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The College Survival Guide

For most people, college is full of lessons learned the hard way. This article will hopefully teach a few lessons the easy way.

Written By: Michael P. Lux, Esq.


Affiliate Disclosure and Integrity Pledge

During my first week at college, I went to an all-you-can-eat wing night. Because I was there with about a dozen other freshman guys, our dinner quickly escalated into a test of manhood. I ate 68 buffalo wings that night.

The following day I suffered from a strange and new condition… the meat sweats. I took several showers that day, but within ten minutes of each shower, I could smell the odor of the sauce seeping out of my pores. I learned a valuable lesson. Don’t eat 68 buffalo wings.

Having spent a total of eight years as a college student, I like to think I learned a thing or two along the way. Whether you are returning to school or going for the very first time, this college survival guide is for you.

Academic Advice

Go to office hours. Many professors spend their office hours waiting for someone to arrive. They often will get visitors only in the week or two preceding a midterm or final. Making a couple of extra office hours trips can help your grades. It helps the professor associate your face with your name. It demonstrates to the professor that you are making a legitimate effort in their class. Also, it is a great opportunity to build a relationship with someone who could be a mentor or write a letter of recommendation.

Volunteer to help a professor with their research. Not only is this a great learning opportunity, but it can lead to job opportunities and a great reference.

Schedule down-time in between classes. If something urgent comes up, you can run home to address it. This gap in time also allows you to work on homework immediately after class while the information is still fresh in your mind.

Cite your sources. These days, it is very easy to get caught plagiarizing. If you consulted something in your research cite it. Your paper will look more researched if you have more sources, anyways. The exception would be Wikipedia. It’s a great place to start your research and can lead to some great legitimate sources. Citing it, however, just looks lazy and often disappoints the professor.

Go to class! Lots of people like to make the argument that, since you’re paying for it, you should go. I don’t buy into this argument. You are paying for the degree, not individual classes. The reason you should attend class is that it will really help your grades. Some people may brag about never going to class and getting a B. Not only are they probably lying, but it doesn’t matter. Go to class and get the A. Even if the professor isn’t taking attendance, they notice who’s there and who isn’t.

Take classes with the best professors. Don’t just sign up for classes because you don’t want to get out of bed before noon. Figure out who the best professors are and do the best you can to find a spot in their classes.

Personal Finance Advice

Buy your textbooks online. Most professors will be pretty understanding if it takes a couple of extra days to get your books. Going this route can save you a TON of money over the campus bookstore. Online shops like BigWords.com are great places to start your textbook shopping.

Don’t apply for or use multiple credit cards. They may offer you a free hat or Big Mac for filling out an application, but don’t do it. Submitting all these applications can harm your credit score. And, the last thing you want to do is run up a lot of credit card debt during these years. Only spend money that you have. I’d suggest you have only one credit card. Occasionally use it to build, then pay it off each month to build up your credit score.

Find ways to eat cheaply. If your room and board include a certain number of meals each semester, be sure to use them all. Find a friend you can split a $5 Domino’s pizza with. If the basket weaving club is having a pizza party, go and check it out. If you play your cards right, you can often eat free during the first few weeks of school. It may seem like $10 isn’t a lot of money to spend on a meal, but when graduation turns the monopoly money that is your student loans into real bills, you will be glad you saved every dollar you could.

Be very careful shopping. Don’t shop after midnight or if you’ve been drinking. If you’re hungry, don’t buy groceries until you’ve eaten something. Don’t buy expensive items for your dorm or apartment. It may be built for life, but most belongings don’t survive college. A futon is a much better purchase than a nice couch.

Social Tips

Hang out with people you like and admire. If you spend your time with people who frequently make bad decisions, you will probably also make bad decisions. The reputation of the people you associate with will be your reputation. If you want to do amazing things, find time for people who are doing amazing things.

Make smart friends. College isn’t easy. Figuring out everything on your own is nearly impossible. Group work is a part of many classes. If you have smart friends they can help you learn and do well on group projects.

