Tips for surviving your first year in college
First year in third level can be a challenge but there are steps you can take to help ease the transition
* This article was first published in August 2018
And you thought your first day of secondary school was scary. Starting in college is a whole new world: yes, you’re independent, but you’re also responsible for yourself. Food, bills, study and friends are all on you now. It’s unfamiliar terrain and for some students, it can be daunting. So is college, as the old cliché goes, really “the best time of your life”?
Fear not: the road through college is a well-worn path and the trails are clearly marked. We asked three people for their advice.
Ben Doyle (19) is entering his second year of a four-year corporate law degree at NUI Galway. Catherine O’Connor is an education consultant who specialises in student recruitment at Trinity College Dublin, and the author of Cracking the College Code: a Practical Guide to Making the Most of the First-Year College Experience. Helen Vaughan is a psychotherapist and the owner of MaynoothCounselling.ie.
The first month Catherine O’Connor: My job is to recruit students, so I have to understand their needs. Some years back, I was looking into how students adjust to college both socially and academically, especially in the first year. So I met with more than 1,000 parents and students (mainly in focus groups) from a variety of backgrounds.
I found that people didn’t really know how to navigate the college experience. How will they adjust to managing finances? Can they cook? If they’re living at home, how will they get on with their parents or guardians? Will they make new friends in college, and how will they mind their mental health? Students worry that they won’t make the most of the experience and this can make them anxious. I wrote the book to help answer some of these questions. Ben Doyle: I’d always wanted to do a commerce degree, but was also interested in the law. Corporate law was a good mix for me. I knew a few people going to NUI Galway, and it was reassuring to have them; the first day in a campus like this is exciting, but it’s also daunting. You do feel thrown in the deep end – at first. That changes fast. Helen Vaughan: The biggest problem I see with my student clients: social anxiety. Not just among first years, though the first months in college can be really hard. In school, you’re looked after, and you’re furious about being constantly hounded to do your homework. In college, if you don’t do the homework, nobody really cares and suddenly you’ll miss that parent giving out to you. It can be hard to cope with independence when you finally have it, and hard to be responsible for your own work, food, finances, social life and friends.
Suddenly, you have to drive yourself; the chauffeur is gone. Some people are very good at it if they’re particularly diligent and self-disciplined, but people can be thrown for all sorts of reasons, often unexpectedly. I see the ones who know they need help, but I suspect most don’t think or know they need help, and they can find it hard to talk and explain how they feel.
Making friends BD: I wasn’t scared, because almost as soon as you’re in the college gate, there’s a really well-thought orientation for new students. In the first week of college, you’re really busy and there’s plenty of events and activities in the first week where you meet new people. With your classmates, you find out more about your course. You get involved in societies. And everyone around you wants to meet new people and make new friends.
Clubs and societies make that easier because you’re with people who share your interests. I joined loads of societies straight away – for the bags of sweets! I got involved with the debating and law societies.
Social media is great for talking to friends, planning activities and group assignments. But we’re not wedded to it: most of my interaction is still person-to-person. I like hanging out with my friends for an hour or two, having a cup of tea, talking in person.
I don’t think my age group drink as much as others. But if you are going to have a few drinks during the week, just make sure you can recover for the next day. Especially if you have a 9am lecture.
I didn’t join any sports clubs in college, but I kept playing rugby with the under-20s in Tullamore. We won the league and the cup. It’s not always the easy to find the time, but I’m glad I kept this big part of my life before college. CO’C: My research shows that 62 per cent of students worry about fitting in socially. You will meet people in tutorials and at lectures. You need to seek out the clubs and societies that interest you. Try new things and see what you like.
Some students worry about remaining loyal to old friends but you can keep the old ones and make new ones too. HV: I talk to people about how to manage their mental health. Recognise anxiety: heart beating faster, sweaty palms, feeling really tense – once they recognise it they know it is not a heart problem; it is anxiety, and it will pass. A panic attacks feeds on you fighting it. Tell yourself it is not pleasant, but it is not dangerous and it will pass. There are breathing exercises you can do if you feel pressured.
