The 20 Most Common College Freshman Mistakes Expert Tips for a Successful (And Fun!) First Year of College

That time high school graduates have dreamed of — and parents have worried about — has finally arrived: their first year away at college. Students may expect a year filled with bonding with roommates, meeting world-renowned faculty and enjoying their newfound independence. But it’s also true that the freshman year of college often is fraught with mistakes that lead to high rates of stress, physical and mental problems, poor academic performance and financial messes. Being aware of the potential pitfalls is key to navigating a successful first year. Keep reading to find out some of the major trouble spots, and how to steer clear of them.

The 20 Most Common Freshman Mistakes

Beginning college students, especially those who had no problems in high school, often assume their college experience will be easy. Yet research indicates that college students usually don’t do enough to prepare for the big changes ahead. Here are some of the biggest academic, financial and personal mistakes college freshmen make:

Academic Mistakes

1. Not Going to Class

It’s tempting after a night of partying to skip class. It seems easy enough to check online to get notes or assignments. But what you’re really missing isn’t posted online — it’s the experience of being in the classroom, listening to professors’ insights and participating in discussion.

The alarm clock seems harsh, but it’s best to marshal your willpower and go to class. Increase your odds by signing up for classes at times that you’re most likely to go. Remember, you’re paying for every class, even if you aren’t going. Plus, grades often are tied to attendance, so don’t risk your academic success by skipping.

2. Not Knowing How to Study Properly

Despite having just finished 12 years of school, many college students simply don’t know how to study effectively. It’s not just about reading, highlighting and memorizing. If students don’t learn to read critically, the material won’t stick.

Taking in-class notes is one way to ensure you have the necessary information, and the act of writing may aid in memorization. Find opportunities to meet with professors during office hours to discuss material that may not be clear and reach out to fellow students to start study groups. Many schools also offer freshman courses that teach basic study skills.

3. Poor Planning and Time Management

Procrastination is the nemesis of many students, especially freshmen. In one study of college students, two groups of students were assigned to write three papers. The first group had established due dates spaced throughout the semester; the second could turn them in whenever they wanted. The latter group handed in all their papers at the end of the semester, and the quality was poorer. Procrastination also leads to diminished energy and physical health, according to an article in Psychology Today. Procrastinating college students suffer greater rates of colds and flu, gastrointestinal problems and insomnia.

It takes commitment to establish good work and study habits, but it’s achievable, and the payout is worth it. Many campuses offer courses in time management, and student resource centers also can help in developing effective time-management strategies.

4. Not Establishing Connections with Faculty

Student-faculty contact outside the classroom contributes to better graduation rates, better academic performance and greater overall satisfaction with school. Yet two-thirds of students surveyed for a study published in 2014 said they had not attended instructor office hours at all for the course in question.

Instructors have office hours specifically for students to ask for help — but it’s not necessary to wait until problems arise. Establishing personal connections with professors can demonstrate a student’s good attitude and willingness to work, and can translate to higher grades and more opportunities.

5. Being Distracted by Their Phones

A 2016 study from the Journal of Media Education found that 97 percent of college students use their phones during classes for noneducational purposes. It’s mostly texting, which has been tied to lower grades, but that’s not the only culprit. Social media, web surfing and checking emails all contributed to the distractions.

Some teachers have outright rules against cellphone use, but if they don’t, it’s still a good practice for students to keep the phone on Do Not Disturb mode, tucked inside their backpacks. They might even try apps such as Cold Turkey Blocker, Freedom or Offtime, which allow users to temporarily block access to certain apps or websites.

Financial Mistakes

6. Not Making and Following a Budget

Aside from tuition, college comes with costs ranging from food to books to transportation. It’s overwhelming and can derail students who don’t have a budget to keep them on track, according to Amy Nelson, who manages the financial literacy program at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Students don’t understand the components of a budget — where the money is coming from and where they’re spending it — or how those habits will carry them into future semesters,” she says.

Fortunately, many schools have financial literacy programs for incoming freshmen, offering tips on forming a budget and sticking to it. Nelson also recommends checking out advice from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

7. Living Beyond Their Means

College freshmen often tend to overspend in that first year, falling victim to the freedom that comes from living away from home and the temptation to cave to peer pressure and spend money when they’re around friends. Chances are, however, those friends are facing the same challenges, and teaming up to resist spending can go a long way.

“It’s OK to say no to your friends,” Nelson says. “Dining out is the biggest budget buster; that adds up very quickly.” Students should take advantage of that college meal plan, stick to their budget and band together to find ways to live on the cheap without sacrificing fun.

8. Overusing Credit Cards

One reason college freshmen may overspend is that they’re now flush with credit — in 2017, 38 percent of students had a credit card. Unfortunately, college students typically face high interest rates, leading to large debt for those who don’t repay balances quickly.

