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Preparation Guide for First-Time College Students

Learn how to start on the right foot when kicking off your college career. Gather tips, get expert advice, and discover valuable in-person and online resources.

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Author: James Mielke
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Phil Ollenberg

Phil Ollenberg is a recognized thought leader in higher education, with 15 years’ experience in enrolment management, marketing, and student services. Phil has traveled across Canada, the US, and Asia to represent different universities and colleges and speak to audiences of up to 1,000 attendees. In addition to his professional work, Phil is a doctoral student in education management at Taft University.

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A college student in a denim shirt browses books in a library aisle, focusing intently on a selection. Shelves filled with colorful books line the background.

If you’re headed to college, you must feel ready to be out on your own, right? Maybe, or maybe not. Adulting is hard, and many college students struggle with the challenges of being away from home for the first time, juggling new responsibilities, making new friends, and keeping up with a rigorous study schedule.

Just like preparing for a big exam, you can take steps ahead of time to get ready for your first semester of college and the academic, emotional, financial, and social challenges that come with it. A little preparation helps eliminate stress and enhances your academic performance, personal well-being, and social life from day one. Learn what you can do to find success in the years ahead and get expert advice and handy resources that can make the college experience all the more manageable.

The Importance of Prep: Why College Readiness Matters

College can be a stressful time, but it doesn’t have to be. Effective preparation makes a big difference in your college experience. From excelling academically to developing your social life, having a college prep plan reduces stress and helps you make the most of your college experience right from the start.

Why does academic prep matter?

Even though college is fun, academics are the primary reason you’re there. If you’re ready for the academics, then you’re more likely to perform at a higher level, graduate on time, and perhaps even go on to pursue an advanced degree.

Challenging yourself while you’re still in high school is a great way to prepare for college-level work. For example, Advanced Placement classes offer a taste of college-level rigor and can lead to earning college credit. Honors classes, International Baccalaureate programs, and attending community college classes while you’re in high school serve a similar purpose in helping you prepare for college.

Why does emotional prep matter?

The stresses of college and newfound independence can create significant transitional struggles. And while this introduction to adulthood can feel daunting for some, developing the skills to function in an adult world is essential.

College students’ mental health has significantly declined in recent years, so taking time to prepare emotionally for college has never been more important. Developing your problem-solving skills, enhancing your emotional intelligence, practicing mindfulness, and establishing healthy self-care habits all support your emotional well-being.

Why does social prep matter?

When you’re surrounded by people you care about, and who care about you, any life experience is easier. A study buddy, a shoulder to lean on, and a friend to let off steam with all bring meaning to your college years. That said, socially anxious students may find the transition into college life a struggle.

From forming friendships to engaging in classroom debates, the social element of college helps develop lifelong friends, networking opportunities, and social skills vital to diverse careers. While you won’t find these skills on a syllabus, they’ll serve you well for the rest of your life.

Why does financial preparedness matter?

Just as academic, social, and emotional preparation for college is essential, so too is financial preparation. Feeling financially stable and knowing that you can afford tuition and fees without stress positively impacts your mental health and academic performance. Plus, effectively managing your college finances can help you graduate without a mountain of debt, allowing you to start your new career putting money in the bank instead of paying money to the bank.

Financial Preparation

College is a serious investment when it comes to both time and money. And while you’re prepared academically to tackle rigorous course work, entering college with a clear understanding of its financial implications is a must. Keep reading as we underscore some valuable economic facts, tips, and tricks to manage the financial element of the college experience.

Typical Expenses for First-Year College Students

The actual cost of college far exceeds tuition, housing, and food. In the section below, learn about some typical expenses for first-year college students.

  • TuitionTuition often is the most significant expense for college students. It can vary depending on your school, scholarships, and other financial aid, but unless you have a full-ride scholarship it’s most likely a sizeable debt.
  • HousingWhether on or off campus, the cost of housing adds up. In some locations, students can save money living off campus, but in other locations, such as big cities, student housing offers the most reasonable price.
  • Books and SuppliesTextbooks are not cheap. But students can cut costs on books and supplies by purchasing used and digital copies. For some courses you can even use the textbook for free at the library.
  • FoodThe impact of food on your budget can vary significantly depending on if you live on or off campus. Many schools require on-campus students to purchase meal plans that are relatively expensive but also convenient. Off-campus learners can manage their food budget and cut food costs, but they’ll also spend more time shopping for groceries, cooking, cleaning up, packing a lunch, etc.
  • TransportationTransportation is a broad but essential category, including car maintenance and insurance, gas, public transportation, and air travel. For students studying far from home, transportation can be pricey.
  • Personal ExpensesPersonal expenses not only cover entertainment and fun activities, but they also cover laundry fees, dorm room necessities, and personal hygiene products.rtation can be pricey.

