My daughter just completed her freshman year of college, and she and thousands of other college students are home for the summer. Having a student in college means I have lots of college kids in my life, which is fantastic. I love talking to kids and decided to do just that with a charming group of college students. I asked them if I could get their insights into their first year of school. They all gave very thoughtful answers and I wanted to share them with you in hopes it might help you if you have a student heading off to college and everyone is feeling anxious at your house.
I wanted to find out about experiences at a variety of different schools. So my little group included a student from Baylor University (a large private Christian college in Texas), a student from Oklahoma State University (OSU) (a large state university in Oklahoma), a student from Harvard University (a private university in Massachusetts), and a student who chose to take required courses at a community college and who is now transferring to Texas A&M University (TAMU) (a large state school in Texas).
So here we go!
How did you approach the college application process with regard to school choice? Did you go into it already knowing which schools you wanted to apply to, or did you decide as you went along?
Baylor: When I was applying for college, I only had Baylor University in mind. My mom went to Baylor, and I had wanted to go there since I was 8 years old.
OSU: I started out the process with several schools in mind that I wanted to attend. But I kept an open mind and in the end, I chose a school that wasn’t on my original list.
Harvard: Going into the application process, I was pretty sure that I wanted to go to the school my sister (who is 3 years older than me) went to, which was Rice University. While that school was my focus, I had a general idea of which other schools I’d apply to, and the list naturally evolved as I went along and realized what I did and did not want in a school (not to mention how difficult applying to a plethora of schools is!).
Transfer to TAMU: I had no clue which college I wanted to attend when I first began applying. I eventually decided to attend community college for a year to make sure I made the right decision for a 4-year university. I knew my college choice would affect my future in many ways. It was a choice that I did not take lightly. I felt that taking some time to decide was a safer choice as opposed to making an impulsive decision.
Why did you choose the college that you did? Was there a deciding factor? Was it a combination of things? If so, what were those things?
Baylor: I chose Baylor mainly because I knew I wanted to attend a private university in Texas that had a good environment. When I visited Baylor my junior year in high school, I got to see how beautiful the campus was. But it was mainly the people there that really made the experience great. Another reason why I chose Baylor was because it is a university founded on Christian beliefs, where I could be able to grow in my faith with others.
OSU: I did not get into the college that was my first choice, and the one I really thought I wanted to attend. The day after that happened, I got an email from OSU letting me know I qualified for a very generous scholarship. I almost deleted the email since I’d never been to Oklahoma before. But I decided to visit and realized that it was the perfect mix of everything I liked about the other schools to which I had applied. I’m now glad I got rejected from what I thought was my first choice because I would never have found the school that ended up being a more perfect fit than any of the others. I think it’s important for students to be true to themselves when choosing their school. Don’t let others’ opinions of where you should go influence your decision. I was accepted at a prestigious private college that many people told me I should attend. I visited on Admit Day and immediately knew that it was not where I wanted to go. Have the courage of your own convictions.
Harvard: I chose Harvard because of the opportunity it affords its students. It truly seemed like too great of an opportunity to pass up. I’m a Christian, and I felt that if God had helped me get into this school, then He probably wanted me to go there, even though it was very far from home! Another thing that helped me choose my school was the generous financial aid the school offered. I’m loathed to put myself into a huge pit of debt, so the aid was certainly a plus.
Transfer to TAMU: I chose Texas A&M University because it truly had everything I wanted in a college. I wanted a school with sterling academic credentials, but I was also looking for an environment and connections that would benefit me as I grow into adulthood. I was also seeking to be around people who thought like me. The school is known for being one of the top conservative schools in the nation, so I know finding people with the same political and spiritual views may be easier at A&M than other public universities. They have a variety of clubs that interest me, as well as a ton of good churches. And finally, they have an excellent business network in Texas. My family has always stressed the importance of connections in the business world. This is a unique trait to my school that will have a great return on investment in my future.
How did you prepare for applying to the college of your choice? Did you focus on academics? Extracurricular activities? Practice your essay writing?
