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Carly Heitlinger, author of "The Freshman 50," survived a rough first semester in college. Her advice to parents and kids: "just relax."
By
TODAY contributor
updated 8/31/2011 2:38:20 PM ET 2011-08-31T18:38:20

After graduating from an ultra-competitive public high school in Florida, I was thrilled to be heading off to Georgetown University in the fall of 2008. I had dreamed of attending an out-of-state university and was thoroughly convinced that I was ready to leave the South Tampa bubble and make my mark on the District of Columbia.

Everyone told me how college was going to be the best four years of my life. And I believed them. I stocked up on cable-knit sweaters, bought the perfect bedding, and spent hours poring over the course catalogue. Unfortunately, college is much more than sweaters and duvet covers… and course descriptions are not always accurate.

After only a week, I was behind in a lot of my classes. I had never really had to study in high school, and Accounting 101 felt more like a foreign language course. I was smart! I was always in the top of my class! Now I was failing. I sunk into a depression, stayed in bed for days on end, lost my appetite, barely stopped crying, and got even more behind in school. As the cliché dictates, once I hit rock bottom, the only place left to go was up. And thankfully, up is where I went.

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I wrote "The Freshman 50" as a part survival guide, part memoir. Here are some of my first-hand experiences as well as all the advice I wish someone had told me before going to college.

Five things every parent needs to know

1) Look for changes in behavior
You don’t need to write detailed journals on your child’s behavior, but take mental notes of how your child acts. If she is calling you every day for a month, and suddenly begins not returning text messages, emails, or phone calls, something may be up. If she never called you during the first month of school and all of a sudden she’s calling you after every class, something may be up. Every student adjusts and adapts to the new environment differently.

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What should you do if you notice that she may be struggling? First of all, don’t freak out!!! It could very well be that she’s just readjusting. But if your instinct says that she is going through a difficult patch, reach out to her. Don’t hop on the next flight to College Town, USA. Don’t call the university counselor. Don’t yell at her and tell her to snap out of it. Listen. Figure out what she is really saying (even if it’s not direct).

No matter what the problem is, be there for her. Encourage, don’t push. Laugh, and cry, with her. Don’t dismiss the problem, engage in a search for a solution. And one last hint: Don’t sit up and worry all night; chances are she’ll call you in the morning and be perfectly fine. (Just think back to that pre-teen mood swing phase.)

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2) Be realistic
Are you sending your son to an Ivy League? Is your daughter attending a party school? Either way, be realistic about what is “normal.” Even if he's been a straight-A student since kindergarten, maintaining a 4.0 may be next to impossible. As long as he’s doing his best (and not spending all night playing Call of Duty), be proud and supportive.

As for alcohol… drinking is pretty much inevitable. Fortunately, knowing and recognizing this can actually prepare your student to make good (or at least “not that bad”) decisions on Saturdays. Take the advice of the corny television commercials and just talk to your child. You don’t have to say it’s okay to drink, but share some important drinking tips and advice. For example, always know what is being consumed, don’t leave a cup unattended, and never (ever) drink beer before liquor.

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3) Missing home
Homesickness happens, to pretty much everyone. It can come out of the blue. It can last for days or minutes. Besides a few one-week summer rowing camps during high school and a field trip to Italy, I was not used to not having my parents around. Here are a few ways to help your child adjust to being away from home:

Send funny emails occasionally. (Not too often or they will end up in the Spam folder…. Just saying.) Call with updates on Pookie the cat. Mail surprise packages with gummy fruit snacks shaped like Dora the Explorer (they’re popular; trust me). Add printer cartridges or cash and you’ll be the envy of the dorm. Don’t leave out details about happenings around the house. I came home for a break once and found that the dining room had been painted light blue. I would have liked a warning.

4) Figure out how to Skype now!!!
Trying to explain or figure out how to do a video conference or set up a web cam over email or cell phone is difficult, frustrating, and probably impossible. Sit down with your student now and get a crash course on video conferencing. It’s also a good idea to have him write detailed step-by-step instructions on how to use it… you know, in case you forget.

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5) Resist the urge to compare
This is going to be difficult. You’re proud of your daughter! You want everyone to know where she is! You want to tell her high school archrival's mom she earned a 3.9 last semester! DON’T! Your child’s business is your child’s business. Bragging can embarrass her, or even offend other parents. You may want to seek the advice of another parent, but always form it as a real question and not just a lead-in to a bragging session.

Five Things Every Freshman Needs to Know

1) Study skills
Remember how easy it was to show up to class, sort of pay attention and ace a test? Not the case anymore. There may be classes in college that are “easy As.” But even those require at least a little effort in the library. Every student studies differently, so figure out what works for you.

