale University, Johns Hopkins University, and Rutgers University have made the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for all students starting or continuing at the university.

 

In conclusion, incoming freshmen have much to consider when starting their college journey. From fines and budgeting to personal health and current events that have forever changed life as we know it, starting college is hard work. However, rest assured that your chosen university accepted you knowing you have the strength to overcome and persevere successfully. 

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