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How to Make it in College (If You Survive Orientation!)

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A few weeks ago, I offered tips for how to spend your last summer before college, as a complement to some earlier counterintuitive tips. Now as this first-summer-before-it-all-begins has all but dissolved in a mix of mosquito bites, drive-in movies, and milkshakes, congrats: you've been going steady for two whole weeks now, maybe! (Oh, wait, that was the summer of 1955).

Forget all that. Pack up your iPhone charger, your laptop filled with pirated trance music and Michael Bay movies, and your Roomba vacuum robot... let's get this thing started with some practical tips.

1. Orientation: If your college or university is anything like, well, all of them, you have what might appear to be an exhaustive orientation schedule before you: the school wants to teach you about all of its support services, as well as how to get an ID, take science placement tests, explore majors, and navigate inflatable obstacle courses in the name of group bonding. Add this to any athletics schedule you may be sweating under, along with unpacking and navigating the, um, "personality" of your new roommate and, well, you've got the recipe for a daunting few days of extreme exertion.

Solution: Don't panic. The important skill is not to memorize office hours for your advisor or the number of meals on your weekly plan, but to save the handout or URL that gives you this information. Think of this as a grand structural exercise: how can you best organize the masses of data for use when you actually need it?

2. Roommate/s: Unless your trust fund affords you a handy chateau on a distant hill overlooking the quad, chances are you are going to enter your dorm room to find the person you will share a box-like space with for the immediate future. You may notice a line of masking tape neatly dividing the room in twain; you may look in horror at the posters of Justin Bieber gleaming at you with his come-hither stare and barely contained teenage sexuality; you may discover an enormous flat screen television that you are not, under any circumstances, to ever touch. Like the Jersey Shore? Great, a marathon is about to begin. Another scenario: Get ready as your grisly roommate removes his jean jacket with the word "Satan" studded onto the back and turns up death metal so loud on his $400 headphones that you feel you are in the mosh pit that has become your life.

Solution: Good news! Campus is big, and you don't have to be best friends with your roommate, or even spend all that much time in your room. Most of your daily functions are in fact neatly compartmentalized in other spaces: dining hall, library, classroom.

In fact, many would argue it is better not to be great friends with your roommate (or suite-mates), where intense intimacy can interrupt the things you actually need to get done, etc. It does help, though, if you can work out a system of mutual respect so that your various schedules, quirks, and desires can co-exist in relative harmony. Ask this person about his or her interests: "So, when did you start collecting dryer lint? You have quite an astounding collection in these mason jars."

Who knows, you might soon be giggling through the first semester.

3. Food: College may convince you that the major food groups are represented by these categories: Fried, Soda, Pizza, and Extra Fried. The Freshman 15 may in fact be a myth (although Facebook tells me that the 15+ pounds put on in the 15 years after college is not), yet this time away from your high school home-cooked comfort foods is likely to cause a disruption to your well-calibrated system. Add to this the enticements of most dining halls, which are in fact all-you-can-eat buffets populated by your soon-to-be-closest friends, and the temptation to experience and re-experience and then sample a bit more of the dessert bar can be overwhelming: especially when bottomless tubs of ice cream calling to put them out of their misery with a blanket of chocolate syrup. And those chicken patties, deep-fried in the grease of other chicken patties? Let's just say they weren't created as part of Michelle Obama's healthy eating campaign.

Solution: Figure out what you want to eat before you get your food. Make a targeted attack; don't graze. If you see a shiny gem, you need to consider the price tag before you stick it on your finger. Same principle here. Don't wear the same ring for each meal either. Your stomach finds it gaudy.

4. Food, 2 = very busy: You are so busy with choir practice and swim team and chess club and neuroscience lab and newspaper, that you -- zombie of over-achievement --eat less than you should to make it through the average day. The constant parade of over-engagement translates into a barrage of over-caffeinated drinks, one after another; you move through the semester, increasingly wan, until you go into anaphylactic shock from the mere thought of your absurd schedule.

Solution: Yes, high school valedictorian, even you can overextend. The successful student knows when too much is too much, and knows how to pull back. Note: this is hard, says the workaholic writer penning this article, so get help from friends, teachers, roommates, counselors, parents. Sometimes the best way to pull back from something is to let someone else help you figure out how to do it.

5. Don't hide: It's very easy -- too easy -- to let a problem, whether academic or social, slide away from you for your unwillingness to engage with it. I've seen this again and again with students who simply need to have a conversation with their professor about class performance, and who delay, for some reason, until the situation starts to make Waterloo look promising in comparison... for Napoleon.

  • Example #1: As with many professors, I don't accept late papers unless you speak with me beforehand and have but the semblance of a good excuse. In fact, I have never refused an extension request from a student, when made for good reason before the deadline. Conversely, I have never granted an extension request after the deadline, for any reason at all. I clearly explain this to all of my students.
  • Example #2: You are not doing well in a course, let's say calculus. Your first few quizzes have resulted in a null set. The teacher issues a warning grade, invites you to speak with her, offers a peer tutor, etc. You complain to your friends how hard it all is, but otherwise ignore the overtures of assistance simply waiting for you to make a combinatorial move. This continues until late in the semester, when you enter extreme panic mode. You then either fail or drop the class at the last minute. Of course, I am not suggesting that talking with the professor would magically improve your performance, but that you might discover tangible ways to improve, or, you might make an earlier and better-informed decision to drop the course -- thereby freeing up your time to focus on your other courses.

Solution: It is never a bad idea to talk to your professor about an academic issue. It is never a bad idea to seek help from the support resources offered to you by your school. Consider this: you are paying for these whether you use them or not. Why not get your money's worth?

Sure, take a few napkins from the dining hall while you're at it. After all, you still have to deal with your roomie's dryer lint.