Creating Your Freshman Financial Plan

Before you begin your college career, creating a financial plan reduces stress tied to money issues. The section below highlights some essential tools to help you calculate expenses and build a practical budget.

Calculate income vs. expenses

Ensuring that your college budget is realistic is one way to cut stress in an already stressful time. Budgeting is vital for most students, and calculating how much money you have going in versus going out is a practical starting point.

To begin, assess your total income, including family, loans, scholarships, and grants. Additionally, include any income from a job. From there, assess your expenses, both fixed and variable. Fixed costs are planned debts like rent and tuition. Variable expenses fluctuate from month to month and include everything from Grubhub orders to electric scooter rentals. You may also want to budget for an emergency fund.

Budgeting apps and bank websites usually have free tools to help you create and manage your college budget. Find your favorite digital tool and use it consistently to set a budget you can live with.

Build a realistic budget

While building a realistic budget may not be the most exciting part of your college experience, it’s vital. Honing financial skills while you’re in college can be a huge advantage when the time comes to transition into post-college life. Work on these budget-building skills.

  1. Figure out who’s contributing to your college fund

Sorting out who’s paying for college is a vital first step when determining a realistic budget. Before each school year, take time to figure out if, when, and how much financial assistance you’ll receive from family, work, and financial aid. Remind yourself that college costs are more than just tuition, too.

  1. Factor in scholarships, grants, and financial aid

When creating your annual budget, be sure to factor in any financial aid. Loans, grants, and scholarships can make a serious dent in how much cash you’ll be responsible for each year. Also, recognize that there’s a seemingly endless list of scholarships available to students, so make a habit of continuously applying for scholarships if you need money.

  1. Overestimate your yearly expenses

Creating a buffer in your budget can help you prevent serious financial stress. When making your budget, be sure to overestimate your yearly expenses. In addition to living within your means, if no surprise expenses come up padding your budget allows you to come out ahead at year’s end.

  1. Track your expenses

An essential element to budgeting is having a solid understanding of how much cash is flowing in and out of your account. By tracking your expenses, you’ll get a clear picture of where and how to save money. Online banking and budgeting apps help you manage this process.

  1. Set financial goals

Once you have a realistic budget, set clear, manageable, and actionable financial goals. Goals can include saving a certain amount of money and creating a financial safety net for the future. Plus, goals can be fun, too—setting aside money for a trip or special purchase helps motivate you to save.

Understand financial aid

College isn’t cheap, and most students receive some financial aid. And as any college applicant knows, filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a required part of the process. In short, the FAFSA is utilized by colleges and universities to determine student aid, including loans, scholarships, and grants. Additionally, FAFSA is used to determine eligibility for federal work-study programs.

To qualify for a federal student loan, students must first submit their FAFSA application. Applicants must have a valid Social Security number, be enrolled in an eligible academic program, have a GED or high school diploma, and demonstrate financial need. Upon submission, typically your FAFSA application is processed in three to five days.

Unlike federal and private student loans that must be repaid, students also have access to scholarships, grants, and work-study programs that can significantly reduce the cost of college. Some qualifying students receive federal loan forgiveness if they pursue a teaching career or work for a government agency.

Sharpen your financial literacy

Upon graduation, many students are ready to jump headfirst into their careers. Still, unlike the academic and technical skills you’ve honed over your college years, many graduates are in the dark when it comes to financial literacy. The section below highlights some essential resources to help boost your financial IQ.

Listen to financial podcasts

Often college students are armed with the skills they need to enter the workforce, but many aren’t ready to tackle the economic realities of adulthood. Podcasts are an entertaining option to learn about the complex world of personal finance. Popular financial literacy podcasts include The College Investor, So Money, and the Jake of All Trades.

Check out personal finance books

Lots of easy-to-read, information-packed books are out there to help if you’re interested in paying off loan debt and developing financial independence. Popular books include Your Money or Your Life, Broke Millennial Takes on Investing, and I Will Teach You to Be Rich.

