17 College Hacks for Your First Semester or Two

So you’ve made through the first week of college and you’re still alive. Now what? You found all your classes. You’ve sort of settled into a routine. Based on a decade of personal university experience (two Bachelors and a Masters), here are some First & Second Semester Hacks guaranteed to keep the good going.

  1. Learn the best way YOU study. Because studying in college is not the same as studying in high school. And figure out the best place/environment to study. The sooner the better. That might be in a carrel at the library or it might be on the lawn or it might be at Starbucks. Note: Mozart ALWAYS helps the studying (unless, of course, you’re trying to compose an original piece…in which case he’ll just make you feel like a failure).
  2. And while we’re on studying, you should know that reviewing your notes for 20-30 minutes a day will serve you much better than cramming and all-nighters the night before a test. Yes, I know every single teacher has told you the since the first grade. BECAUSE IT’S TRUE.
  3. Don’t ever get stuck somewhere without anything to study/read. Doctors’ waiting rooms, gridlocked traffic, airport gates, getting your oil changed, and subways are all great places to knock out a chapter or look over note cards, BUT ONLY IF YOU HAVE THEM WITH YOU. And after college, using this little tidbit will enable you to read a book per week if you’re so inclined, which can only happen if you exercise some discipline and…
  4. Resist the urge to be on a screen all the time. Go live life. Don’t be that person who sits in the front seat of a roller coaster only so they can video the whole thing and post it later, consequently missing the joy of the ride. Something is lost if you’re constantly thinking “I need to post this.” You are more than your likes and double-taps. So no more desert pics. No more bathroom selfies at just the right angle. That’s not curating, that’s self-aggrandizement and it’s not very attractive. Let’s move on.
  5. Keep up your car. Get the oil changed every 4,000 miles, and have it tuned up however often the manual says. Keep the tires properly inflated. Learn how to change a flat and how to jump it if the battery dies. And learn who’s a good, reliable mechanic in town. Ask the locals. They’ll know the best ones, and more importantly, the ones to stay away from.
  6. When one of your new buddies or roommates is going home for the weekend, ask if you can tag along. Road trips are a rite of college. Going someplace you’ve never been and having stories to tell about it? Yes, please.
  7. When you do your laundry, sit with it the entire time. Do some studying. Don’t leave it alone, even for two minutes. Shady people are always casing the laundry room ready to steal your favorite pique polo and your Seven jeans at the first opportunity to take advantage of your naïveté. And it wouldn’t hurt to look in the washer/dryer before you put your clothes in to make sure some jerk didn’t *accidentally* leave a sharpie in there.
  8. Find a upperclassman you trust who shares your major and find out which professors to take and which to avoid. This plan is not full proof; but it works more often than not. By the way, you’ll always have some professors that are just dreadful trolls, people who got hired because they’re experts in their field not because they’re good teachers. So rather than being ‘that student’ who constantly complains about their professors, just go ahead and learn how to learn from a professor you don’t like, and everyone will be less miserable. And yes, you should even go talk to the trolls in their cave hours.
  9. You probably shouldn’t have a job until you’re at least a sophomore, but should you need one, the absolute best on-campus job is the ID Checker at the Gym. This person just sits at a desk and makes people show them their IDs before he lets them in (to make sure they’re really students and not just townies looking to play some ball). So basically you could get paid to sit at desk and study and occasionally look up at an ID. If you go to an uppity uni, this system will likely be automated, so you’ll be out of luck there, but still it’s worth investigating. The second best job on campus is working the front desk of a dorm, which is basically the same thing, only with phone responsibilities. Third best is the computer lab. The worst job is anything in the restaurant industry. It’s very hard work for the money and the hours are terrible.
  10. Resist the temptation declare a major until you’ve taken at least 60 hours. On declaring a major, note well the words of Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”  Everyone will have to take mostly the same classes your first two years anyway; Freshman History, Sophomore English, etc. Until then, take a wide variety of electives that are things you’ve always wanted to learn. Diversify your education and try to discover something that you really love, that you absolutely can’t stop dreaming about, THEN declare a major. Because you don’t want to declare that you are a Pre-Med major on the first day only to realize you’re not cut out for Organic Chemistry, and then change majors. Because when you realize being a Creative Writing major instead does not require Organic Chemistry to graduate, you will also realize that you will have wasted time, money, and hard work on a class you didn’t need.
  11.  You know that one thing or two things you were known for in high school that you really wish you weren’t known for? You now have the opportunity to change it amid thousands of strangers to don’t know your history. So go start changing. A clean slate is the rarest of gifts. Don’t blow it.
