This story has been updated to include a rerun of a podcast episode originally published on September 3, 2019.
The first year of college is crucial for setting students up for success, laying a strong foundation for the rest of college and beyond. Research shows that if you finish your first year and sign up for the second, you're far more likely to get that degree.
So how do you get through the first year? Here's what the experts recommend.
Go to college on purpose.
Going to college takes time and money. Simply going because everyone told you to — without a clear end game — puts you more at risk of having just some college and no degree.
"Don't just go to college because your school counselor or your parents told you to go," says Yolanda Watson Spiva, who runs the non-profit organization Complete College America. "You actually go to college because you have an agenda."
Pick your classes wisely and map out your path.
Some of this is really basic. For example, if you know you need 120 credits to graduate — do the math. How many credits will you need each semester if you want to finish in four years? The answer: 15 credits. If you're not taking a full course load — that may mean extra classes over the summer — or a longer timeline.
The best way to make sure you get this right is to meet with an adviser — which leads us to the next takeaway:
Make a connection with a faculty or staff member.
It can be an adviser, a librarian, a financial aid officer, even an admissions counselor. Anyone connected with the college who you can lean on to learn the ropes of the institution.
Research has shown that having one strong connection with an adult — staff or faculty — can make you feel engaged and supported throughout college. They can also result in strategic career advice and networking opportunities.
Go to your professors' office hours.
We've heard from students all over the country, and so many agree: Office hours are terrifying.
Rick Lopez, dean of new students at Amherst College, was once a terrified freshman, too.
"Everyone from almost every background has that fear that they got in here by accident, and that if you go in and talk to your professor, that's more and more possibility for them to discover that you're actually an idiot who got in by accident," he says. "That's scary."
When Lopez was struggling in a class freshman year, he went to the professor's office. He told her, "This is my experience, and I have never learned any of this stuff." His vulnerability was rewarded: The two of them became close, and the professor eventually became his mentor.
So what do you talk about when you go? You can bring an assignment you're struggling with, ask what's on an upcoming exam. You might be able to get an extension on a paper.
You can also talk about stuff that's unrelated to your class.
Find a group of friends who support you.
College is full of opportunities to meet people. Start with your classes — work on assignments together or form a study group. Join clubs and organizations — let the organizational framework of those meetings ease the awkwardness of scheduling a first friend date.
Don't beat yourself up, though, if it doesn't happen right away.
"You could think, 'I'm never going to have a friend. Everyone said that college is where you're supposed to meet your best friend. I can't meet my best friend and I'm struggling in chemistry!' " Lopez says. "Keep reaching out. Keep taking that risk. If someone else says hi, reciprocate!"
Be your own advocate — remember, you are the customer!
Even if you're paying with loans or a scholarship, you are paying to be a college student, so make the school work for you.
"College is not meant to be done on your own," says Odette De Leon, an adviser at Valencia College, a community college in Orlando. "We're supposed to do this together. The institution is there to serve the student."
Got a neighbor or a niece in college? Consider sharing this story with them.