Subscribe to financial newsletter

Financial newsletters are another great option for students looking to develop financial knowledge and skills. From stock market trends to coverage of tech companies, newsletters offer quick, convenient, and regular access to expert knowledge. Popular financial newsletters include Morning Brew, The Hustle, and Lifehacker.

Utilize financial apps

Developing knowledge and good financial habits is as easy as downloading an app. Some of the best like Zogo and World of Money utilize easily digestible lessons and video modules dedicated to learning financial concepts.

Learn from professionals

Whether it’s financial aid staff at your school or another professional with expertise in the world of financial literacy, these folks have ample knowledge and wisdom that can help manage your finances. If you have questions, ask.

Social Preparation

Academics, standardized tests, and finances often get the most attention when preparing for college. But preparing for the social element of college is also worth considering. According to a recent study, a student’s network of friends can have a significant, positive impact on academic performance. In other words, your social life can help your GPA. Check out the social prep tips below.

Practice speaking up in class

Speaking up in class can evoke serious anxiety for the more introverted student, but class participation plays an essential role in the educational process. By practicing speaking up in class, you’ll face your fears, boost your self-esteem, and ready yourself for college-level discussions.

Class participation is vital in many college classes. When a course has a class discussion component, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the topics. Plus, becoming comfortable with public speaking can have a positive impact on your career in the future.

Get used to approaching new people

For some students entering college, the prospect of making a whole new roster of friends can feel quite daunting. But like anything else, there are steps you can take to make this social transition easier.

Getting used to approaching new people is a simple idea, but if you’re socially anxious you may need to formulate a plan to develop your social network. First, intentionally put yourself in situations where you’re rubbing elbows with like-minded, potential friends. Love playing Cards Against Humanity? Head for the college board games club. Once you’re there, don’t be tempted to shrink into the background. Put yourself out there and make a point to hang out with people you click with. Before you leave the event, make plans to meet someone for coffee, lunch, or more board games.

Learn how to be approachable

Some people naturally have a personality that draws others in, while others don’t have that gift. Of course you need to be yourself, however there are ways that you can learn to be more approachable.

First, intentionally put yourself in situations where you’re around fellow students who aren’t busy at that moment. This could mean getting to class early or stopping by a student lounge. Choose someone nearby to strike up a conversation with. How? Ask lots of questions—people generally are comfortable talking about themselves. That chat could be the first step to a lifelong friendship.

Research college clubs and social groups

College clubs and social groups offer many benefits. Besides the social element, these groups are tailor-made for students who struggle to meet new people. Clubs and social groups allow like-minded individuals to hang out with a purpose.

College clubs and social groups include academic, political, and cultural clubs; religious and spiritual groups; and organizations dedicated to social justice and community service. Sororities and fraternities, campus newspapers, and intramural sports teams are other great organizations where you can find your people.

Use social media sensibly

The way you use social media can impact your mental health, reputation, and academic record. Recognize that what you post can have future implications and repercussions; posting controversial, provocative, and tasteless content may have unintended negative consequences.

We all know that social media can have a negative impact on your mental health. Similarly, if your feed distracts you and affects your academic performance, you might need to reassess your relationship with social media.

Academic Preparation

Even if you have solid finances and lots of friends, your college career may be short-lived if you’re not ready academically. In the section below, we look at how to prepare for the rigorous academic world of higher education.

Starting Your College Prep in High School

  • Enroll in the right classesWhen reviewing your high school transcript, admission officials glean significant insights from the classes you’ve chosen to take. If you took classes in which you could get an easy A, they’ll see that. Schools value students who perform well academically and challenge themselves. Just because you got a 4.0 doesn’t mean that you challenged yourself—and colleges are good at being able to sniff that out.
  • Consider AP coursesWhile not a prerequisite for college, taking AP classes impresses admissions officials and prepares you with a college-like curriculum. Students who successfully complete AP classes can even receive college credit. This means you’ll save money and possibly graduate more quickly.
  • Sit for the right examsWhen preparing for college, entrance exams often play a role in determining your readiness for higher education. Whether a school prefers the ACT or SAT varies, so take the time to know which exam is right for you. And don’t wait until the week before to crack open that test-prep book. Test scores can determine whether or not you get into your preferred school, so start studying for admission exams well in advance of your test date.
  • Get to know your guidance counselorBuilding a relationship with your high school guidance counselor is a great way to gain an advocate. Your high school counselor wants to help, and the best way to get that help is if the counselor actually knows you. Reach out and cultivate a relationship.