Baylor: The application process for Baylor was really easy for me. I chose to apply “Single Choice Early Action”, where I committed to only applying to Baylor. The application focused on two short answer questions (roughly around 300 words each), submitting a resume, two letters of recommendation, and filling out the personal information section. I mainly listed my extracurricular activities, but I did put down my academic achievements. During high school, I was very involved with my 4-H club, and also within my school on student council and NHS. Because Baylor’s Single Choice Early Action application didn’t involve an essay section, I didn’t practice writing any application essays.
OSU: I took the SAT and ACT multiple times with a target score in mind that would qualify me for automatic admission. I didn’t formally prepare for the admissions process aside from studying for the SAT and ACT. I was involved with NHS and extracurricular activities in high school, but I did them because I enjoyed them, not just as something to pad a resume. I kept my grades up in high school and graduated with over a 4.0 GPA.
Harvard: As far as test preparation, I took an SAT prep course through TestMasters, which helped me get my SAT score up about 100 points (it was a costly course, but very much worth it). I tried to make my application stand out by emphasizing what I thought my greatest talent and interest was: writing. I wrote an essay in which I really let my personality (read: nerdiness) shine through, and thereby sent a slab of myself to colleges, along with my black-and-white test scores and resume.
Transfer to TAMU: Well, I am a transfer student from a community college, so the deciding factor for my application was good grades. There were, however, some additional factors which helped. I requested letters of recommendation from a few of my professors. One of them graduated with a Ph.D. from my university of choice. I also worked and built my resume with activities from the National Honors Society at my school.
How did you feel when you first got to campus? What emotions were you experiencing?
Baylor: When I first got to campus, I was a little overwhelmed with all the different activities scheduled during Welcome Week. I think the best part about Baylor move-in is that upperclassmen help unload your car and carry all your boxes and stuff to your dorm room for you. That definitely took a lot of the stress off of having to make lots of trips back and forth from my car to my dorm room. Thankfully, my mom was able to come up with me when I moved in. I was feeling more excited than sad, but I knew that the next four years ahead of me were going to be amazing, filled with adventure, and were going to help me grow as a person. Honestly, I didn’t feel homesick, but I was able to FaceTime my family on a weekly basis.
OSU: Before I arrived on campus, I was very nervous. Once I got there, I surprised myself with how quickly I felt comfortable. I expected to feel homesick but I really wasn’t because I think I was in the right place for me. I thought I would cry myself to sleep every night but that never happened. I think I was always confident I had chosen the right school, but being there confirmed that decision and I knew I just had to trust myself if ever I had any doubts. I knew I was there for a reason.
Harvard: I was really intimidated by how different the metropolitan area surrounding Harvard was compared to my suburban, southern hometown. People everywhere, absolutely no trucks, and crisp air and cobblestone instead of humidity and cowboy boots. Nevertheless, when I first visited campus, I was all but officially committed to coming. I was basically visiting to see whether or not I would hate campus. Though I was scared, I certainly didn’t hate it. Fear and excitement and disbelief all hopped around in my belly, and my sense of adventure won out and convinced me to come.
Transfer to TAMU: I was extremely nervous before my first day. I didn’t know what the students were like, nor did I know the difficulty of my classes.
Did you get involved right away in activities at your school, or did you hang back a bit to get “the lay of the land??
Baylor: Baylor hosts an event during Welcome Week for all the clubs to present their information to students called “Late Night”. I, unfortunately, was not feeling well that night, so I was unable to attend. However, I was able to participate in different events on campus through my dorm, North Russell. This dorm focuses on global topics and reaches out to the community within the dorm and in Waco. I also was able to take a day off from all of the activities to find the classrooms for all my classes and to find my way around campus. This step definitely helped my transition to be a lot smoother. However, as a Mathematics major, I did join Baylor’s Möbius Mathematics Society the beginning of the Spring semester. This was a great experience for me and I was able to make great friends there.
OSU: I didn’t hang back but I was careful not to get overly involved since I didn’t yet know how rigorous my academics would be. I did get involved in leadership in my residence hall, joined some clubs, and participated in homecoming activities. I have some friends who got overly involved right away, then struggled with being overcommitted. I’m glad I strove toward achieving some balance between being involved, yet still having some free time to have fun.
Harvard: I got involved right away, following some good advice from my college veteran older sister. Unfortunately, I’m the type that often allows an opportunity to waltz past, but I was determined to not be that way at school. Within the first few weeks, I auditioned for plays (and got a role!) and a cappella groups (a cappella ended up being my main activity, and it was also where I found my home away from home!).
