Professor Offers Best Advice for College Freshmen

A year ago, when my nephew was beginning his first year of college, I put together a top-ten list of advice for college freshmen based on my years as a professor and the advice of colleagues and former students. Last week I checked in to see if my advice had been of any help. The original column appears below, with comments from Elias, now a rising sophomore.


Attend every class session unless you have a contagious illness. (Woody Allen was right: 80% of success is just showing up.) And don’t sit in the back; I can practically predict a student’s grade based on where he or she sits. Slacking in the back row = bad grades with very few exceptions. Elias says, “I can’t say enough about how important this is. Two-thirds of the students in my 9:30 class, where lectures were posted online, never showed up for class. I went to everything, and as a result I developed terrific relationships with most of my professors.”

freshman year, college professor


Find an excuse to go to office hours, not just once but two or three times a term.  Take a draft of your essay to a TA or professor for review; once graded work has been handed back, go back and ask for advice on how to improve it. These people will be your references, advocates, and possibly even friends later in life; you want them to remember your name when the semester is over. And don’t be afraid to kiss a little ass. If your professor is giving a talk or performance, show up — and make sure he or she knows you did.  Helpful hint: always remind said professor, adviser, or TA of your name when you encounter them; they will be eternally grateful. 


Come to class prepared enough to ask a perceptive question or make a useful comment. Don’t be a wallflower, but don’t dominate either – your fellow students will not love you if your hand is always the first one up. When you e-mail a professor, do it for a good reason and be respectful (don’t address us as “dude” or by our first names unless we’ve asked you to). Turn off your cell phone and do not text during class. We can tell.


Take advantage of what campus life has to offer – clubs, events, service trips, religious groups. Join something the first week; student activities start-up right away and there is no better way to meet non-freshmen. Try out any and all groups that seem interesting until you find your niche. Research shows that students who are affiliated with a campus group or who have a part-time job are less likely to drop out and more likely to progress through college on time. More important, it enriches the experience.


Once you leave college, language classes are expensive and hard to schedule. Take advantage of the daily classes and language labs that are included in the price of tuition. Try to study abroad. Even if you can’t get away for a whole semester, find a short-term spring or summer program and, when it comes to choosing where, the more foreign the better. Elias says, “This is one of the best things you can get out of college. I am sad I didn’t get to start taking language,” Next year, Elias plans to start Chinese language study, and he recommends going above and beyond the school’s language requirement.


Don’t neglect your health. Eat well and be sure to get enough sleep. Getting sick means lots of missed classes and lots of missed fun. The recreation center, gym, or intramural sports are great ways to meet people and will help keep your mind clear. Do not abuse any substances, and do not kiss anyone who is sick. Elias says, “I had a lot of colds, although they weren’t debilitating and I could still get to class. Maybe it was being around sick people, maybe too much alcohol.” Whatever the case, he did not stay healthy and, sadly, “I did not go to the gym a single time.”


Career and professional advice; funding for internships, study abroad or travel; opportunities to work with professors on research; mental health counseling and disability support services – these are all offered by most schools, but it is up to you to recognize your needs and make use of such resources.


Leave the door of your dorm room open much of the day and cultivate a broad group of friends. Don’t walk around campus texting. Make eye contact. Chat with kids in class. Set up a study group of three or four people to share ideas, questions, and notes if you have to miss a class (see #1). Michelle adds: I neglected an important piece of social advice – practice safe sex! Nothing can put a damper in your college experience, and that of your partner, like an unplanned pregnancy. Elias says, “There was a lot of risky behavior going on – alcohol abuse, selling of prescription meds, people who wound up in the hospital because of drinking too much, girls who needed to take Plan B pills for unprotected sex.” Elias’s worst experience of the year was two car accidents less than a month apart. In both cases, the person at fault (not Elias, thankfully) was texting while driving. “I just don’t put up with that anymore. I would never drive with someone I thought would drive while texting.”


College is a time to grow up. Make the place where you live a home away from home so you have a measure of personal comfort. Create a positive atmosphere that will nurture you. Keep your support system – friends, family – in place, and call them when you need them, but don’t be afraid of loosening the ties. Elias says, “If anything, going to college has strengthened my ties with my family. It made me much more appreciative of having a stellar home life. I met people who were so happy to be away from home that they never wanted to go back. It made me really value my family.”


best college advice


Michelle Miller-Adams is an associate professor of political science at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan.



  1. happy outlook says

    Great advice and it was also helpful to read words of wisdom from Elias too. I plan to share this list with my college students right now.

  2. says

    This is good advice for any age – right? When the kids fly the nest, many empty nest parents start new ventures too – and these are great reminders.

  3. says

    excellent – my son is going back to college to take a new course this semester and we are goingto read this together–it is time to get serious, social and network!

  4. says

    I wish I’d had such clear advice when I left for college! I just wonder if I would have had the sense to follow it back then.

  5. says

    Awesome stuff. I even know someone who might benefit from this list. Thank you.

  6. says

    My daughter starts college next year so these tips would come in very handy for her. Thanks for sharing.

  7. says

    Such great advice! I’ll be bookmarking this for later!

  8. says

    This is wonderful! I work in a high school and I will be sharing this with students, staff and parents! Thanks!

  9. says

    Really great advice! College makes up such a tiny part of our lives in terms of years but, if a student follows these guidelines, the memories, experiences and relationships will last a lifetime!

  10. Risa says

    Excellent advice! Show up, stay healthy, and make connections! Oh, if I could go back and do it all over as an undergrad. . .

  11. david alan miller says

    I found Professor Miller-Adams’ comments very insightful, but was confused by the fact that young Elias did not have observations on critical items 2, 3, 4 and 7. If there’s a longer version of the blog, I sure would like to see it! It seems oddly incomplete.

  12. Carpool Goddess says

    Great list! Staying healthy and getting enough sleep were tricky ones with my kids.

  13. says

    LOVE this! I am leaving next week to drive my youngest child across the country to attend Penn State University. This is timely for me and I agree with these successful college tips. Thanks. I will pass it along to her.

  14. says

    Fantastic advice – particularly with Elias’ comments. My two have just finished uni but, with your okay, I’ll save this to share with my students.

  15. says

    I’m sending this post to my daughter now, who leaves for college next Friday — first year! Great tips!

  16. says

    Great advice. My youngest had a tendency to lock herself up in her dorm room to have time alone, then complained of being lonely. Yes, you must be social. As I always told her, you gotta be a friend to have a friend.

    I must say I’m glad I no longer have to worry about these things… at least until my grandsons start college. 😀

    PS: The site looks great!

  17. says

    Great list. Too bad I didn’t have this handy to give to my boys when they were entering college! Thankfully, all turned out ok…but freshman year could have been (much) better!

  18. says

    This is a great article and this is something I wish I had been told when I went to college! Just like a few others said, I figured it our eventually. :)

  19. says

    This is great advice–particularly to affiliate. It makes it easier to be social and to generally integrate on campus, which can be such a scary thing at first.