Students shouldn’t necessarily avoid getting a credit card, but they should be aware of the risks. They might consider becoming authorized users on their parents’ credit cards, or search for cards with low spending limits, to build their good credit for future purchases down the road. They should also educate themselves about what various cards offer, why their credit scores are important and how to maintain a good credit record.

9. Not Having an Emergency Fund

Even the best-laid plans are not immune to emergencies, from a broken-down car to an illness. But far too few students have an emergency fund set aside to allow them to absorb a financial hit without going broke.

How much they should put aside varies and will depend on individual circumstances. Freshmen are typically still receiving some parental help and can likely budget less than those who are financially independent, but it’s still a good idea to have something stashed away. Consider what your biggest expense might be (e.g. a major car repair) and use that as a starting place.

10. Not Paying Attention to Debt

According to a Brookings Institution report, about half of all first-year students in the U.S. seriously underestimate how much student debt they have, and less than one-third can provide an accurate estimate of their debt. At the same time, they continue to take out student loans with no plan about how to pay them back.

It’s nice to get that financial bump at the beginning of the semester, but it’s important to budget funds so they last from month to month. If you have some extra cash, consider paying a loan back immediately, to lessen the total loan amount you’ll owe later.

11. Not Keeping Track of Financial Aid Deadlines

Those deadlines seem months away, and then, all of a sudden, they aren’t. But students who miss deadlines for filing paperwork won’t get their money on time, and that can cause financial havoc. “I completely understand that financial aid is complicated, complex and confusing,” says Nelson, but that’s why the financial aid office is there. “They should be able to provide students with the tools and information to understand their offer letters; to break down the amounts of grants, loans, etc.; and to understand all the deadlines.”

At the beginning of the semester — or possibly sooner — students should sit down with a financial aid adviser or counselor to discuss what needs to happen and when. Put all the pertinent dates on a calendar and, ideally, set your phone or email up to deliver reminders.

12. Moving Off Campus

“I’ll save so much money by sharing rent with roommates rather than living in the dorm.” That’s a common refrain from first-year students excited by the prospect of living on their own. Problem is, it’s not entirely true. For many students, increased transportation costs alone eat up most of the savings on housing, and that doesn’t count utilities and other expenses incurred while living off campus.

Every situation is different, but before delving into apartment life solely to “save money,” students should crunch the numbers to determine whether it’s more cost-effective to live on or off campus.

Personal Mistakes

13. Not Asking Enough Questions

Sometimes college freshmen are intimidated to reveal that they don’t know what to do. Other times, they don’t know what they don’t know. “We see this issue in financial aid, but I hear it from other departments and from advisers as well: Ask questions. Ask until you understand,” says Nelson. “I think students are afraid, they don’t know exactly what to ask, so they don’t ask anything, and then they miss a deadline, pay too much or submit the wrong kind of work.”

Students should realize that colleges want them to succeed in classes and to enjoy the college experience. That’s exactly why student resources, including faculty, academic or financial advisers, tutors and counselors exist.

14. Using Social Media Irresponsibly

Not only can social media be a distraction from academics, it can also take a toll on a student’s reputation. In June 2017, Harvard University withdrew 10 admission offers after the prospective freshmen participated in Facebook communications that were derogatory to others. Students also need to be aware of future ramifications: More than two-thirds of employers use social media sites to research — and sometimes reject — prospective employees.

Students should remember that once they post something online, it’s there forever. It’s important to maintain secure settings so they can approve who views profiles and posts, and perhaps create separate networks for business contacts, family and friends, so they can tailor posts to the appropriate audiences. And, of course, it’s best not to post any negative comments, offensive jokes/photos or compromising photos.

15. Not Getting Enough Sleep

Being away from home and free to keep to any schedule often results in students staying up way too late and missing out on sleep. But studies show that college students who don’t go to bed or wake up at consistent times every day are more likely to have lower grades and be sick more often.

The amount of sleep is important, but so is the regularity. There will always be exceptions, but students should aim to keep to a somewhat regular sleep schedule.

16. Poor Planning for the Future

It’s OK to dream big — but don’t forget a dose of reality. “Many students think they’re going to make $80,000 a year after graduation,” Nelson says. “But it depends on what field you’re going into. I always advise students to check salary websites to get a better understanding of entry-level salaries for their prospective careers.” Having an accurate sense of what to expect in the future can start as early as freshman year so that students can plan accordingly.

Most campuses have career planning services to assist students; counselors are trained to help with everything from resume preparation to interviewing, to identifying careers that interest them, to making connections to employers. Discussions with faculty and staff about careers — the sooner the better — significantly help students to feel more confident about their preparation for the workforce and can help students determine where further coursework might be needed.

17. Not Forming a Personal Network

For students struggling with being in an unfamiliar environment, it might be tempting to hide away in their dorm rooms. But don’t worry; not everyone is hanging out without you. In fact, a Harvard University study found that almost half of college freshmen overestimate how many connections their classmates actually have. “Often this happens right around winter break, when students begin having issues with roommates and they aren’t getting along,” Nelson says. “They feel like they don’t fit in and they don’t feel that they have anyone to reach out to.”

