Freshman May Be The Hardest Year Of All

There is no question that the first semester of the freshman year of college is the most critical.

Many studies show that freshman year is the time when students most likely drop out of college – if not permanently, then temporarily.

Many consider transferring in freshman year (though most don’t). There are various factors at play.

But freshman year doesn’t have to be a nightmare.

As long as you know how to make the most of freshman year, it can be one of the most memorable years of your life.

Freshman Year Can Be Hard for Many Reasons

Remember that college is meant to be a transitional point from being the responsibility of others—guiding you, directing you, really—to being responsible for yourself.

Parents, teachers, coaches, someone always told you what to do and when to do it.

While there are rules in college, suddenly you have to figure things out for yourself.

No one makes you do your homework during freshman year.

Assignments are rarely daily during freshman year, and it’s unusual to have to sit quizzes on the previous night’s reading.

You’re obliged to find help if you need it.

There are no curfews or bed checks.

No more babysitters!

So, One of Three Things Happens

a) You breathe a sigh of relief, and maturely take charge of your life.

You get rest when you need it, make friends who are right for you, get assignments done on time, party in moderation.

b) Or, you go crazy with the freedom, party every night, make friends with persons who would petrify your parents, put off assignments until the night before they’re due.

c) Or, you become overwhelmed by the many options, crawl under the covers, hope no one notices, and feel that you alone are unable to navigate this new path.

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I have seen many students become intimidated by their classmates during their freshman year.

Just remember, you were all accepted to your school because you met specific standards within a reasonable range.

Knowing how to make the most of freshman year can make all the difference.

From my years of experience working with college students and freshmen, here are a couple of things for you to keep in mind as you begin your college journey.

7 Things to Remember During Your Freshman Year

1) Everyone Starts on the Same Footing in Freshman Year

Freshman May Be The Hardest Year Of AllEach of you brings different skills and experiences to freshman year.

All of you are insecure. But some act with bravado, as if you know it all.

Perhaps the majority of students just become quiet, figuring that if you don’t ask questions, no one knows how much you don’t know.

This doesn’t work because you won’t find the answers if you don’t ask the questions—and there are so many in this new environment.

That will be most of you, unfortunately.

You all sit in class or participate in other activities, collectively clueless and likely to remain so because no one has the guts to ‘fess about having questions.

This is the time you need to learn your way around so you can focus your talents in the best places.

You all are among the best from your secondary schools, and now you’re just one of many.

And that is all right.

Colleges want you to become the best of who you are now.

Knowing that everyone is at the starting line and there’s nothing wrong with not knowing everything, when you begin, can help you make the most of freshman year.

2) It’s Okay to Return to School When You’re Older

Freshman May Be The Hardest Year Of AllYou may be returning to school after creating a work-life or working and starting a family, so you may be older than most of your classmates.

That may feel uncomfortable, especially in freshman year.

You may be closer in age to your faculty and feel that you’ve lost time, or you may have lost a job and need to build a new set of skills.

You are not alone.

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My and other administrators’ experience is that you may be a more focused and determined student than your peers coming in from high school.

You have the motivation to do what’s necessary, and you have less time to play, so you use your time wisely and well.

There’s nothing to feel awkward about – you can make the most of freshman year with your experience!

3) Freshman Year Connections

Freshman May Be The Hardest Year Of All

In freshman year, you’ll experience separation from the familiar.

Freshman year, you have to make new friends, learn new spaces, live or hang out with different people, perhaps eat unfamiliar foods, learn new ways of learning, and abide by new rules.

That is a lot of new at one time.

It helps at first, if you’re on a residential campus, to bring some of your favorite things with you—a stuffed animal, music, a beloved bedspread or poster, photos.

Today, technology makes staying connected to the familiar a lot easier via smartphones or social media.

At first, it’s tempting to stay connected to your old friends.

But especially if your friends are on different campuses or living different kinds of lives, then you may have less and less to talk about as a college freshman.

So, you should begin to make new friends during your first semester to make the most of your freshman year.

One or two is just fine to start.

She may be a roommate, or he may be someone you meet at orientation.

