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The UnCollege Blog

How to Be Proactive and Make the Most Out of Freshman Year

Not everyone in the UnCollege community is an unschooler, college dropout or some sort of academic deviant. No matter how “alternative” we are, we have one thing in common – we are all are actively learning and searching for new ways to improve ourselves both personally and possibly, professionally. For those hackademics that are about to try their hand at college, here is a helpful list of actions you can take to make the most of your first year.

  1. Figure out your flow: Some people will tell you to follow your passions, others will tell you to follow your interests. I’m personally a believer in following your moments of “flow,” a concept coined by behavioral psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The feeling of flow comes when your skills are matched by a challenge that goes just beyond your comfort zone: just the right amount of difficulty and interest to keep you engaged and energized while giving you the feeling of accomplishment, possibility, and growth. Maybe your moments of flow come when you’re working on a tough math problem; for another student, a moment of flow might come when lost in a dense novel; for yet another, flow might mean solving problems with a group of peers in a roundtable discussion. Centering on what gives you those moments of flow will help you to choose courses during your first year, and it’s those courses that will help you determine what you’d like to major in. Try not to go into freshman year married to a major; focus instead on the flow.

  1. Do your research: Once you’ve identified a few courses and areas of study that appeal to you, do your research. I know, I know: “research” brings to mind hours spent sitting in library basements, but this kind of research is actually quite fun, and it’s necessary to taking control of your freshman year fate. Research the professors and graduate students who are doing work in fields that compel you, and keep a Word document on your laptop with their names, email addresses, and office hours at hand. You don’t need to contact them before the year starts (in fact, I’d caution against it—you’ll likely be lost in the start-of-the-year inbox flood), but keep that list at hand after the first few weeks have gone by, and start getting in touch. You (or your parents, or a scholarship committee) is paying handsomely for you to interact with the brightest minds in your fields of interest; meeting with professors and graduate students outside of the classroom is just as important as going to class, and the relationships you forget with them during your first year will open the door to countless research opportunities, job leads, and friendships in the four years to come.

  1. Take a gap year: One of the best ways to prepare for freshman year is to take a year off! Whether you want to motorcycle around Southeast Asia or work a real-world job, start a company or teach English in the south of France, taking a gap year is an excellent way to figure out your flow (see #1) and mature a bit before starting on the most important intellectual journey of your life thus far. College is a time and space for real personal development, but many students miss out on that development because they’re so overwhelmed with the freedoms and distractions of being an independent adult for the first time in their life, while simultaneously having a heavy workload they’ve likely never encountered before. Taking a gap year can help you center yourself, rest and recover from the intensities of senior year, and lead you to discover certain interests and possibilities you’d miss if you rushed into college. Most universities will allow you to defer for a year, and if a gap year is an option for you, I’d encourage you to take it. While I didn’t take a gap year myself, those I know who did were overwhelmingly glad to have done so—I’ve actually never met someone who took a gap year they regretted.

  1. Participate in a pre-orientation trip: Many universities will offer a trip before freshman year orientation—if this is an option at your university, GO FOR IT. (Many will also offer financial aid for those who cannot afford the pre-orientation trip; talk to your university if money becomes an obstacle for attending.) For my pre-orientation trip, I went into Ansel Adams Wilderness with eleven other students and two seniors, who were our guides. We went hiking for a week, and those days were some of the most important of my entire freshman year—before the year had even begun! We slept under the stars, peed in the woods, encountered two bears, and talked about our lives before coming to university in a setting that put us all on a truly-even playing field: No nice clothes, no makeup, no showers, just the beautiful gritty wilderness and eleven new friends. Even if your trip isn’t quite as extreme as the one I took, the chance to get to know a few of your future classmates before the craziness of freshman fall is a real plus; having a dozen faces you recognize in a crowd can lead you to dozens more.

  1. Focus on your health: This is probably the most unexpected item on this list, but it’s one of the most crucial by far. You’re 17, 18, 19: You’re young, and if you’re lucky, you’re in good shape by default. But as the stress and intensity and non-stop pace of university life starts to take hold, many non-athlete students put their health and well-being on the back burner, pulling Monster-fueled all-nighters, drinking a few more beers than their limits, and forgoing the gym for late-night Doritos and Mountain Dew. You don’t need to be type A to realize the harm this will cause in the long-term, and even the short-term. Set realistic fitness and wellness goals for yourself: Try to hit the gym three times a week, meditate in the evenings, and avoid overdoing it at campus parties. Your body and your mind will thank you—you’re in this for the long haul, and without your health, you won’t be able to achieve the things you came to college to do. Setting healthy habits in your first year is an excellent way to ensure success in the years to come.

  1. Get to know your new home: I went to university outside of San Francisco, but most of my peers never made it into SF more than three times a year. This is crazy! If you go to university in or near a major city, take advantage of that link. Get to know the different neighborhoods, businesses, and cultural landmarks of your new home; you never know, you may end up living and working there after graduation, and you’ll be glad to know the lay of the land in advance.

  2. Plan for future adventures: Whether you want to pursue independent anthropological research in eastern Europe (maybe that was just me) or study abroad in Spain, whether you want to snag a coveted research assistantship at a design lab or lead up a major campus organization, it’s important to plan for your future adventures now. Studying abroad, pursuing funded research, and being a campus leader are all excellent ways to spend your time in college—and as someone who did all three, it really is possible to “do it all,” with one major caveat: You’ve got to plan ahead, and be ready to make a few sacrifices. For me, that sacrifice was my double major; but as a honed in on a single major, I was able to spend three quarters abroad, travel to five different countries on funding from my university’s generous grants, and head-up a big arts organization. You can too; you just need to be realistic about timing. Many of my peers were unable to take advantage of the amazing study abroad offerings because they didn’t plan out their course loads to allow for time off-campus; don’t fall into that trap! Make sure you meet the necessary requirements to pursue your future adventures.

  1. Don’t be afraid to change your mind: Lastly, don’t be afraid to change your mind. Maybe you arrived on campus determined to be a computer scientist, but the work just hasn’t invigorated you: Don’t be afraid to try architecture, or literature, or economics. Or maybe you always thought you’d be an artist, but you find yourself inexplicably drawn to political clubs on campus: Don’t be afraid to take an international relations course and feel out the waters. Who you are at 18 is not who you are supposed to be at 19, or 20, or 21. These are years of tremendous growth, and we grow up best when we allow ourselves to be flexible. Sometimes staying true to yourself means changing, and that’s what college is for.

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