  12. Take summer school if you want, just know that as a general rule, the teaching/classroom environment will likely not be as good. If that matters to you, then take the summers off and travel as much as you can, preferably outside the United States. That in itself is a tremendous education. There are all kinds of adventures you can do for very reasonable prices if you know where to look. Generally, stay away from touristy places and your dollar will really stretch. Your church (you DO have a church, right?) probably has some foreign missionaries in one country or another. Arrange for a visit with them and your lodging will likely be paid for. Also, do some hunting in the business section of the paper and figure out which country’s currency is weakest against the U.S. Dollar, then go to that country. $20 there might last you a week, which would make for some great adventures and story fodder. Just check with the State Department first to make sure you’re not planning a backpack trip through a civil war zone.
  13. Never, ever, EVER get photographed with a drink in your hand, especially a red solo cup. Because it looks really bad no matter what the drink actually is. Look, we all know social media has the potential to eat you if you’re not careful, but not being eaten is a pretty low bar. Instead, learn the skill of curating your social media footprint so you can keep social media from being a social mistake. Simple things like paying attention to privacy settings go a long way. And not everything needs to be posted like some bored high schooler. At some point, your future boss, and probably your future father in-law, will Google you. The same applies to Spring Break antics. Once someone snaps a pic of you doing something stupid and posts it online ten seconds later, every future employer will see it during your interview process, not to mention your future father-in-law. Now more than ever, the choices you make in a few seconds can affect the rest of your life. Every future employer worth working for (and every potential spouse worth marrying, and every candidate running against you, and every lawyer with a subpoena) will check your references and they will troll your social media feeds. Crass comments, sketchy photos (with or without nudity), compromising situations, and biggoted rants will come back to haunt you. It’s not a question of If, but of When. Even if it’s all legal, it can make you look really bad. And don’t fall for the “oh, I’ll just delete my pictures and feeds,” business. When it comes to the internet, ‘deleted’ actually means ‘no longer visible to normal users.’ But what if you get an interview at Google, Apple, or Microsoft? Or the Pentagon? You think they don’t have ways of vetting potential employees? You bet they do. And they’re probably not going to tell you exactly how they do it.
  14. Concentrate on being the right person before you concentrate on finding the right person. Especially at certain Christian universities there is an ungodly amount of pressure on students to find that special someone and get married, the prevailing wisdom being that once you leave college you will not have the same opportunities. DON’T BUY INTO THIS FOOLISHNESS. You’re not looking for the best person to marry, you’re looking for the right one. And you’d better leave some room for God in the equation. Furthermore, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually you will grow more from 18 – 24 than at any other time in your life. This means if you marry someone at 20, chances are they and you will be different people in four years, people who may not have married each other had they waited. And it is much better to be single wishing you were married than married wishing you were single. If you happen to find that right person in college, fantastic. Just don’t make it your point. Make growing up and maturing your #1 priority. Run as fast as you can towards Jesus. Then look who’s running beside you. THAT’s the person you should think about marrying. Falling in love is wonderful, but make sure you’re falling in love with the person and not falling in love with the idea of falling in love.
  15. This won’t likely apply until at least sophomore year, but it needs saying: go study abroad. Make a way for this to happen, as many semesters as you can. Traveling beyond your borders is the single biggest bang for your educational buck, not to mention your life. The traveling and the living in another culture is the real education. The classes are just bonus. And there are plenty of countries who have museums that are older than the United States. And most of these places have trains. And castles. And you might meet someone. With an accent. So there’s that.
  16. College is the place to ask some tough faith questions. So ask. And listen. And ponder. And wrestle. And question some more. Interpret. Dialogue. Don’t settle for pat answers and one-liner platitudes. Because part of maturity is learning not to jump straight to Outrage/Argument mode. And don’t take the easy path of ignoring your faith either. There are answers, but they are rarely simple and quick.  Instead, do the work of figuring out what you believe, and more importantly, why. Yes, it takes being honest with yourself, admitting when things aren’t working, and asking some tough questions of the right people who can guide you. Welcome to adulthood.
  17. At some point, the house where your parents live will no longer feel like your home. This is normal. Until that time, however, talk to your parents once a week. And when you do, make sure that you say Thank You for sending you to college and that you appreciate all they do for you and the great opportunities they are giving you. They miss you, and a thirty minute phone call once a week will help them miss you less. (Aside: Likely they’re paying very heftily for you to go to school, maybe even working extra, which is tough anyway, let alone if you still have brothers or sisters at home. So for goodness sake, do not tell your parents that you’re just so stressed and what you really need is a trip to St. Kitts because your life is really tough these days. That would be dreadfully insulting. If you wanna go to St. Kitts, buy your own ticket. End of aside.) But just know the real way you’ll say thank you is by doing your best and actually graduating in less than a decade.

College graduates, what would you add to this list? I look forward to hearing from you.


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