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However you decide to study, make sure you do just that — study. And while all-nighters may seem like a rite of passage for university life, they may not be for you. Do a practice run the night before an unimportant quiz. Don’t decide to try one the night before a final exam worth 70% of your grade. Bad, bad, bad idea. (Trust me on this one...)

2) Come up with a budget
After you get through the initial crazy spending period that is Syllabus Week, start keeping track of how much you spend. Should you get a job? Are your parents okay with giving you an allowance? Is your trust fund going to last four years?

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First, decide how you will keep track of your spending. Are you into online banking? Are you a Type A color-coded Excel spreadsheet person (like me)? Would you prefer to use a service, like Mint.com, to do it for you? Budgeting your money seems like something only boring grown ups do… but it’s both useful and important. (By the way- having some sort of documentation of every penny you’ve spent is a really good point of persuasion for upping your allowance.)

3) Be open-minded
This was my motto during my freshman year. I had it plastered on sticky notes around my room, on a white board; I even wrote it on the front of all my notebooks. Being open-minded helped me adapt. I met more people because I willingly participated in every ice-breaker that was offered for new students (no really, I did it willingly).

All this change is exactly what makes college fun. Experiment with your schedule! I know, I know, you’ve wanted to become a doctor since the fourth grade. Go ahead and take that crazy orgo class… but sign up for an English class as an elective. Give yourself the opportunity to explore different paths.

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4) Don’t be “that” freshman
That freshman is the overly aggressive kid who gets really drunk the first night and makes out with every girl on his floor. Alcohol will be readily available for the next four years; no need to drink it all in one night. It’s also a good idea to wait until you take off the beer goggles to find a really good girl. There’s always one freshman who makes the mistake and is known forever as “that freshman who threw up all over the common room after making out with fourteen girls.” I should also point out, “that” freshman can very well be a female.

5) It’s OK to feel sad
I thought I had to constantly wear a smile on my face and report back to my friends at home how much fun I was having at Georgetown. It was all a lie — or at least an exaggeration. My first semester, I wasn’t smiling; I was crying. I wasn’t having fun; I was miserable. But my friends and my parents for a long time thought I was having the time of my life, acing every exam, and making swarms of friends.

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The pressure of faking it began eating away at my spirit. I began turning to destructive behavior as a way to cope. Finally, I hit a breaking point. My artfully crafted façade began to chip away, revealing a wilted and depressed girl. Friends began to notice that I wasn’t acting normally.

I finally admitted to everyone, including myself, that I wasn’t happy. My road to recovery wasn’t completely smooth or short, but I adjusted and realized how to be happy. Had I just known that it’s okay to be sad and that being sad is kind of normal, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble. If you find yourself not feeling great, don’t sweat it. There are so many services available on campuses to help you. Your parents won’t kill you if you’re sad (I honestly thought I’d get in trouble). You can be sad. But know this: You can also survive!

Carly Heitlinger writes the blog The College Prepster (http://www.thecollegeprepster.com/) and is the author of "The Freshman 50: Fifty things I'm glad I knew, I wish I knew, and I wish I didn't know."

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Video: TODAY's back-to-school college guide

  1. Closed captioning of: TODAY's back-to-school college guide

    >> back now at 8:18 with today's friday whip, it's time to head back to school and high school graduates that meenans starting a whole new chapter in life. this time in college .

    >> we assembled four experts, graduates, insight from everything to what to bring to how to study. first, scott dan from the school of business and founder of helpda helpdave helpdavemydaughter.com. first up, credit cards , how many do they need?

    >> only one. you want to think about this credit card as a way to build good credit and not as a way to extend your spending hacketts.

    >> meantime, you would hope that people would keep track of spending habits but can we expect it of the college students?

    >> with the iphone we can. there's a great app that a laws you to take a picture of the receipt after making a purchase in the store. it stores that data and easily tracks your expenses.

    >> what can parents say to their students about kids about finances?

    >> it's very serious. you always want to ask your kids how much are they spending on coffee or at restaurants. you want to remind them to pay their bills on time. i think it's really important to have that open dialogue.

    >> save money on textbooks.

    >> you can rent textbook on amazon.com on your kindle, save 80%, or the textbook app for the ipad has 100,000 textbooks.

    >> you can save money that way?

    >> 30% to 50% off by getting them on your ipad.

    >> meantime you say at the beginning of college is the time to start saving for retirement.