Transfer to TAMU: I took some time to get used to my classes and the new environment. I wanted to make academics my first priority, so I wasn’t preoccupied with building friendships immediately.
Do you feel you were prepared to attend college? Both academically and emotionally?
Baylor: I feel like I was more emotionally prepared to attend college than academically. That’s not to say that I didn’t do well academically, but college is WAY different than high school. There were a lot of times where I became really stressed out from the amount of assignments due. But the best part that helped me the most was knowing how to take good notes in class. Taking thorough notes in class is a life saver! I think the most prepared for college that I felt was when I realized that I had spent all my life preparing for this moment. If I didn’t get into Baylor, then I wasn’t supposed to be there. That realization was really reassuring to me and helped me know that I’m meant to be here at Baylor.
OSU: Emotionally, I found out that I was more prepared than I thought I was. I was very anxious prior to attending college, but much of that anxiety disappeared once I got there. Academically, I am not completely sure yet because I took mostly required general education courses my first year. I think I will be better able to gauge that this year once I get more into courses for my major. The homework load at my high school was very heavy, so in that regard, I was definitely prepared. I found the homework load at college to be a bit lighter than it was in high school. Again, once I get deeper into my major, that may change.
Harvard: High school really helped me understand the concept of time management, approaching academic challenges with confidence, and personal accountability, so I think I was well prepared. My college (and I think most colleges) tries to provide every resource necessary to help its students succeed. These resources, paired with a little dash of work ethic, made me feel academically capable. Emotionally speaking, I don’t know where I would have been without God and a cell phone. I cried a lot and felt homesickness (in varying degrees of intensity) all school year. The fact that I could always pray, encourage myself with the Word, and call my parents really helped me get through though.
Transfer to TAMU: I was surprisingly both academically and emotionally prepared for college. I felt that I mastered the correct study skills in high school which helped tremendously. I also felt that there was an immense emotional freedom from being free from High School.
Was there anything you struggled with during your freshman year? How did you cope?
Baylor: The thing that I struggled with the most during freshman year was definitely stress. I knew going into college that the classes and tests were going to be harder, but I didn’t actually know the full reality of that until my first exams rolled around. I would often bottle up my stress until it culminated to a point where I would have a few breakdowns. The thing that helped me cope was surrounding myself with solid friends who would remind me of where my peace and help comes from: God. Finding those friends was such a blessing and a great reminder that God is with me through everything.
OSU: I struggled with a lot less than I thought I would. I would say the only thing I struggled with was not knowing a single person on my campus. I was exhausted from always having to “explain” myself to each new person. I would love to have had someone who knew me from high school there so I could just relax knowing they already “got” me. I would have even been happy to have a person there from my hometown that I could relate to. That is one of the challenges of going to college out of state.
Harvard: I struggled every now and then with feeling just plain dumb. Sometimes my classmates were able to grasp concepts much quicker and better than I could. I felt that everyone had greater ambition, work ethic, and go-getter-ness than I did and that I didn’t belong. I coped by realizing this simple truth: comparison kills! I had to remind myself that I had something unique and worthwhile to offer and that even those that appear excellent on all fronts have hidden flaws. Also, a good dash of humility helped as well—I was more content when I swallowed the fact that some people are just smarter than me, and that’s okay!
Transfer to TAMU: I wouldn’t say that I struggled with anything. One of my classes was strange to me at first to me because my professors questioned people’s belief in God. I wouldn’t say I struggled with their opinions, but it was certainly strange to leave a Christian school and immediately have a professor who mocked God.
How long did it take before you felt really comfortable and “at home” while away at college? Or are you still waiting to feel comfortable? 🙂
Baylor: It took about two or three weeks for me to feel really at home at Baylor. I think that moment came about when I started to find some really solid friends there.
OSU: Surprisingly, it was almost immediate. I don’t feel like I have my “group” of friends yet, but that did not hinder me from feeling comfortable and at home.
Harvard: I felt comfortable once I found my ‘group’ (which took a few weeks and a bit of forced extroversion). I sing in a Christian a cappella group, and the members have become like brothers and sisters to me. After I was accepted into the group, we had a short retreat in Connecticut where we played games and got to know each other. I was totally in love afterward with my new ‘siblings’ and knew I’d found home.
