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College Advice from an Upperclassman to an Underclassman

Although the first two years of college went by in a flash, I honestly believe that I have learned more and changed more in these past two years than any other period of my life. Although parts of college are incredibly fun and rewarding, like everything, there can be road blocks and major challenges. From someone in the second half of the journey, here are some tips to help you along your way.

You may be best friends with your dorm floor. Great! You may not — and that’s also totally okay.

I went into college with a mindset of the completely stereotypical experience — I would move in, meet everyone on my floor and we would automatically become best friends within the week. Needless to say, this was not something that happened to me. My floor was very heavy on out-of-state students involved in Greek life, so they all automatically flocked to their respective fraternities and sororities. The number of people I still talk to from my dorm floor is roughly two! Being from the Midwest and choosing not to be in Greek life, I did not become particularly close with any of them. In the long run, I had no trouble at all making friends — it was just in different places. I met people through classes, met people when I went out, met people through other people and so on. Naturally, it took a few months to feel fully settled, but it was well worth it in the end when I had made friends that I knew were for me. 

Don’t sweat the first exams.

There is absolutely no way you would know all the correct study methods for an exam — you’ve never taken one before! There is a first time for everything, including college exams. For this reason, it’s important not to get too bent out of shape if your first round of exams don’t turn out exactly how you’d hoped. Treat it as a practice run — since you’re more familiar with the content covered and the structure of the exam, it’s likely that you will improve on the next one. This is also a great time to go to your professor or TA’s office hours if you have any specific questions — sometimes they’ll even go over the exam with you and let you know where you slipped up and what you can do to improve on the next round.

With that, don’t sweat your grades, especially your first semester.

At my orientation, I had an advisor tell me that the adjustment to college is basically a three-credit course in itself. I couldn’t agree more — those first 15 weeks are a lot. Not only are you taking challenging college courses for the first time, you’re doing it all while living away from home in a new city with little to no people that you knew before and you’re trying to make new friends. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and displaced at times. Everyone is experiencing a huge onslaught of new things at once, and it’s completely normal to feel out of your element every so often. Give yourself a break, and know that everyone else in their first semester feels the exact same way, even if they don’t show it. As long as you are passing and comfortable with the material in your classes, that’s all you can ask for.

If you’re curious about something in the slightest, try it.

This is exactly what happened to me while beginning sorority recruitment. I had been fascinated by the idea, so I signed up for rush at the beginning of my freshman year and began the process. However, I learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t for me — but I would have been left wondering what it was like if I hadn’t given it a try! Firsthand experience is the only way to know something is or isn’t for you. Many decisions are very personal to you and only you, so it’s very important to get an insider’s view to decide if something — whether it’s a club, Greek life, an activity or a job — is the right fit for you.

Apply for things and take chances, even if you feel “underqualified.”

I cannot stress this one enough. Many times, taking a leap of faith — even if you don’t feel totally comfortable — is something that will lead you to even more opportunities in the long-run. Applying to a job or internship is always a good idea, even if you don’t feel that you fit the criteria or qualifications exactly. I applied to the executive board of our chapter of Her Campus after my first semester of freshman year, not really knowing anyone and having little to no copy editing experience. I was selected as a Features Editor, learned a lot about writing and editing and automatically felt closer to the team. That led me to go to Her Conference in New York, where I felt like I truly became friends with a lot of the other members. Now Her Campus is one of my closest campus communities. Through being part of Her Campus, I was also able to take part in a Chapter Advisor internship during my sophomore year and now am one of my chapter’s Managing Editors. Joining one thing can lead you to many different directions that you never even thought possible. Believe in yourself, and never hesitate to get involved in an opportunity that catches your eye!

Get a job.

Trust me when I say that the money you made over the summer isn’t going to cut it. I finished my first semester of college with a ripe $20 in my bank account and was playing catch up the majority of second semester. Even though I had a job, I had made myself so broke the previous semester that it took at least two months before I evened out again and had any money at all to spend. Get ahead of the curve and start earning money right when you get to school. Many student jobs are very flexible, and the commitment can be whatever you want it to be; you can work as little as five or as many as 20 hours per week!

Re-evaluate your study habits after first semester.

The shock to the system of just how much studying college entails is not a myth. After adjusting to the college academic environment your first semester, re-evaluate your habits — what works and what doesn’t. My GPA improved from first to second semester when I did this. For example, if you know a certain library works for you — stick to it! If you know the loud, chatty atmosphere at the Union distracts you — avoid it! You may also realize that you need to start reviewing material for exams earlier, or simply put in a few more hours per week. Even something as small as going to the library for a couple hours after class instead of going straight home can make a world of difference. Here are a few “little” things you can do to increase study time: study for a bit at the dining hall after meals if you have nothing going on, set aside low-commitment assignments (such as small worksheets and readings) for short breaks between classes and have friends hold you accountable to be at the library, Union, etc. at a certain time. Be sure to also take sleep into account. If you wake up naturally early, study in the morning. If you sleep later and get up later, study later into the night. Pay attention to your body and what makes it happy!

Eat (semi) healthy, stay active and take vitamins.

While the college diet and freshman 15 are not myths, they are very easy ways to avoid it if you are aware of your habits early on. Take advantage of the dining halls and not having to cook your first year! While dining hall food can get monotonous, I still found myself missing dinner being right in front of me when I moved off campus my sophomore year. However, with unlimited food comes responsibility — it’s very easy to get carried away with all the ice cream, pizza, burgers, fries and cheese curds at your immediate disposal. Set limits for yourself, and make conscious smart choices. Some things I did included buying healthy snacks for my dorm (such as hummus and pita chips, popcorn, oatmeal cups and almonds), swapping products like bread, pasta and rice for wheat instead of white, swapping La Croix for soda, getting plain cold brew instead of chai or vanilla lattes at the dining hall and Starbucks, and making sure I ate some form of fruit or vegetables with most meals. However, this isn’t to say you can’t treat yo’ self occasionally — balance is key! My freshman year, I would always reward myself after an exam by getting a dessert, like a cupcake or chocolate chip cookie, from the dining hall. I can also tell you firsthand that there is nothing like Qdoba or Ian’s pizza after a night out, and you enjoy it even more when you’re health-conscious for a majority of the week. Working out is also important even if it’s just a few times a week! Especially if you did sports in high school, your body is used to being active. Working out also releases endorphins (chemicals that can relieve pain and stress and increase happiness), so it can be helpful if you’re having an especially tough or stressful week. Taking vitamins is a good idea as well. Even if you’re trying to consciously eat healthy, college students are constantly on the go, and probably eat a lot more mac ‘n cheese and a lot less vegetables than we’d like to admit. A daily multivitamin is a good way to ensure that your body is getting all the necessary nutrients. 

Throughout the first half of college there are many takeaways, and I definitely found these to be some of the most important. There are a few more as well, so be sure to stick around for part two!

Holly is a junior at UW-Madison studying Strategic Communication with a Digital Studies certificate. She is originally from Minneapolis, MN, loves iced coffee, indie music, and warm days on the terrace, and has watched the entirety of The Office three times. She is a Managing Editor for HC Wisconsin and will be heading to London this spring for a semester abroad! 
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