You need to have someone to talk, eat, and watch a movie with.

Your circle will expand over time as you get more involved in your courses and extracurricular activities during your freshman year.

4) A Sense of Belonging

Freshman May Be The Hardest Year Of AllYou may be encountering a far more diverse population in ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, and economic status than you have known before while in your freshman year.

Many high schools are relatively homogeneous, as are the communities they serve.

On many, if not most campuses, some official is responsible for dealing with diversity matters.

There are offices offering chaplains, rabbis, or other religious leaders.

Clubs and programs may serve your particular ethnic group or nationality, or faith.

These can be a great comfort during freshman year, and you should not shy from engaging with them if they help you ease into campus life more smoothly during your freshman year.

They are not stigmatizing and, in fact, may allow you to celebrate your identity with pride and solidarity and share it with the broader campus community.

Such groups are also a great way to make friends whose experiences may more closely mirror your own.

5) Settling into Freshman Year

Freshman May Be The Hardest Year Of All

In the freshman year, you will have orientations of various sorts—they are of the utmost importance.

They may range from a day to a week and maybe on or off-campus.

In some cases, you can register for classes on a priority basis during orientation.

You get a vast amount of information, usually along with a freshman year handbook or website. 

You won’t remember everything you hear, so it’s wise to identify someone whom you feel you might go to when you need to talk.

The person could be your adviser or your RA, a senior, a peer adviser, a dean, or a chaplain.

Getting first-hand information about all the things your college has to offer can help you make the most of freshman year.

6) Transitioning from High-School Education to College Education

Freshman May Be The Hardest Year Of All

Freshman year, you are taking the fundamental courses on which all your other learning will build.

The required writing course, while seeming bothersome, especially if you consider yourself a good writer, teaches you to write differently.

In high school, you fed back what the teacher gave you.

In college, you have to find your own voice, put forth your own theories, and back up your thinking with substantial evidence.

The freshman year may be the only time professors help with grammar and structure.

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You’ll talk about plagiarism in the first year.

If you fall afoul of those rules, officials may cut you some slack as a freshman, but not after that.

You might have the opportunity to enroll for a freshman year experience course of some sort.

A course like this exists to ensure that you understand how college works, both academically and regarding critical resources, such as library use.

The math or biology principles you need to understand are usually taught in freshman year courses.

If you don’t get them, you’ll struggle later in related classes that may be part of your major such as Chemistry or Economics.

This is the crucial time, during freshman year, to be sure you’re placed on the right class level.

You need to make sure you’re seeking tutoring or support, and that you’re sharing with an adviser any struggles you’re having with these entry-level courses.

You are not the only person in your freshman year who may be seeking help.

It is essential to do so if you need it.

7) The First Steps Toward Establishing Responsibility for Yourself

Freshman May Be The Hardest Year Of All

In your freshman year, you are taking the first steps toward establishing responsibility for yourself in college, and you are accomplishing this in a safe space.

The consequences of making a hash of it now are far less risky than if you were in a job or had some other critical responsibility.

That is not to say that you can get away with serious offenses (violence, an F average, substance abuse). Just because you might get a lighter sentence, in the beginning, doesn’t mean you should act irresponsibly.

Serious offenses do and should have appropriately severe consequences.

But there is more forgiveness in the first freshman year than you will ever have later in life.

And there is more support for getting it right in your freshman year than you will ever have either.

So, make the most of freshman year because mistakes are also a means of learning.

Freshman year might be hard for many, but it’s also one of the most exciting periods in a student’s academic career.

Keep these 7 things in mind to make the most of freshman year, so you are mentally and otherwise prepared for exactly how to hit the ground running in college.

Now I’d love to hear back from you.

Did these tips help prepare you for freshman year?

Is there anything else you want to know about starting your first year of college?

Write in and let me know!

freshman yearDr. Marcia Cantarella is the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide and a consultant on higher education, access and success. You may reach her at

freshman yearInformation on finding the right college fit at any age can be found in Chapter 1 of I CAN Finish College, as well as many tips on the freshman year.

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