Freshman Year Survival Guide

Preparing for the first semester of college can seem like a scary task as students gear up to stock their dorms rooms, sign up for classes and prepare for life beyond their parent’s roof.

College is all about learning to live independently, make new friends and try new experiences; but at the end of the day, students’ top priority needs to be earning a degree and the financial obligations that come with it.

“A lot of students have their worst semester their freshman year of college, not because they couldn't handle it, but because they didn't take their academics as seriously as they should--you only get one shot, so make sure you balance it all,” says Laura Sestito, production and editorial coordinator at NextStepU.

Here are six tips experts say every freshman should have on their checklist for surviving the first semester of college.

Tip 1: Visit the Bursar’s Office

To avoid any tuition bill surprises, students should visit the bursar’s office to make sure all sources of aid are accounted for and to map out the financial calendar of payments, advises Doug Lockwood, certified financial planner and branch president of Hefty Wealth Partners.

“Say ‘help me understand my payment schedule as it relates to when my scholarship is coming in--when does my aid come in? When does the billing go out and how much time do I have to pay it? What other options exist?’” he says. “There may be a follow up that has to be done every semester in order to get that money and then have it filed by [a certain] date.”

Tip 2: Get to Know Your Professors

Students should take advantage of office hours and other opportunities for face time with professors to address any questions, get advice and to establish a relationship that could later be used to help land a potential internship or future job, explains Emily Kissane, policy and research analyst for education solutions company Hobsons.  “Professors can be a student’s greatest ally, providing extra class help, advice about course options, and recommendations for grad school and jobs,” she says. “Students should always be respectful of professors’ time but shouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of opportunities to get to know them better.”

Tip 3: Track Your Credit Card Spending, Debt

Freshmen can start building a positive credit history by only opening one card and paying off the balance in full each month, recommends Scott Gamm, founder of and author of MORE MONEY, PLEASE: The Financial Secrets You Never Learned in School.

“Aim to use the card for small purchases under $50-$100 per month,” he says. “Chances are the credit card has a credit limit of at least $500, so you have the ability to up your spending in the case of an emergency.”

Tip 4: Find Your Study Spot

Finding the right study space that accommodates their personal learning style and schedule can increase the time students’ spend hitting the books. Oftentimes, their dorm room may not be ideal for concentrating, says Kissane.

“If you’re a student who is easily distracted, you may need to find a quiet room in the library. For students who can handle a little noise, you will be able to find all kinds of places to study: residency halls, cafeteria, lounges, etc,” she says. “If you need absolutely silence or no distractions, studying in the library with your friends is probably not the best idea.”

Tip 5: Expand Your Comfort Zone

It can be an intimidating prospect to make new friends and although orientation can be a good place to initially meet people, it’s important for freshmen to be outgoing and step outside their comfort zone once they get on campus, says Sestito.

“Sometimes the easiest thing to do is start up conversations with people in your classes--you already have something in common to talk about so it should make things a little bit less forced and awkward,” she says. “Outside of classes, find people on your floor who have common interests with you--you're going to be around them the most so they're the ones you'll want to get to know best.”

Colleges tend to be filled with clubs and sports teams in a variety of areas and students that can’t find the right club to fit their needs can always start up their club—new friends, and a resume booster.

Tip 6: Learn how to Manage Your Time  

Students new to campus should beware of over-committing to activities, especially when juggling a full course load, making time to study and adjusting to a new lifestyle.

If freshmen find that their activities are getting in the way of study sessions or causing their grades to suffer, it's time to cut extra commitments, recommends Sestito.

“When it comes to deciding what you should still go to, think about what will benefit you most in the long-run,” she says. “If you're in a club related to your major that will give your resume a boost when it comes to finding a job later on, you should probably try to save room in your schedule to attend that as much as you can.”