5 Ways to Prepare During Summer

The summer before college is monumental for many high school graduates. Taking the time to have fun, reflect, and celebrate this life transition is important; after all, you only graduate from high school once. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have time to prepare for college as well. Consider these college prep tips to help jumpstart your transition into higher education.

  1. Make a summer reading list

Creating a summer reading list is a practical way to stay sharp and to prepare for your upcoming semester. Sure, it might be helpful to get a jump on school-related reading, but just the practice of challenging yourself to keep learning is valuable. If you’re already in the habit of reading, then your college assignments won’t seem as daunting.

  1. Get tutoring for your weak points

For some students, the transition from high school to college-level coursework can seriously shock the system. And while colleges and universities provide academic resources like tutors and writing centers, if there’s a particular subject you struggle with it might be worthwhile to polish those skills before classes begin. As always, communication is vital—if you have concerns, reach out to your school for suggestions on what to read and review before you head to campus.

  1. Practice time management

Once college begins, gone are the days of having every element of your academic life mapped out for you. And because you’ll be responsible for getting to all your classes, turning assignments in on time, and managing a social calendar, time management will be the key to your success. Update your calendar daily and keep your materials organized so you can make the best use of your study time.

  1. Size up your technology

Whether you’ll need to purchase a new laptop or familiarize yourself with your school’s online platform, being comfortable with the required technology will play a significant role in your higher education journey. Learn more about apps and online tools that can help you build study skills, stay organized, and review content. When it’s time to unwind, be sure you have access to your favorite streaming services, gaming consoles, and other tech-based entertainment.

  1. Connect with new roommates

One of the main perks of in-person college is the social element. And while this can require some transition time, many students develop life-long friendships and even professional connections and relationships. Once you have contact info for your new roommate, reach out and introduce yourself. You’re going to share close quarters with this person, so why not start on the right foot? Coordinate what you’ll need to furnish your dorm room, learn what you have in common, find out when your roommate’s birthday is, and set a foundation for a peaceful co-existence.

Getting Ready for Online College

The accessibility and affordability of many online programs have made distance learning options a popular choice—especially among nontraditional students. Earning an online degree comes with its own unique benefits, but it also requires special types of preparation.

If you’re getting your degree online, more than anything you’ll need lots of self-discipline. Develop a routine and create a positive work environment. Before classes begin, familiarize yourself with how the online platform works. And even though you aren’t meeting professors in person, set aside time to introduce yourself.

The Importance of Self-Discipline in Online College

Unlike on-campus learning, online students don’t have the built-in accountability that comes with a traditional classroom. Instead, online learners must rely on self-discipline to keep up with course requirements. Setting a schedule, staying organized, minimizing distractions, and regularly communicating with fellow students and instructors are just some of the steps you’ll need to take for successful online learning.

Other Ways to Gear Up for Your Online Program

While incredibly convenient, online learners face their own unique set of challenges when tackling online classes. These tips and tricks will help you prepare for life as an online learner.

Find out what motivates you

Online learning leans heavily on your ability to manage your time and your course requirements—even when you don’t feel like it. The biggest challenge is if you’re enrolled in asynchronous coursework, in which you complete assignments at your own pace. You’ll be in charge of finding the best ways to motivate yourself.

Before you jump in, take the time to map out a reliable, repeatable, and manageable schedule of when you’ll complete classwork. From there, find ways to reward yourself as you get your work done. Finished your bio homework? Treat yourself to pizza. Knocked out a first draft of your Othello analysis? Why yes, go ahead and spend a few hours with friends. Having something to look forward to can keep you on track and push you to the finish line.

Create your perfect study space

Online students undoubtedly work best in a space conducive to focused study. Finding your perfect study space is a personal choice, so think through what makes a study space ideal for you.

For some online learners, a quiet corner of a coffee shop is a good place to get work done, with just enough buzz to keep them focused. For others who need quiet, reserving a study room at a public library is ideal. If you have the space, a home office can provide everything you need for an effective learning environment.

Learn to be an active participant

A great discussion can happen in a traditional classroom or online. But what makes the discussion an even better learning experience is being an active participant.

To mimic the atmosphere of a traditional classroom, many online classes utilize group chats, group projects, live lectures, and active message boards to encourage student engagement. Actively participating not only nudges you to dig into course content, but it also allows you to stand out among fellow students.

