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    The Beginner's Guide to College Life

    What you need to know to start off right.

    Christy Heitger-Casbon

    9 tips for starting college off on the right footstepThere are some things about college life you'll just learn on your own. For example, perhaps after a few meals at the cafeteria you'll find it best to avoid the unique cafeteria gravy. Or, after your pants shrink two sizes you'll realize the dryer in the corner of your dorm's laundry room runs way hot. But getting a "heads up" on a few things before you even step foot on campus can actually be quite helpful. Here are nine things I wish I'd known before heading off to school:

    1) Don't let your fears keep you from meeting people. During orientation week (the week before classes start), I looked out my dorm window and saw students spiking volleyballs, jammin' to music, and scarfing down free nachos and sodas. A part of me wanted to run outside and join in the fun. But I hesitated.

    What if nobody wants to hang out with me? I worried. What if I can't think of anything to talk about? What if they think I'm boring?

    While I was still trying hard to hide from just about everybody, I spotted a poster that read: "Welcome, Freshmen." It reminded me that I wasn't the only new one there—and I probably wasn't the only one who was scared to mingle. Still, I couldn't muster the nerve to step outside. I continued watching the other students for another half-hour until finally, I asked God for a little courage. With his help, I marched into the hallway, introduced myself to the first girl I saw, and invited her outside for a plate of nachos.

    That same week I left my dorm door wide open during the day to encourage girls to pop their heads in and gab. By the time classes started, I knew everyone on my floor.

    2) There are only 24 hours in a day—even at college. I had always heard the best way to approach a new situation was to dive in. I "dove in," all right. I registered for five classes and two labs, scored a part-time job at the movie theater, and oh, yes—I also decided this would be the ideal time to start training for my first marathon. Two C's, many headaches and one stress fracture later, I decided I might have over-committed myself just a tad.

    I wasn't the only one pushing myself too hard. At the beginning of the semester I heard kids brag about how many credit hours they were taking. But weeks later those same students often complained that they were drowning in a sea of tests, projects, presentations and papers. General rule of thumb: Striking a balance between work and play is best.

    3) Skipping class is a bad idea. Spring semester of my freshman year was a scheduling nightmare. My Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes were horribly spread out across the day, starting at 8 a.m. and not finishing until after 7. I had short breaks between classes, but not enough time to return to the dorm or get any studying done.

    Three weeks into the semester, I trimmed my day by skipping a class here and there. I soon learned that ditching classes is like eating potato chips. You can't skip just one. Before long I was blowing off several classes a week. I quickly grew accustomed to my abbreviated schedule and didn't want to go back to the painfully long one. When I got my final grades, I discovered something more painful than a loaded schedule. My grades proved that attending class really does matter.

    4) Sharing textbooks doesn't always work. With the average price of a new book hovering around $50, I decided to split the cost of some of my textbooks with friends who were taking the same courses. It seemed like a brilliant idea. But after only two weeks of classes my "share-sies plan" began to unravel. Between our various school, work and social schedules, my friends and I had a hard time connecting, which made book swapping difficult. Plus, sometimes we wanted to use the book at the same time, but there was only one copy to go around. Not surprisingly, my GPA took a hit that semester as well. From then on I decided that investing in textbooks was worth the money—and not just for the sake of convenience. Often my old textbooks were great sources of reference for classes I took in subsequent semesters.

    5) Professors hold office hours to benefit you. During the first two years of college, I rarely went to a professor's office hours. It was a pride thing, really. I didn't want to admit I needed help.

    My view changed, however, one summer when I took a complex course in geography during a brief, six-week semester. Because so much information was covered in such a short amount of time, I quickly got lost. That semester I practically camped out in my prof's office. But an interesting thing happened. I learned—and retained—more in that class than I had in any other, and I believe it was a direct result of getting so much one-on-one tutoring. From that point on, I didn't hesitate to knock on any professor's office door. One of them even let me in on a little secret. He said many instructors reward effort.

    Let's say a student's final grade is hovering on the border (say, between a B+ and an A-). A lot of professors will give the higher grade if the student has consistently attended class and dropped by office hours with some regularity.

    6) Don't feel guilty about changing majors. Ever since I was a kid I loved to write. But when I got to college, did I major in English or journalism or some related discipline? Nope, I picked criminal justice. I didn't have some burning passion for the field; I think I just felt like I should challenge myself in a new way. After completing four semesters of criminal justice credits, I felt God pulling my heart in a familiar direction. Still, the thought of changing to an English major sounded ominous—and tiring. I talked to my guidance counselor and she said that a lot of my criminal justice credits would satisfy my elective requirements. I felt relieved that I hadn't wasted multiple semesters taking classes in an unrelated field. But more than anything I was happy that I had finally followed my passion.

    7) Follow the "thirty bucks" rule (or your version of it). When I got to college I was psyched! I was on my own! And it didn't take long before I was broke. Just weeks into the semester it was clear that I'd be in big trouble if I didn't map out a financial plan. Never a great budgeter, I created the simple "thirty bucks" rule. Each Sunday I would withdraw $30 from my account and put it in my wallet. I could spend it on whatever I wanted that week (a pizza, a movie, a new CD). But when it was gone, that was it. I wouldn't withdraw another $30 until the next Sunday.

    8) Make time for God. When I first got to campus, I felt overwhelmed. Between dashing off to classes, running to my part-time job, attending various study groups, and participating in dorm events, it was difficult squeezing in time for much else. In time, I finally realized I needed to make time for God. So even on my busiest days, I made sure to take time to recharge my spiritual batteries by praying, reading the Bible and writing in my prayer journal.

    Yes, college can be stressful. But if you stay focused on growing closer to God, many of life's daily stresses will fall away.

    9) Don't let mistakes get you down. I'd miss a class or two and wonder if I'd ever get caught up. I'd skip morning devotions and think maybe God would never speak to me again. But God still loved me when I missed my quiet time, and I always managed to get back on track when I missed an occasional class. To be honest, I needed to learn to lighten up and go a little easier on myself. You'll save yourself a lot of grief if you learn not to sweat some of your mistakes. No matter how hard you try, you'll make a few here and there. And that's OK. When you do, well, you'll have a few life lessons to pass along to those new freshmen in your hall.