Transfer to TAMU: The first week felt a little strange because everything was new. However, I felt more at home in college than high school. The people are far more accepting and friendly. High Schoolers can be very insecure and self-conscious. The environment at my college did not feel that way at all which made adjusting very easy.
Was there anything that surprised you about your freshman year experience?
Baylor: I think the thing that surprised me the most about my freshman year experience would have to be how real people are at Baylor. After starting to meet a lot of people, I started to realize that everyone is in the same boat as me: we’re all away from home for the first time, we don’t know what we’re doing, and that we all have hopes and dreams that we’re trying to fulfill here. That feeling really connected me to the other students that I met.
OSU: I was surprised by just how GREAT it was. I expected it to be good, but the greatness was just really a nice surprise. I was also surprised at how well I adjusted to being self-sufficient.
Harvard: Even though I shared a 2-shower bathroom with 10 girls, I almost never had to wait to use the shower. Sharing space isn’t as bad as it seems.
Transfer to TAMU: I was surprised by how nice the professors are! Most of them are very fun and helpful.
As an incoming freshman, is there anything you wish you had known that you realized you didn’t once you got to school?
Baylor: Honestly, I wish I knew that taking an 8:00 am class was the worst decision I could ever make. In high school, making it to class at 8:00 am or even 7:00 am for AP Calculus lab was no problem whatsoever. But as soon as I got to college, everything changed. Waking up in college is harder than in high school. If I could go back to that moment in the summer orientation before the fall semester, I would tell myself not to take an 8:00 am class!
OSU: I brought too much stuff. I had heard you get a lot of free stuff in college (t-shirts) but I didn’t realize just how much. I plan to pack lighter this fall. 🙂
Harvard: I. Brought. Way. Too. Much. Stuff. Seriously, if you’re not sure that you absolutely need it, leave it at home. If you find you need it when you get to school, you can always buy it or have your parents send it to you. You’ll thank me come May when it’s time to move out and store all your stuff.
How do you think your being away at college impacted your family? How did it impact you?
Baylor: I never really talked with my family about how they felt about me being away at college. Honestly, being away at college really helped me to grow as a person and to be able to make new friends and have a fresh start. The best part was being able to have people know me for me. Being at college is really freeing.
OSU: I think all of us dealt with everything way better than we thought we would. We were all dreading everything leading up to move in day, and that was pretty emotional. But after that, we all did way better than we ever thought possible.
Harvard: I’m a pretty loud person at home, and with my sister also at college, was the last girl other than my mom living at home. So I think the house was probably a bit quieter without me and maybe a little less tidy. 🙂 Being away made me realize how precious time with my family is, and how special and valuable the relationships I have with my family members are to me.
Transfer to TAMU: College impacted me very positively. I would say that my personality has flourished in college. It has given me a chance to start on a clean slate and not worry about what my peers in high school think about me. It also tested my faith and the morals my parents have taught me. It has a been a chance for me to prove that I can uphold my values.
Were you ever homesick? If so, how did you deal with it?
Baylor: For me, I didn’t really feel very homesick. That may be because my sister also attends Baylor, but it could also be because I regularly kept in contact with my family.
OSU: I really didn’t feel homesick. There were times I definitely wanted to be home, but it wasn’t really homesickness. I kept in contact with my parents and friends and stayed involved at school. The day we had a tornado and earthquake in the same day made me miss home a little but I survived. 🙂
Harvard: I went to things—most notably a Bible study on Monday nights and big Christian gathering every Friday—and realized that people aren’t so scary after all. Also, I called my parents religiously. 🙂
What’s the one best thing you had in your dorm room? 🙂
Baylor: The one best thing I had in my dorm room was my pet beta fish. Having him on my vanity counter and seeing him get really excited every time I would walk by was refreshing.
OSU: My little fan and anything I had in my room that reminded me of Texas. Having a printer in my room was also super convenient.
Harvard: I had a huge Texas flag hanging vertically from a ceiling-high rung! 🙂
Is there anything you plan to do differently as you start your sophomore year?
Baylor: I think the one thing I plan to do differently my sophomore year is scheduling my time differently. Time management was one thing that was somewhat hard to get a hold of freshman year, but it wasn’t that big of a problem for me. I would just like to be able to budget my time more wisely this next year.