Most colleges have counselling services but they can be overprescribed. You don’t have to be suicidal to call The Samaritans [see below: Support and help].
V: Students can be stressed about lectures or walking into the room if they’re late, so they don’t go in the first few weeks and can find it harder to make friends.
Others stress about their course work and why they’re not doing better, but it takes time to adjust to college. Let go of perfectionism – there comes a point when your work is good enough. I see students leaving it too late to start projects or get the book before it disappears from the library. They have to get used to setting their own deadlines without parents breathing down their neck. You can drink seven nights a week if you like, but you won’t pass.
I found myself on the wrong course. I had to eventually admit that French wasn’t for me, so I transferred to another course in another college and never looked back. People change their careers a few times in their life and it’s fairly common to change course or do a new one – although, of course, this can be a financial challenge as you have to pay college fees. CO’C: If you set out to have discipline in your study from Monday to Wednesday, Thursday can follow the same pattern easy enough. Attend all lectures and tutorials. Take notes, keep them well, and back them up, remembering that technology doesn’t always work. Read your notes and write down where your gaps are. Read beyond your own discipline, read everything. And remember: no matter how bright you are, you will meet brighter minds.
But no matter how motivated you are to study, you can feel lonely in the first semester and wonder if you’re in the right course. I advise students to stick with it as long as they can and give it their best shot. Find out early on about the academic demands (read the handbook) and establish what you like about the course. Don’t cut and run after three weeks; they can be tough anyway and it may be other factors making you question your course choice. If the student works hard to develop a strong work ethic and gets those three good days in, they can feel a lot better.
College doesn’t share academic results with parents. Students also quickly learn that if they don’t attend college it will affect their grades. BD: My biggest struggle in first year was the academic adjustment. For the Leaving Cert, core textbooks are your bibles and you have all the resources you need to hand. In college, you have to sift through a lot of information and perspectives, come to conclusions and back it up with research and references. I found my first assignment hard; we had to think creatively and be very open-minded. I didn’t do great but, assignment by assignment, I’m learning how to research and write.
CO’C: Financial pressure can lead to dropping out. There needs to be a discussion early on about where the money for college comes from and who is paying. If the student takes a part-time job, how will that impact on their commitment to study or on their college experience? They need to budget: write out what the costs are and what the sources of finance are, including bank or credit unions loans, support from family and summer work. StudentFinance.ie is a good resource. BD: I’m lucky that I have support from my parents, and I work part-time to supplement that. I learned through experience how to budget and how much money I needed for groceries, food and books. Lots of nights out can damage your wallet. I’m learning how to cook: I do a mean beans on toast and chicken curry.
I share a student apartment in Corrib Village, the on-campus accommodation. We all clean up after ourselves and look after our own rooms, respect each other’s space. HV: Finding accommodation is a big stress for students; it’s in short supply. It can be hard to manage your own finances and learn to cook and clean for yourself, but it’s a big kick in the arse to help you grow up.
Self-care is important: eat well, exercise, be among nature when you can, even if it’s just a walk along the canal (if you’re in Maynooth). Keep up the sport you did in school. Take a few moments now and again to check in with yourself and where you are in this moment, rather than where you were earlier or will be later. I give clients breathing and meditation exercises. And finally, I recommend a gratitude journal, where you write down three things every day – it could be a nice lunch, meeting someone you like, or even that it didn’t rain. It helps the brain appreciate the nice things and worry less.
Support and help Samaritans: email firstname.lastname@example.org, text 087-2609090, or freephone 116123
Some student unions operate confidential and anonymous listening services. The biggest of these is NiteLine, run by and for students of several universities, colleges and institutes of technology (Freephone: 1800-793793), Student union welfare officers, college chaplains, counselling services and students advisers are all there, while most tutors and lecturers know how to help and support students who are going through a tough time.