8 Mistakes to Avoid Your First Semester of College
College is a time to grow, learn, and make mistakes. That said, we've compiled a list of mistakes you should definitely avoid during your first semester.
Entering college can be a big life adjustment, chock-full of new experiences and challenges. To set yourself up for success in the years to come, it's important you start off on the right foot.
Everyone's experience will be different, and there are a lot of ways to live your college journey — but there are also many things you definitely shouldn't do.
We spoke with students, professors, and education professionals for their insights into the biggest mistakes to avoid in your first semester of college. Here are their top eight.
1. Underestimating the Transition to College
Though your final years of high school may attempt to prepare you for college, the two experiences are very different.
"I had not anticipated the adjustment period required for freshmen to succeed," said Christopher Chalmers, a recent grad of the University of California, Irvine. "College classes do not expect you to simply get by, but to complete and comprehend the work sufficiently to apply your knowledge to new and unique situations presented on exams."
Chalmers explained that many high school courses prioritize memorization and repetition over truly engaging with the material. Completing all your homework and projects can bolster your grade in high school, leaving room for lower scores on tests.
But in college, midterms and final exams often count for a large chunk of your overall grade, while homework primarily serves to put into context what you're learning. You may even take some college courses in which homework is optional or assignments count toward just a small participation grade.
Transitioning to classes that focus on understanding the material in a deep and functional way could prove difficult for many first-year students.
2. Not Going to Office Hours
Most professors set aside time outside of class for office hours and study sessions, which many students fail to take advantage of. New students often feel shy about meeting with professors, with many simply believing they don't need the extra assistance.
"Surprisingly, almost no one attends these scheduled sessions where professors want to help you succeed," said Chalmers. "Office hours are the best place to go if you're struggling or need mentorship."
Beyond getting help with understanding the course material, office hours are a good opportunity to work on developing a professional relationship with your instructors.
"Simply talking to your professors allows them to get a sense of who you are as a person, which is important because they may be potential letter writers in the future," said Chalmers. "Or, better yet, they may offer you a job in their research lab if one exists."
3. Buying New Textbooks Right Away
"Every college tries to get you to buy all brand-new books from their bookstore before the semester starts — don't do it!" said Scott Frenzel, a college life TikToker with 1.7 million followers. "There are much better (and much cheaper) ways to get used books with sites like SlugBooks.com or Amazon Rentals."
Once on campus, you can usually find older students selling their textbooks for popular first-year courses. If your roommate is taking the same class, you can share the textbook and split the cost. Overall, shopping around for your textbooks can save you a solid chunk of money.
You should also wait to buy your textbook to ensure you'll actually use it.
"Sometimes, you'll even show up to class the first day, and the professor will tell you you won't even need the book they listed on the syllabus at all," said Frenzel. "I always waited to buy until I knew for certain that I'd need the book."
4. Partying or Socializing Too Much
While the social aspect of the college experience is certainly important, overdoing it in your first semester of school can jeopardize your transition to the rigor of college coursework.
"Meet new people and get involved in clubs and organizations on campus but remember to find your balance," said Dr. Tya Mathis-Coleman, deputy treasurer of the College Savings Division with the Nevada State Treasurer's Office. "If your grades drop or if you fail a class, you may lose scholarships or have to pay to retake a class."
It's important to prioritize study time and good sleep along with your social life. Spend your first semester striking a good balance that allows you to maintain good grades while having fun with friends.
5. Not Dropping a Class You Don't Like
Dropping a class can feel like a taboo in college. Many students don't even consider it an option.
"For high-achieving students, it's hard not to look at dropping a class — or deciding to take it pass/fail instead of for a grade — like you're failing," said Lisa Speransky, founder and director of programs at Ivy Tutors Network. "But dropping a class that's not right for you is absolutely not failing. It's making an adult decision to utilize your time, money, and energy on better things."
You may decide to drop a class if your grade will hurt your overall GPA. You can try the class again when you're better prepared or have a lighter course load.
"Sometimes, a class isn't the right fit because of the professor, the time of day, the workload, or many other reasons," said Speransky.
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6. Holing Up or Going Home Every Weekend
Your first semester of college is an ideal time to make friends and get involved in campus activities. The first term will also be the easiest time to join clubs amid the influx of back-to-school activities and bonding events.
"Resist the urge to go on a Netflix binge all through the day and night," said Deborah J. Cohan, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. "Your best memories from college are likely to come from the connections you make and the things you get involved in on and off campus."
Leaving your dorm room and connecting with students can be especially important in your first semester of college, when people tend to be more open to meeting others.
"By the time the semester comes to a close, students have started to solidify their friend groups," said Eric Drymer, CEO of Studyverse. "That doesn't mean you can't still meet new people — it just means the buzz of the new semester has tapered off and there are fewer students actively looking for new friendships."
