Time-wise, the transition from high school to college may only span a few months. But the big bridge—the one in which the world starts expecting more adult, less kid—can be a shaky one. With more free time (and will), students are as likely to make mistakes as they are to take college for what it should be: opportunities available, challenges accepted.
To cross that bridge successfully, it’s not always about memorizing facts, writing papers, and meeting deadlines. It’s about the extras—the mindset and strategies that will help students explore, engage, and excel. Drawing from my more than 20 years in higher education, as well as collected wisdom from peers and students, here are the most effective tactics that incoming college freshmen can use to succeed.
1. Your brain is not your day planner. The life skill you’ll need to master in college is prioritization. That skill develops when you can see what’s coming next month, next week, tomorrow, in 10 minutes, #ohwaitthatpaperisduetoday. With so many moving parts in college, you simply can’t afford to stay unorganized. Students get in academic trouble when they panic. They panic when they don’t prepare. I don’t care what method you use to keep your calendar (app or paper), as long as it’s not a Sharpie mark on your palm.
2. To get plugged in, unplug. Maximize your connections through all of your social media platforms and digital tools. But for meaningful contacts that will help you develop, put down the phone. Look up. Raise your hand. Speak. Ask. Listen.
3. Your most valuable currency: ideas. We’re in a world where lots of your peers have the same skills you do. The X factor: Who has the better idea? The front end of a project (time spent developing an original idea) is as crucial as the back end (time spent executing it).
4. Syllabus = law. Not all profs will handcuff you when you deviate, but it’s best to assume that they will. Read the contract.
5. Handwritten thank you notes > emails > likes. The new-school communication methods are efficient and effective. Old-school ones show that you care enough to do a little extra. It’s a tangible way to explain your intangibles.
6. Relationships > GPAs.* Unless you’re planning on going to graduate school, grades should feel secondary to the process of working with your peers and professors. I would rather you came into my office and to ask me about the artifact on my desk than to fight about .08 points that will mean zippo to your career success. When you show you care about performance more than points, it’s the signal to me—and thus to the future employers I talk to about you—that you’re the kind of person they want on their team.
*Do not use this to excuse your absence from class.
7. Think of college as seven years. Your networking opportunities don’t stop with professors, internship supervisors, and alums. As a freshman, you should network with the people in your class and the three years ahead of you. As a senior, you should build relationships with the people three years behind you. That’s seven years of people who could be potentials bosses and connections.
8. It’s OK to say “no.” High-achievers want to do it all. Don’t. Despite many examples otherwise, the world wants you to do 15 things well rather than 50 things sloppily.
9. Learn a foreign language. In high school, you likely took a foreign language such as Spanish or Chinese or German. Now, expand what it means to speak and work in a new world. Word people could learn computer programming. Money majors could learn the art of effective writing. You stand out when you’re fluent in an area where your peers aren’t.
10. Create a digital hub. Put all of your best work and your social accounts in one place. Employers want to see your personal brand in a sort of digital elevator pitch.
11. Find a workout pal. Part of stress management is time management. Part of it is having enough energy to do quality work. While it’s inevitable that you will sometimes eat at the $2.99 buffet and pull all-nighters, you need good food, regular exercise, and lots of sleep. This non-academic priority will improve your academic ones.
12. Success = style + substance. No matter your field, college is about developing your skills and talents. That’s substance. Now, how unique is your voice, your personality, your creativity when it comes to your skill set? That’s style. In a world when a lot of people have a lot of talent, it’s the difference between being hired and having your resume tossed.
13. Your goal: one deep dive. If I’m talking to an intro course of hundreds of people, I’ll ask them two questions. One, when you graduate, will you have the skills that everybody else in the room does? They’ll need to be able to answer “yes.” And two, will you be able to do something that nobody else in the room can do? If that answer is also “yes,” you’ve just discovered the secret to excelling: Find an area of specialty where you can develop depth; that’s what makes you uniquely positioned to help an employer. Be nimble enough to do a lot of things, but deep enough to do one thing better than anyone else.
14. Play. Do it when you’re not working. Do it when you are working.
15. Make your secret sauce. The greatest compliment you can receive from a professor, pro, or peer isn’t “great work!” or “that’s perfect!” It’s this: “How in the world did you do that?” Wow us with your creativity, wow us with your ideas, wow us with your execution in ways we can’t imagine. We may not know what goes into your secret sauce, but we do know that we want more of it.