The Fully Prepared Freshman

Finally—all of your hard work has paid off. You (or your child) have been accepted by a great college, and your fall deposit has been sent in. Now what? You might be tempted to kick back and enjoy a leisurely summer, blissfully free of homework, standardized-test prep, and responsibility in general. Or, if you’re more a type-A personality, you might be running around like a chicken without a head, so frazzled by the prospect of getting ready for college that you end up unable to check anything off your growing to-do list.

No matter where you’re going to college, there are several things you can do to help the transition—both social and academic—go smoothly. Here, according to Professors Lynn F. Jacobs and Jeremy S. Hyman are seven best things to do the summer before you start college:

#1 Get to orientation—early. Unless your future alma mater is the exception to the rule, you’ll have the opportunity to visit campus for an orientation session sometime during the summer. Typically these are day-long affairs in which students and their parents can tour the campus, learn more about the school, and visit with a few faculty members and academic advisers. Depending on your college, you may even be able to sign up for courses. (Ideally, make sure it’s you doing the picking and not your parents!)

#2 Get some hardware. If you take a walk around a typical college campus, you’ll still see some students taking notes the old-fashioned way, with a notebook and pen. But increasingly, various types of electronic devices are appearing in classrooms…and they’re definitely being used in dorm rooms to do research, write papers, put together presentations, etc. The point is, if you don’t already have a computer—preferably a laptop, tablet, or e-reader—now’s the time to get one. (Before buying, though, double-check your college’s policies—some schools issue laptops to students, and others recommend that students purchase specific brands and models.)

If you opt for a laptop, whether you choose a PC or Mac, we think your computer should weigh no more than three or four pounds and have at least a six-hour battery life. You don’t want to break your back carrying a laptop to class or to the library, and you definitely don’t want it to run out of power in the middle of a lecture. We also recommend laptops with a webcam and good speakers (if nothing else, your parents will appreciate being able to Skype with you), and that have a full-size (or at least 92 percent of full-size) keyboard.

#3 Get some software. Once you’ve decided which computer you’ll be taking to college, it’s time to think about software. No matter what you’re studying, it’s a fair bet that you’ll have to write papers—so a word processing program is a must. Microsoft Word is the college standard, though many students like the free OpenOffice or LibreOffice alternatives.

If you’re buying more task-specific software—say, for your business, graphic design, or urban planning course—we strongly recommend that you hold off until your course has started and your instructor tells you what to buy. It’d be a shame to spend $329 on the wrong program, only to find that it’s nonreturnable.

#4 Surf the college website. Sure, you’ve flipped through glossy brochures, watched the exciting propaganda videos, and maybe even been on a campus tour or two while you were applying to college. But now that you’ve been accepted, it’s time to take a second, more in-depth look at your college—especially concerning the academic side of things. First, go to the college portal of the university you’ll be attending and look for the academics or for current students tabs. Then search for the college requirements, the list of majors and minors, the individual departmental home pages (where you might even find syllabuses for the courses offered), and the course schedule (the actual list of courses to be offered in the fall—not to be confused with the course catalog, which is the list of every course ever offered at the school).

#5 Dust off your language skills and crack open a few books. Many colleges—especially those with liberal arts curriculums—have a foreign or world language requirement, often a four-semester sequence in a language of your choice (although you may be able to test out of all or part of these classes). Now would be a good time to brush up on a language you learned in high school or speak around the house. If your summer plans include travel abroad, and if your second-language skills are up to the challenge, resolve to speak only the language of the country from touchdown to return home.
#6 Reach out to your roommate. It’s always a good idea to find out with whom you’re going to be sharing your digs for the next nine months or so. If you’re planning to live on campus, your college may be sending you all sorts of information about your assigned roommate, but even if they don’t, you can check him or her out on your own. You don’t have to scour or; a simple Google search or glance at his or her Facebook page should give you a little dirt—er, information—provided your roommate hasn’t set the privacy settings too high (which is a fact about the roommate, too). Of course, you could also do things the old-fashioned way and pick up the phone, too!

#7 Pursue your passion. The summer before college is one of the last times you’ll be able to do what you most enjoy doing for 100 percent of the time. (After all, summer jobs, internships, or extra courses might lie ahead!) Getting in touch with your true passion—and cultivating it without the demands of school—will put you in a really good and motivated mood for college in the fall. And, with any luck, it’ll interest you in taking an elective course in Tolstoy, marketing, or civil engineering that you’ll actually look forward to going to. Actually, that’s one of the big secrets of college success—lining up what you want to do with what you have to do. If you succeed at this, you will succeed at college.

When it comes to doing well in college, knowledge really is power. Knowing what to expect and being prepared to hit the ground running can mean the difference between confidence and uncertainty, seized and missed opportunities, and success or failure. So don’t wait—put your summer to good use!

By Jeremy S. Hyman, co-author with Lynn F. Jacobs of The Secrets of College Success: Over 800 Tips, Techniques, and Strategies Revealed, 2nd Edition. Hyman and Jacobs have taught at eight different colleges and universities.