7. Scheduling 8 A.M. Classes
Don't be a hero. Don't sign up for the first class of the day.
"Every college freshman thinks, 'Well, I got up at 6:30 a.m. every day in high school, an 8 a.m. class won't be too bad!'" said Frenzel. "It's a big mistake. I don't know what kind of space-time continuum you jump through in college, but 8 a.m. college time feels like someone is pulling you out of the grave."
Frenzel recommends making an exception if it's a class you really want to take with a great professor — but otherwise, it's a bad idea.
It's also more common in college to stay up late socializing, studying, or working. A good night's sleep is important for your brain to retain new information.
8. Taking Too Many Classes
Try to keep your first college course load light. You might be excited to learn a bunch of new things or want to earn as many credits as you can each year, but your first semester is the time to take it easy.
"You want to leave yourself plenty of time to get acquainted with your new campus life, meet new friends, and get involved in clubs and activities," said Drymer. "If you're studying all the time because you've enrolled in too many classes, you're going to miss out on a lot of special social opportunities that come around only when you're a brand-new student."
With Advice From:
Christopher Chalmers, known professionally as Chris Huxleys, is a Ph.D. student in Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine, as well as a TikTok short-form video creator dabbling in the lucid dreaming niche. Christopher has a bachelor's degree in Earth system science from UC Irvine, with departmental honors and research distinction awards.
His interests include education, outreach, and making science more accessible to the general public. He accomplishes these goals by teaching in school and reaching millions of people through social media. Christopher's outreach is dynamic, educating and engaging others on broad topics like climate change and more niche topics like sleep psychology.
Scott Frenzel is a Los Angeles-based TikTok creator known for his college hack videos and nostalgic comedy skits. He started making TikTok videos on a whim after the restaurant he worked at closed during the pandemic, but never imagined it would become his career.
Pulling from his own experiences as a college student, orientation leader, and tour guide, Scott created a college tip series — featuring topics like "Life hacks for college (that no one ever tells you)," "Embarrassing mistakes every college freshman makes," and "Things every student should bring to college (that you won't find on the packing list)" — which has exploded on social media, with a combined view count of over 20 million.
His hacks and tips are always wrapped in a touch of humor, and together with his lovable personality and fast-talking have earned him a dedicated TikTok following of over 1.7 million fans.
Dr. Tya Mathis-Coleman
Dr. Tya R. Mathis-Coleman is a native of Las Vegas and a proud product of the Clark County School District and the Nevada System of Higher Education. She received her bachelor's in political science from the University of Nevada, Reno, and her MPA and doctor of public policy from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Mathis-Coleman serves as deputy treasurer, overseeing the College Savings Division for the State Treasurer's Office. In this role, she helps Nevadans plan, save, and pay for postsecondary education. She feels privileged to work for an organization with the same values as her own. Mathis-Coleman believes in the tremendous impact one person can have on the lives of young people and strives to make a difference in others' lives daily.
Lisa Speransky is the founder and CEO of Ivy Tutors Network, a 20-year-old mission-driven education brand she started in college. After a 13-year corporate career and two CEO roles in the consumer products industry, she returned to Ivy full time to build it into NYC's premier tutoring company. Ivy Tutors Network empowers students to succeed through personalized education and mentoring, providing award-winning academic tutoring, advising, and test prep to individual students and to the Department of Education.
This is Speransky's second year as the learning chair for the New York chapter of the Entrepreneurs Organization Accelerator program. She is also on the board of Her Story Mentorship, a nonprofit that provides in-school programming to teach young girls the power of purpose.
Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.
Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D., is an award-winning public sociologist and author of the sociological memoir "Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving, and Redemption" (Rutgers 2020). Her forthcoming book, a college guide for parents and students, will be published in 2024. Cohan is a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort; a writer for Psychology Today; and a frequent contributor to Inside Higher Ed, Ms. Magazine, and The Good Men Project. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, Teen Vogue, and Utne Reader.
Regularly featured as an expert for media on a range of issues, Cohan has been cited in outlets such as CNN, MSN, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Elite Daily, The Washington Post, Vox, Slate, Salon, Vice News, HuffPost, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. For more information, visit her website.
Eric Drymer previously founded an education nonprofit at 17 and has worked in growth strategy at Founders Intelligence and venture operations at Silicon Valley Bank.
Having initially pursued a career in the banking industry after graduating from the University of Southern California, he eventually found himself drawn toward entrepreneurship and the prospect of building something for the world. The result was Studyverse, an EdTech startup building the Virtual Study Hall for Gen Z, which Eric created with his co-founder, Christoph Knes. The company's ultimate vision is to build distraction-free spaces where students can collaborate, focus, and get things done with their friends and online study buddies.