OSU: I really feel good about how I managed my freshman year, so there isn’t really much I plan to do differently. I may explore a few other extracurricular activities just for something different.
Harvard: I plan on trying classes in fields other than in the one I thought initially I would major in.
Transfer to TAMU: I plan to join more clubs and organizations with like-minded people. My political views and my faith reflect who I am as a person. I would like to surround myself with people who think the same way.
I had one question for the student who chose to start out at a community college then transfer to a state school:
How did you come to decide to take classes locally for your freshman year, then transfer for your sophomore year?
I wasn’t sure about which college I wanted to attend. Instead of impulsively deciding to attend a four-year university as a freshman, I decided to take more time to consider which university was best for me while attending a junior college. Overall, this was a decision I am very happy with. I saved a ton of money and I eventually decided which university would best suit me! It was a win-win.
Is there one piece of your best advice you can share with incoming freshmen?
Baylor: The major thing that I would like to share with incoming freshmen would be to be confident in who you are as a person. No matter if you were the school jock, cheerleader, nerd, or someone who experienced bullying in high school, you will find your group of people in college. As long as you stay true to who you are as a person, you’ll find your solid group of friends. The second most important thing to do is to find professor ratings on the internet. If you end up in a class where you can’t understand the professor, or if the class just doesn’t feel right, do not be afraid to switch into a different class! I had to do this once and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Because of that switch, I met one of my best friends. Also, another thing that is really important to know is to not be afraid of going to office hours with your professor. A lot of times if your professor is scary in class, he or she is much more helpful and understanding during their office hours. The professors are there to help you learn and they’ll care about anything you bring to them. Another thing that really helped me a lot was to schedule time to meet with your friends for lunch or dinner. Sometimes because of academics, it’s easy to forget about eating or hanging out with friends. Both are important for staying healthy as a person. Another thing that is important is to not feel like you have to study in the library just because everyone else studies there. Find your happy place where you can study best. The most progress I made with studying was in a lobby area in my dorm. And lastly, don’t worry about going away to college. You’re going to do great things, and every class that you take is going towards your major and what you want to be doing for the rest of your life. If you’re an undecided major, don’t worry about it. You’ll find your sweet spot soon enough, even if it takes you two years of taking classes.
OSU: If you know something is “wrong,” don’t be afraid to change it. If you realize your professor is not a good fit for you, switch to a different section. If you have joined a club and find out that it just isn’t your thing, don’t be afraid to end that affiliation to pursue something else. Don’t waste a whole semester or school year on something that isn’t a good fit for you. One of the purposes of college is to discover and learn things about yourself, so don’t be afraid to make changes as you learn more about what you like and what you don’t. Also, RateMyProfessors.com is the most important website you can use when choosing courses. It has reviews of your professors by fellow students. Read it. Use it. Live it. I used it regarding a professor I had misgivings about and chose to switch sections. It was the best decision I could make. Finally, just know that there are smart choices and right choices, and they are not always the same thing. Choose what is right for you, which may not always be what other people are telling you is the smart choice.
Harvard: Don’t let opportunities you want to pursue pass you by, but at the same time, don’t feel that you must pursue everything that presents itself to you.
Transfer to TAMU: I try to maintain a grateful and positive outlook in the classroom and in my personal life. This helps me to strive for personal excellence and prevents me from comparing myself to others. It also shows my professors that I have a willingness to learn and improve. Establishing a good relationship with your professors will go a long way!
I was so thrilled to talk with these students and hear such thoughtful and mature answers. In case you skipped around and came straight to the end, the major takeaways I got were: you WILL find your place, don’t take too much stuff, buy a good fan for your room, and DO NOT take an 8 am class. 🙂 I second that one. I took a five-day-a-week 8 am Calculus class my freshman year in college, and that scared me straight for the remaining four years. I never made that mistake again. 🙂
I hope in reading the insights from these students it helps alleviate some anxiety you and your child are most certainly feeling. It’s definitely going to be a challenge for everyone to cope with the change that sending a student off to college brings. But hang in there. I am here to tell you that it DOES get better. You can do it!
Please feel free to leave a comment or ask a question I didn’t cover. I’d love to hear from you!
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