The College Survival Guide

Michael Lux Best Of, Blog 8 Comments

During my first week of college I went to an all you can eat wing night.  Because I was there with about a dozen other freshman guys, our dinner 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 my pours.  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 that I learned a thing or two along the way.  For those of you who are returning to school or going for the very first time, the following advice is for you.

Academic Advice

Go to office hours.  Most professors spend their office hours waiting for someone to arrive.  Many will only get a visitor in the week or two preceding a midterm or final.  Making a couple extra office hours trip can help your grades because it shows effort and helps your professor associate a face with the name.  It is also a great opportunity to build a relationship with someone who can 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 time in between classes.  If something comes up you can run home to address it.  This gap in time also allows you to complete homework immediately after class.

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.  The exception would be wikipedia.  It is a great place to start your research, and you can go to the sources that wikipedia cites, but just citing wikipedia looks lazy.  (On a related note: Thanks to reddit for the suggestions.)

Go to class!  Lots of people like to make the argument that you are paying for class.  I don’t buy that for a second.  You are paying for the degree.  The reason you should go to 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 is 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 seat in their classes.

Personal Finance Advice

Buy your textbooks online.  Most professors will be pretty understanding if it takes a couple extra days to get your books, and this route will save you a TON of money over the campus bookstore. is a great place to start your textbook buying.

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

Find ways to eat cheap.  If you have X meal swipes a semester, be sure to use them all.  Find a friend you can split the $5 Domino’s pizza with.  Eat the $2 sub at Subway.  If the basket weaving club is having a pizza party, go and check it out.  The first few weeks of school you can pretty much eat for free if you play your cards right.  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.  Don’t shop if you’ve been drinking.  Don’t buy groceries when you are hungry.  Don’t buy nice things for your dorm or apartment.  It may be built for life, but most belongings don’t survive college.  A used 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 constantly make bad decisions, you will constantly 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 they are great to work with in a group setting.

Be careful with how you Facebook.  The stuff you post 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, friend your mom.  She will keep you out of Facebook trouble.

Paying for college

Be vigilant applying for scholarships.  Many scholarships are university wide and these are hard to get, but don’t give up.  Some scholarships are only for people within the college.  Many departments have their own scholarships.  There are upperclassman scholarships.  Talk to your academic advisers, and scour your schools website for scholarships.  Apply for everything you remotely qualify for.  I’ve heard lots of stories of people who seem unqualified, but because they were the only person to apply, they got it.  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 are using 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 amount 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 most 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 its not fair to the dog, and the girls see right through this.  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 is 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, but here I am almost 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 prison sentence or consequences from any other decision to haunt you for the rest of your life.

You will have your parents, your friends, and your family 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 the high school class of 2013 as they enter college?