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10 things every freshman (and parent) should know

After graduating from an ultra-competitive high school in Florida, one young woman entered freshman year — and made it out the other end in one piece. She shares her struggles, and her triumphs.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

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.

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 behaviorYou 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.

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.)

2) Be realisticAre 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.

3) Missing homeHomesickness 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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Best and worst teachers of TV and film

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5) Resist the urge to compareThis 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 skillsRemember 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.

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 budgetAfter 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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College Costs

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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, 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-mindedThis 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.

4) Don’t be “that” freshmanThat 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 sadI 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.

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 ( 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."