Be careful with how you use social media. The stuff you or others post can become a nightmare later on in life. A good rule of thumb, don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your mom to see. Better yet, give your mom access to see your accounts. She will keep you out of trouble.

Paying for college

Be vigilant in applying for scholarships. Many scholarships are university-wide and can be difficult to get – but don’t give up. Some scholarships are only for students within certain departments or who are upperclassmen. Talk to your academic advisers and scour your school’s website for scholarships. Apply for everything you remotely qualify for. I’ve heard numerous stories of people who seemed unqualified but, because they were the only person to apply, they got it. The harder it is to find out about a scholarship, the less competition there will be. The money is there to be taken… take the time to find it.

Pay the interest each month on your student loans. Even if you have to use your student loans to pay the interest, it doesn’t matter. You need to be aware of how much money you will be spending each month on interest alone when you graduate. This will force you to be frugal while you are in school, and provide a great incentive for you to limit the number of loans you take out. I know this one is kind of a downer, but you will be glad you did when you graduate.

Dorm and Apartment Life

A coffee maker makes way more than coffee. It boils water too!  Boiled water is an essential ingredient in many dorm meals.

Get involved. You will meet new people and these connections could pay huge dividends in the future. If you just go to class, you are not doing everything you can to make sure you have a job in the future. Involvement with alumni and your peers can give you a huge edge for job placement AND graduate school.

College is not the right time to get a pet. I know it may seem like the guy with the puppy gets all the girls, but it’s not fair to the dog. Having an animal is a lifetime commitment. Most college students barely remember to feed themselves, so remembering to feed a dog is tough. This is not the time to bring a dog or cat into your life.

Final Tip: Make mistakes, but don’t be stupid.

Eat 68 buffalo wings. Stay up late, blow off class for a concert, and go skydiving. College is about professors, books, and learning a trade, but, it is also about learning who you are. It’s ok if some of those lessons are in the form of a mistake or two. I’ll be the first to admit that there is no good reason to eat 68 wings. Yet, here I am, over 10 years later, and it is a fond college memory and a fun story to tell.

To be clear, I am encouraging you to try new things and allow yourself to make some mistakes, but don’t be stupid. If you are going to drink, don’t drive. Go crazy for a night, but not for a semester. You want to have fond memories and funny stories. You don’t want consequences from a bad decision to haunt you for the rest of your life.

Your family and friends will be pulling you in a variety of different directions. Take this time and this freedom to figure out who you are and where you want to go in life.

Some people like to say that when you are in college you should work hard and party harder. I get the sentiment, but there is a better way of looking at it: Sleep more than you study, study more than you party, and party as much as you can. If you follow this advice, you will have a great time, stay healthy, and learn.

Good Luck!

Readers: Any advice you wish to share with students as they enter college?

About the Author

Student loan expert Michael Lux is a licensed attorney and the founder of The Student Loan Sherpa. He has helped borrowers navigate life with student debt since 2013.

Insight from Michael has been featured in US News & World Report, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other online and print publications.

Michael is available for speaking engagements and to respond to press inquiries.

8 thoughts on “The College Survival Guide”

  1. I wish I could have read this before I went to college years ago. I was a teaching assistant once and I think only one student ever came to the office hours and that was to hand in late homework. I agree that students don’t take advantage of the many resources available at their school (you paid for it, use it!). Go to the professor’s office hours, network, go to the free activities provided by the school and the resources they have like the Career Center, etc.

  2. This is perfect! I have an interview tomorrow for a job working with first year college students. Not that I’m that much older than them, but I forget things like having Facebook because I didn’t as a first year. Thanks again!

  3. Wow this is really comprehensive, and covers so many important things that students should be aware of. There are at least a few things that I have done but never really put down on paper as a “strategy”. Really great post and thankfully I haven’t done the 68 wing dare but I’m pretty sure my brother has….boys


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