    >> it sounds crazy to think about something so far away . as you get older, yes, your income increases but your expenses increase so take advantage of your youth. start putting $15 or $20 a month into that roth ira retirement account . you will benefit from the compounding interest.

    >> congratulations. thank you so much. i predict you will go far. it is now 8:20. now here's david.

    >> thank you, ann. the bell is ringing. what to bring to your dorm room . victoria is the managing editor of chic.com and 2010 graduate. good morning.

    >> good morning.

    >> you have the emergency essentials. for me it was my kindergarten lunch box which my dorm roommates thought was weird.

    >> these are great because you can't make holes in the walls so double stick tape is essential. all of this stuff is really just to have --

    >> batteries, surge protectors, plugging in 47 different things.

    >> yes.

    >> space become an issues with clothes. maybe you should bring less.

    >> if you want to do that, you have to bring a lot though. personal valet from clothesrack.com is great because it lets you store hangers.

    >> i actually have these. i also have these pants.

    >> you can use that necklace, too.

    >> this is a steamer, which can really come in handy.

    >> yeah. it's great because my mom hates that i'm wrinkled. i look great all the time.

    >> you actually don't have to look that bad when you go to something formal so you can use the steamer. this is good.

    >> it lets you bring your dirty laundry home to your mom and it's colorful. it keeps it nice in your dorm room and you don't bother your roommates.

    >> it wouldn't be going to college if you don't have to worry about bedbugs which is a serious thing moving to college campuses. what is this here? a lot of protection.

    >> you can go to sheet.com and everybody talks about keeping away homesickness. we recommend bringing your own private blankets. you want to store them in a bug bad because it can go underneath the bed. lift the bed and they keep your mattresses clear.

    >> and get off balance. here the i home thing. this is an alarm clock to actually get up for class if that's something you intend to do.

    >> to make it to your 8:00 a.m . classes.

    >> thank you very much.

    >> i think the bell might begin to ring, now here's savannah.

    >> all right, david, thank you. there's that bell. you can't go to college these days without a computer. sharon is also a cnet.com columnist and techie sharing. good morning.

    >> good morning.

    >> you don't need a super exexpensive one. the first one is a portege, why do you like it?

    >> it portable, light, and have a long battery life ? yes. great multitasker so you can do all of your work and not worry about it crashing. you can watch your movies when you're done studying.

    >> you would not go any bigger?

    >> no.

    >> the next one is cheaper. you say this is for basically what you need to do in college , write essays, surf the internet, this is fine.

    >> this is great for a budget computer. $500. and perfect for students in this first two years. basic word processing, research, and note taking in class. it's 11 inches. really compact. it won't weigh you down when you're returning around campus.

    >> if you have more money you can buy the mac book air . i didn't know if i should turn it on or hug it, it's so cute.

    >> first of all, a mac book got me through college and it's very reliable. when you're juggling 20 projects, trying to meet deadlines it's important to have a computer that is workhorse. and that's the mac book air . it has a long battery life . it will last you all day.

    >> some people think they can use an ipad 2. can this work for college ?

    >> you can totally write an essay. it has a become enough work space that you can write essays or art apps for that. you can take notes and do your research on this. not for the graduate, not for the science student.

    >> sharon, thank you.

    >>> now here's natalie.

    >> all right. thank you, savannah. last but not least, how to study and get those good grades. donna kim is a student. good morning.

    >> good morning.

    >> only you and you alone are in charge of your schedule. how do you make the most out of scheduling your classes so that you don't end up on that five-year plan or plus?

    >> the difference between high school is they have a fixed schedule. in college you can pick and choose what you want to do. so for me i like to allocate my time two to three days a week, back-to-back classes.

    >> load up.

    >> yes, load up. that's what worked for me. so i had the rest of the week to intern and get a part-time job and study.

    >> and it's important to go to class, unlike what david gregory said. when you do that make sure you take good notes.

    >> it's very important to take good notes because lectures can be hours and hours long and it feels like you're trapped in there forever. make it easy by getting the right school supplies. computers.

    >> being organized.

    >> exactly. it just makes that note take process a lot easier.

    >> exam time, what's the best way to study, because everybody has a different system.

    >> go on a social networking diet, is what i like to say. send your last tweet, last facebook update and say, it's time to study for finals and midterm and surround yourself with study groups . make sure that everyone you surround yourself with is going to support you.

    >> and quickly, if you are going to go to class, one important thing you definitely want to have?

    >> a syllabus is the best friend you have. in college , they have it right there for you. so you're well prepared and there's really no excuse why you won't have anything done on time.

    >> donna kim, great advice. good luck with that degree.

    >>> just ahead, the latest on

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