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Have fun at college, freshmen, but read this first


Over the next few weeks, more than 2 million recent high school graduates will start college. This time of year is full of emotion — sadness about leaving what’s behind but also excitement about what’s next. But for all the time, effort and money families spend on the college search and the admissions process, they spend relatively little thinking about what happens after students are accepted and enrolled.

Yet the first year of college is a struggle for more students than we think. About a quarter drop out between their first and second year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Twelve percent transfer institutions. Between 2016 and 2017, about 62 percent returned to the same school for their sophomore year.

The reasons that students get derailed after their freshman year vary but are mostly related to finances and academics. More than a third of students said the transition to their freshman year was difficult, according to an annual survey of first-year students nationwide by the University of California at Los Angeles. Nearly half of those students who struggled indicated it was difficult to manage their time effectively.

First-year students get plenty of advice at freshman orientation and from their parents about what not to do in college, so let me offer three tips about what they should do to make their freshman year more successful.

First, participate in campus life. By doing so, students begin to find their “tribe” and develop the networks critical to success in college and afterward.

Students will also feel less homesick. Feeling lonely in the first weeks of college is a common experience. In the UCLA survey, almost three-quarters of students reported that they felt lonely or homesick, and more than half said they felt isolated from campus life.

The problem is that too many students sit on the sidelines — they go to class and do the bare minimum to get by, and graduate four years later.

In college, “there are things you’re taught, and then there are things you learn,” Richard Settersten, a professor of human development and family sciences at Oregon State University, told me when I was researching my most recent book. “A lot of what college comes down to is not what happens in the classroom. It’s about navigating life and building relationships.”

Most campuses offer a multitude of student activities, from programs in the dorms to club sports. For students coming out of high school, the choices are often unfamiliar and overwhelming. Adam Weinberg, president of Denison University, told the incoming class in a welcome letter this month not to limit themselves to areas that interest them. “Use college to explore and develop new pursuits,” he wrote. “Ideally, you will leave college with a passion. . . . For this to happen, though, you have to push yourself to try new things, and be open to, even excited about, reinventing yourself a little.”

Second, connect with learning experiences that go beyond coursework. This could include research projects with other students or professors, internships or service learning. Such “experiential learning” is critical to success in college and afterward.

A Gallup survey of more than 30,000 college graduates found that those who had an internship or similar hands-on experience that allowed them to apply the lessons of the classroom were twice as likely to be engaged in life and work after college. But the survey found that only 1 in 3 graduates said they had such experiences as undergraduates.

Experiential learning stimulates critical thinking, gives students a better understanding of what they learned from a lecture, allows them to work in ambiguous situations and provides a sense of accomplishment. It’s through these outside-the-classroom experiences that students often learn about themselves, about what they can do and what they can’t, and, most of all, what really drives their passions.

To do that, students often need help. The final piece of advice for freshman year is to find mentors and ask for help.

For students, getting to know faculty and staff on campus has been shown to improve success in college. But many students shy away from making such connections. Even something as simple as visiting professors during their office house is underutilized.

Two out of five freshmen say they have “never discussed ideas from readings or classes with faculty members outside of class,” according to the National Survey of Student Engagement, an annual poll of freshmen and seniors. Three out of five freshmen say they never worked with professors on activities other than coursework.

For many freshmen, the start of college is hectic. It’s easy to fall into a routine or, for some, a funk. But for new students, spending time thinking about what they want out of the first year of college can go a long way to setting the foundation for success throughout their undergraduate careers.