When our eldest son went to college, I shared thoughts about how to thrive in his first year and beyond. I struggled through college. Sure, it was a challenge academically, but more than that, I didn’t have a good sense of how to approach college in a way that would help me take full advantage of the amazing opportunity to grow and, quite simply, to be happy (and we are way more likely to be productive when we are happy — it’s a nice example of a “virtuous cycle”).
Beyond their experience on campus, young adults’ habits and mindset while in college are vital to set them up for success in the years beyond when they are fully independent. And, frankly, while many colleges are more attuned to holistic student “wellness” now than they were a generation ago, these efforts are nascent and resource-constrained.
The following is the set of ideas that I shared with my sons. Starting college is one of those transition points in life where we are most open to ideas, and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to share what I now know (and what I wish I had done differently).
- Treat your body well. Everything else depends on it.
- Don’t fall behind on sleep. Sleep affects mood and physical health. Challenges look a lot more manageable when rested. And there is only so much your brain can absorb in a day.
- Exercise 4+ days per week (or more). It could be club soccer or even try one of the many (free) classes that rec sports offer on campus. This is super important, and your body and mind will benefit in many ways. Keep searching and trying things out until you find activities and a schedule that works for you — but schedule this in.
- Eat whole, minimally processed foods — lots of whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits. The vast majority of serotonin is produced in your gut and other neurochemicals that regulate mood and cognition; the good bacteria that produce these thrive on fiber from these foods. Minimize sugar, chips, and other processed foods. Treats are ok periodically (if more than periodically, they are not treats — then they are your diet). Meat should be only a small part of your diet; try to completely avoid processed meats (e.g., bacon). And red meats are bad, too; sorry. Processed + red meat (like bacon) is the worst for you (well, along with sugar).
- Oral hygiene! This affects how people respond to us (good breath) and affects health (beyond your mouth — it even affects the immune system). Brush right when you wake up, and ideally after each meal (or as soon as possible).
- Alcohol and drugs can turn smart, caring people into idiots. Most people who do stupid things under the influence think, “that’s not me.” If you drink, do it in a safe environment, with people you trust, and be an example of restraint and moderation to others. And, just as important, prioritize your health. Drinking is ok at best, but no amount is good for you. Drink moderately, if at all (the best “high” I have ever experienced by far is from exercise, outdoors, with friends).
- Start each semester strong! If it seems easy, max out your grade (develop a buffer). It will get harder very quickly, and midterms are super challenging if you haven’t been working hard (and effectively) throughout the semester.
- Get to know professors. Say hi to them. Smile. Get to know one or two well each year. They can be great mentors and help you with internships and jobs.
- Be organized; clean up your email inbox. Save things that are important (like emails from friends), but don’t let them clutter your inbox. Keep files on your computer organized for each of your courses and other aspects of your life.
- Find two or three good study spots on campus — don’t rely on studying in your room (especially not on your bed). There are too many good distractions, and you want to preserve it as a place to relax and unwind.
- Keep on top of reading and assignments for school. You get twice as much out of the assigned pre-class work if you do it on time (professors prepare for class assuming that students have done the reading, and you will miss a lot if you try to catch up later).
- Take good notes — but don’t get so absorbed in note-taking that you aren’t paying attention; it’s a balance. Organize class notes. Write legibly, both for your benefit and especially for the professor who can only grade what s(he) can read.
- Turn your phone off in class. Don’t look at it; it can wait. This is important for your focus, and your professors will appreciate it, too. We notice a lot more than students realize. And cognitive multi-tasking is a myth. Focus.
- Read to understand. Pause, reflect. Think about what you are reading.
- Use active study techniques. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you know something when you are only familiar with the same notes or text you keep re-reading.
- Don’t just work for grades. Grades are important; learning (and learning how to learn) is more important.
- Take breaks when you need them. Exercise (as one option) clears the mind, and you’ll be surprised how much great thinking you can do while on a walk or run. And, post-exercise physiology promotes learning (so it’s a great way to break up studying; nobody can study well for more than a few hours at a time anyway).
- When something is really interesting to you, it is good to learn more even when you don’t “get credit” for it. Don’t always limit your learning to the syllabus.
- Keep in mind two overarching goals of your education: 1) to become a well-informed citizen, and 2) to get a great start on a career. Both are very important.
