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Freshman Year is Not 13th Grade

New college students may have an idea about college life, probably populated through pop culture and social media. There's classes, there's friends, but a lot more freedom. Just like high school but fewer rules. Let's start there.

Many, if not most, people who talk about the first year of high school or college refer to it as "Freshman" year. As freshman is nearly half a millenia old and there are more inclusive ways to discuss student academic classifications, my preference is "first year."

College in Pop Culture

Whenever I watch a show or movie set at a college or university, I think about Luke Skywalker.

"Every word of what you just said was wrong."

Maybe a little dramatic, but here are some examples of common depictions of college life in popular culture:

  • First year students move to college and go straight to a huge frat party.

  • The first class is a blow-off class because the professor just hands out the syllabus.

  • Everyone is looking for and probably finding a short- or long-term significant other.

  • The RA's (residence hall staff) really don't care what you do as long as it's quiet.

  • Going to class is optional and has no effect on grades.

  • Students only go to tutoring when they're panicked and it always results in success.

and so on.

It might be fun to debunk this very small sample of myths, this won't be the focus of this article. The short version is that this does not represent traditional first year college life. Add the notion that people have a very hard time learning from the experience of others, perhaps those in late adolescence more so. Every year, there are arguably millions of students experiencing the first year of college for the first time like they are the first people to have ever done so. Yikes.


Going to class can be much different in college compared to high school. There may not be required attendance which gives a student the freedom to skip without being rounded up by the truancy officer. For colleges with early alert programs, a faculty member might contact the student directly if they fail to attend class or they might let the student's academic advisor know. The advisor may try to contact the student and/or other college officials who have contact with the student. There is freedom, but it's not a free-for-all. In some instances, college officials are watching to help prevent academic struggles.

Carefully consider missing a class (then don't miss)

One course in high school that spans the year meets 180 times. The content in that year is comparable to a college semester of about 75 days. Further, classes do not meet every day in college. A typical balance in the schedule includes classes that meet Monday, Wednesday and Friday or Tuesday and Thursday. For this example, the class is M-W-F. This class will meet for 3/5 of the semester or 45 times. In 45 days, the same content will be covered in college that takes 180 days in high school. This means that each day in college is comparable to 4 days in high school. Thinking about hitting that snooze button? You just fell behind by a week.

Ask for Help

This topic could go on for quite some time. Instead, I will deploy brevity.

  1. Do your best to recognize you need help as early as possible. It's not easy and many folks think they can manage. If you're not sure if you need assistance, ask for help.

  2. What might a first year student need help with?

  • Academics - seek tutoring VERY early, even if you think you don't need it

  • Adjustment - there's no stigma talking to a counselor about adjustment, struggles or other issues. If you saw a counselor before college, make a connection with the college counselor right away so you have support close by.

  • Faculty - get to know your faculty. They write your tests so they know the content. Later on, you may need to ask one of them to write a recommendation for you. Better to ask someone you know than a complete stranger.

  • Resident Assistant - for first year students who live on campus, the peer guidance is provided by a resident assistant (or another person with a similar title). They live in the same community are are there to assist. Academic advisors are also ready and willing to help first year students.

Overall, if you do what you're asked to do with honesty and integrity, college will go well. Keep in mind that the transition might be rough, but the short-term discomfort will be overshadowed by the long-term outcome.

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