Being besties with your roommate is fine, but don’t stop there. Students should try to treat freshman year as a time to explore interests, build that resume and make a wide circle of friends — they’ll be great resources during difficult times. Check out organizations, clubs or activities to grow that pool of social connections. “Put yourself out there,” Nelson advises. “There’s a network for everybody, whether you like video games, kayaking, whatever.”

18. Not Taking Care of Their Mental Health

Mental illness is increasingly a problem at colleges and universities around the country. According to the 2013 National College Health Assessment, about one-third of U.S. college students report trouble with depression, and almost half felt overwhelming anxiety. The demands of classes, managing finances, starting a new social network from scratch and possibly balancing a job can conspire to create anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders or other mental illnesses. Unfortunately, many students simply avoid dealing with it, or don’t know where to turn for help.

Students struggling with mental health issues should reach out to others in their dorm, such as a roommate or resident adviser, and take advantage of on-campus counseling resources. Build a social network, and don’t disregard the importance of self-care — getting enough sleep, eating right and exercising. The most important thing is to not ignore the warning signs.

19. Taking on Too Much

It’s easy to get excited about all the activity that college provides, from study groups to parties to volunteer opportunities. But too much enthusiasm can get students in trouble if they can’t balance it all.

“Be selective about your priorities,” Nelson says. “Dip your toe in first.” Keep classes paramount, and then build in the extras. Try several things, decide what you like best and don’t feel bad about walking away from the ones you don’t.

20. Not Asking for Help

Teachers and parents often emphasize that college is about students learning responsibility and figuring things out on their own. Unfortunately, for many students that translates to a fear of asking for help — from faculty, staff, academic advisers, parents or friends.

However, knowing when to seek help isn’t an admission of failure — it’s a hallmark of learning responsibility and knowing when it’s advisable to turn to people with more experience or expertise. And, students should remember that they’re paying for many of these services as well — that’s what those student fees are for.

What If You’ve Already Made These Mistakes?

Students not only learn academic lessons in college, they also learn life lessons. And some of those inevitably involve figuring out how to correct mistakes they’ve already made.

“When it comes to financial mistakes, you often have to learn through trial and error,” Nelson says. “And there’s usually a cost. But I think these are valuable lessons.” Students who rack up debt, for example, may need to cut back on entertainment and pick up a part-time job. If the situation is worse, consult a financial adviser and put together a plan to turn things around. The worst thing to do is just avoid the problem. Bottom line: it may take a while to get out of debt or restore your credit, but it’s not something that has to follow you around forever.

For students who are having difficulty juggling their courses, it might be wise to drop a class and retake it later, rather than letting the course pull down their GPA. Talking with an academic adviser can help students find the best option.

For those suffering from psychological or emotional problems, it’s essential to know that it’s never too late to seek help. Contact an on-campus counselor, a friend or a family member and ask for help. Many times, the student health center on campus can refer students to where they need to go. It’s entirely confidential and may even be covered by student fees.

Academic mistakes can be much the same way. Recovering from those problems could take time, but the situation may not be hopeless. First, students should approach instructors in the classes where they’re struggling and explain their desire to improve their performance. Often, instructors appreciate honesty and a true willingness to solve the problem, and may work with the student by providing extra instruction, extending a deadline or offering another opportunity to take a test. Again, the sooner students act to solve the problem, the less onerous the process is likely to be.

Additional Resources

  • Founded by Alison Malmon when she was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, this nonprofit organization has locations on more than 600 campuses dedicated to advocating for mental health among college students.
  • Student Advice on Freshman Year In their own words, freshmen from around the nation provide advice on getting settled, academics, extra-curricular activities, dorm or apartment life, health and well-being, money and social life.
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s website contains information and tools for college students, including a section on paying for college, with details about student loans, comparing financial aid offers and paying off debt. The site also contains practical financial information and financial coaching resources.
  • This online learning platform enables users to learn business, technology or creative skills to achieve personal or professional goals. Students can receive a free month of online tutorials that can be completed on any device, and content even includes money management and personal self-help.
  • The U.S. Department of Education oversees this federal student aid website, where students can access information about the FAFSA, deadlines to submit and information about specific schools.
  • OmniFocus 3 This $29.99 app for iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch helps students manage everything, offering tips for prioritizing tasks and notifying students about upcoming events or deadlines.
  • The U.S. Department of Education’s student loan site provides information about how to apply for and repay loans.
  • SaverLife offers a method to kick-starting savings, learn savings tips from a financial coach and earn rewards for savings.
  • This app enables users to create flashcards or choose from thousands of existing flashcards written by publishers, teachers and students.
  • With this app, college students can take notes, bookmark keywords and combine documents into virtual notepads.

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