Relationships and Fun
- Find your people! They are all over. But also be open to and seek out new, different types of people.
- Cultivate a small network of close friends who inspire, challenge you in helpful ways, and support you when needed.
- Try new things. Don’t gravitate only to things you already excel at or are comfortable with. Explore! While this is true for all of life, it is especially important during freshman year. This is the first time you will not only have the freedom to try new things, but lots of new things will be available that can help with other points — health, relationships, etc. It is all interconnected.
- Do things you enjoy. You are going to be super busy, yes. But save some time for enjoying yourself (even if that means “doing nothing” sometimes).
- Don’t over-commit to extracurriculars. Try a bunch out early on, then pick a couple to stay actively engaged with (and for those, really get involved).
- Your brothers love you — a lot. Your relationship with them can last a lifetime and be more meaningful than you imagine. Set up “brother dates” with Andrew. Send Ethan a periodic text; better yet, call him to say hi now and then.
- Your dogs miss you. Visit them periodically.
- Even check in with your parents periodically. This is a time of big change for us, too. You have been the focus of our lives for years; that doesn’t change, but we know that the daily dynamic will. A simple silly text or periodic photo goes a long way (your dad appreciates this as much as mom!).
- Relationships don’t happen on social media. Minimize time staring at a phone.
- Keep your room and desk organized and neat. Clean desk, clean mind.
- Plan ahead. And once you have a plan, be disciplined about managing your time and schedule. Time management is a critical life skill. That includes times that you plan to study and times that you plan to spend with other people, exercising, sleeping, etc. Make a plan and stick to it. Yes, that means “blocking out” time for exercise, time for studying — not just class times. Either adjust or revisit your priorities if you can’t stick to them. Don’t make it up as you go.
- At the same time, be selectively flexible with your time. If you are in the middle of a great conversation with a new friend (or even a professor!), keep it going if you can. Don’t be a slave to your schedule. The challenge is deciding when to be flexible (as an exception) and when to return to it…
- Manners matter, from holding the door to using utensils to project some thoughtfulness and skill. Don’t think you’ll remember during the interview lunch how to properly use your knife; you won’t.
- Don’t let your gas tank get below ¼ full. I’m not just talking about automobiles. This “buffer rule” applies to everything — food, money, relationships, laptop battery charge, rest, etc. Running any of these near-empty can lead to a cascade of bad events — and causes avoidable stress.
- Get help when you need it. The College has tons of resources to help with study skills, tutoring, and support for health and personal issues. Just get online and search. Everyone needs help at some point. Everyone. Wise people are aware of when they need it and seek it out.
- Although there are many great resources on campus, come to us whenever you need help. With anything. Anytime.
- Get help early. Don’t want until a bad situation becomes worse. Things are much easier to address when identified early.
- But, if you don’t get help early, still get help. Better late than never. You will be experimenting with when you need help from others and when you can handle things independently. That is normal. But don’t be influenced by guilt or shame when you recognize that you need help.
- Sometimes, it is okay to feel sad, scared, and even lonely. Yes, even when surrounded by others. Experiment with healthy ways to deal with “moments” (a walk? watching a show you liked as a kid? calling a parent to chat about nothing in particular?). And recognize when it is more than a moment (and act on that).
- Find flow in all dimensions of your life. This takes time, patience, and reflection. Flow is that awesome state of being engaged in something in a way that feels rewarding and sufficiently challenging but not overwhelming (somewhere in that broad range between boredom and chaos). Flow happens in sports, learning, relationships, etc. Learn to notice flow and to seek it out. Notice when you are over (or under) challenged and adjust as needed.
- Growth comes from flow. You will grow your whole life. Yes, a lot of growth comes after college, too. A goal of college is to learn how to grow (and then continue that beyond).
- Spirituality is not something that most people your age spend much time thinking about. Do spend some time contemplating the incredible mystery of life. There is so much that we don’t know or understand. Life can be so beautiful and amazing; have gratitude for that and find your ways to connect with something bigger than all of us. Yes, the Force is real.
- Be careful with money. Many students have more (and some will just act as they do). Don’t envy them, and don’t compete. Spend and save wisely.
- Be grateful — not in a guilty way, but in a celebratory way — periodically reflect on all that you have and all that is going well.
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