Map out your goals

Mapping out your goals can boost your academic success. As you start to think through your goals, be sure to make them realistic. Instead of setting vague goals (finish assignments early), make your goals measurable (finish assignments two days before the due date). That way you’ll know if you’re meeting—and maybe even exceeding—your goals.

Practice prioritization

When tackling an online degree program, managing your time is vital. Especially for online students who are juggling the obligations of work and family, prioritizing your time and coursework makes life easier and makes you more likely to succeed.

Review everything on your “to-do” list and determine how long each assignment will take (always be generous in your estimates!). Break larger projects into smaller chunks, then set your priorities. What comes first? What comes next? Mapping out each step also keeps procrastination in check.

Insight from an Expert on College Preparation

Phil Ollenberg is a recognized thought leader in higher education, with 15 years’ experience in enrolment management, marketing, and student services. Phil has traveled across Canada, the US, and Asia to represent different universities and colleges and speak to audiences of up to 1,000 attendees. In addition to his professional work, Phil is a doctoral student in education management at Taft University.

Q: What’s the most important piece of advice you give to first-time students before they start college?

A: I always recommend that students thoroughly consider what they want to be doing in 5, 10, or 20 years to pursue their passion and not to be influenced by their parents, family, etc. Too many times I see parents living vicariously through their children and forcing them into careers and degrees that the child has no interest in.

If you’re unsure what you want to do, that’s perfectly fine—how can we expect a 16- or 17-year-old to know what they want to do for their entire lives? Think about your passions, which are the things you really enjoy doing inside and outside of school; consider your strengths; and get feedback from your teachers, parents, and other adults on what they see you excel at. When your high school has its college fair, talk to the admissions counselors about their recommendations and observations. Colleges want to admit students they know will be successful in their programs, so they will help you find a program that will make you successful.

Q: What are some aspects of college preparedness that students may forget to consider or prepare for?chool?

A: While we all assume college will be harder than high school, many students are unprepared for how significant the change is, and that results in lots of hurdles. First, class time is about half of what it was in high school, which means more complex information is coming at you faster than you’re used to. Sometimes this causes information overload, and it can cause grades to drop, putting further anxiety on a new student. Second, a lot of college classes are still direct-lecture with no time in class to work on assignments or do your readings. This throws a lot of students off-balance; their full hour is spent in lecture, then they’re dismissed to work on their own and may feel unsure how to approach their professor for help. Finally, too often college students come to class without doing the assigned readings in advance. When this happens, you’re at a big disadvantage for keeping up with the lecture and class discussion. The best approach here is to set aside two to three hours outside of each class for your assigned readings and homework, go through the syllabus (class outline) to find your professor’s contact information and office hours, and familiarize yourself with the learning and student supports located around campus to help you succeed.

Q: What’s the biggest misconception first-time students may have about the college experience?

A: Too many students think college will be like high school, with teachers and support staff around at all times to proactively offer help. College is an adult environment with adult students, and for the most part students have to seek out their own help and support. At a big college those supports can be spread all over campus and may be hard to find. The way to navigate this is to make a strong and early connection with your admissions counselor(the person who helped you navigate applying to college) and your academic advisor (the person who helped you pick your classes). Academic advisors typically know all the support services on campus and can help you build a plan if you’re struggling. I strongly encourage students to meet with their academic advisor once a term, even if only for a few minutes.

Q: Where can these students turn for help in preparing for college, both before and after they arrive?

A: Let your admissions counselor be your key contact as you explore colleges, apply, choose a school, select your first term of classes, and learn the larger system of your college or university. Remember that admissions counselors want their incoming class to be successful. They want to introduce you to the right people to help you with your financial, academic, and other challenges. A rule I had when overseeing student recruitment was, “We don’t recruit first-year students, we recruit future graduates.”

Also make a good connection with your academic advisor, who is the person that helps you choose your classes. They’re very well connected to academic, personal, disability, and diversity supports to help you succeed. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help… and do it as soon as you need help! It’s easier for your professor to help you catch up when you’re only a day behind than when you’re two months behind. It’s never a sign of weakness to ask for help!

College Prep Resources

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From access to the FAFSA to other valuable financial aid information, this site is home to all your federal financial aid needs.

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The Princeton Review is the industry standard for preparing for the ACT, SAT, AP tests, grad school tests, and more. Access practice tests, virtual tutoring, and self-paced test prep classes.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides a 24/7 hotline for individuals struggling with mental health and substance use issues.