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The keys to freshman success

Part One of a series

Sunday, August 24, 2003

By Kim Crow, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ah, college life. An endless round of good conversation, good professors and great parties, right?

Well, yes, but there's so much more, say college sophomores. With tens of thousands of students from Western Pennsylvania entering their freshman year of college this month and next, the Post-Gazette asked sophomores to share their getting-through-the-first-year advice with incoming freshies. Dozens of local sophomores did just that, with a few parents and other sages throwing their own opinions in for good measure.

Part Two:
Students flee campus bookstores in search of cheaper prices

Part Three:
The troubles with kids

Advice ranged from the practical ("pack your own silverware") to negotiating the social intricacies of your first frat party. (Apparently, it's a good idea to keep your clothes on. Which, really, is just generally good advice.)

Without further ado, here is your collected wisdom.


Last semester, I smiled when I learned that my books cost only $200. The wide grin was because they should have set me back $404.93! Yes, book prices fazed me when I was a freshman, too. I recommend meeting with your professors as soon as possible to see what books will be used throughout the semester. Besides scoring brownie points with the prof, you can now search the Web (I prefer or to find the cheapest books available. The college bookstore rarely offers books at a rate comparable to the Net. Also, be sure to find out whether the professor requires a certain edition of the book. Sometimes older editions can be purchased for next to nothing. Oh, yeah -- be sure to put the extra cash to something useful, like $1 slices of pizza! -- Tom Bogacz, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Don't pre-order your books! The teachers may change them on you. And sometimes they aren't necessary for the course. Also, check the library for your books. Try to find other students selling their books. It's cheaper for you, and you'll help out fellow students. You can save lots of money this way. -- Stephanie Gillespie, University of Pittsburgh

Academic life

The professors are there to help you, not to plague you with tests and homework. If you don't understand something, ask. If the college or university has programs, such as a speech center or a writing center, to help students academically, use them. Your chances of getting a better grade in class will increase considerably. -- Alicia Greathouse, Allegheny College

Things all freshmen should know in advance

1. Dropping and changing classes may be easier than you think if you do it early enough. Don't like your chemistry professor, or the fact that a class begins at 8 a.m.? Go see your adviser and switch classes.

2. Books cost too much. They will cost too much for the next four years. Deal with it.

3. You WILL fight with your significant other from high school, so break up now to avoid the trouble. Even if at Thanksgiving you want to get back together, you will be happy you started the year single.

4. You will drink too much.

5. You will enjoy the freedom to drink this much.

6. Your grades will drop from what they were in high school.

7. Nos. 4, 5 and 6 above are related, but you won't realize it until your second semester. Or later.

8. A PlayStation is a vital part of any college dorm room.

9. Buy a carpet. Plan on throwing it away at the end of the year.

10. Bend the rules, don't break them.

11. You will sleep through an 8 a.m. class and no one will care.

12. You will sleep through an 8 a.m. test and you will care.

13. See No. 1 so you don't have said 8 a.m. class.

14. Figure out what medical condition you have to qualify you for an air-conditioned room.

15. If you are a male, try to get a single dorm room.

16. If you are a female, make sure you have a roommate.

17. The "converted triple" dorm room doesn't have as much space as they say it does.

18. Go to class. You'll wish you had when finals roll around.

-- Sean H. Steimer, University of Dayton


It would be in your best interest to talk to your professors. It is easy to get lost in the sauce and blend in with everyone, so make sure your professor knows who you are. Your professors have office hours. Go to them! Besides the typical advice of doing your homework, telling the truth and studying for your tests, that is the best advice I can offer to any incoming freshman. -- Jill Antosz, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown

Use your resources. There are many people at the university who are there to help you make the transition. Talk to your Resident Assistant about social issues -- they have seen it all before, and they probably have a helpful suggestion if you just ask. Although professors may seem inaccessible, especially in big lectures, they actually love having students come to them. Use your professors, teaching assistants and other academic resources to their full potential. Getting a study buddy is also a great solution if you have academic troubles. The key is to get help if you need it and take the situation into your own hands. -- Debbie Sweet, University of Maryland

I found that the library was the best place to do my studying or reading for a class. I attempted to do this in the dorm room but failed because of distractions. Even using the little study rooms on my dormitory floor wasn't enough. For the times that my studying wasn't so strenuous and when I could use a slight distraction, I would go to the Student Union. There I was able to take a break when I would see a friend, but then go back to work after a few minutes. -- Jackie Roman, West Virginia University

Meet new people

Remember that much of college life is spent being social. Classes should be a priority -- after all, we're paying a lot of money to attend them. But 75 percent of your time is spent outside the classroom. Make some great friendships and don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Work on improving yourself as a person, on an emotional level, just as much as you work on your studies. -- Jessica Pompe, La Roche College

Join clubs and stuff, go out -- don't just stay in your room. Remain in contact with your friends back home. They will be your support until you find a new group of friends at college. Since they know you extremely well, you'll be able to complain to them about the food, people, etc., and they'll listen with open ears. -- Darinka Maldonado, University of Pittsburgh

When you spend too much time by yourself with nothing to do besides schoolwork, you get very homesick and lonely. Extracurricular activities are great for meeting people with similar interests and learning more about what your school has to offer.

Also, don't use the snooze button too much on your alarm clock, especially when your roommate is trying to sleep in. -- Chelsea Johnson, University of California, Davis

Social acclimatization plays as significant a role as responsibility for your studies. Choosing your friends wisely is part of developing a sense of personal responsibility. It may be the easy and fun route to attend parties six nights out of the week, but I would encourage you to participate in other activities. Get involved with groups that interest you on campus. -- Christine Waller, University of Pittsburgh

Focus on meeting as many people as you can. Everyone is trying to find friends, so it is totally acceptable to introduce yourself in a class or even in the cafeteria line. In the first few weeks of school, you will be asked your name, your major, and where you are from more times than you have chapters in your five-pound textbook. Although things may seem to be overwhelming in the beginning, you will make it through. The key is balancing and prioritizing. -- Debbie Sweet, University of Maryland

The one suggestion I can make to incoming freshies would be to keep an open mind! It will not only help you make great friends but also allow you to meet exciting people and allow you to enjoy all of what college has to offer, especially in that first month. -- Kristine Dobbins, University of Pittsburgh

Although I've been out of school for a while, I still remember my first year away from home. My advice is to be open to help from others, even when you think they are just butting in. Keep your cool and be nice! Smile!Most people are actually just trying to be helpful. Don't let your frustration cloud you from making new friends or starting off on the wrong foot with others, some of whom may be even more helpful to you in the future. -- Martha Loeffert, Shadyside Hospital School of Nursing, Class of '78

Tips for surviving arguments with roommates

Communication with your new roommate is the key. Set ground rules right away as this will eliminate many problems before they even begin.

1. Talk about how each roommate will handle visiting members of the opposite sex.

2. Discuss how you'll pay for snack foods. Will you split the cost or each buy your own food?

3. Set boundaries right away as to what items each roommate can borrow.

4. Discuss your feelings on alcohol consumption, and respect the other's wishes.

5. If one roommate has a computer and the other does not, immediately discuss acceptable computer behavior and establish what programs may be used and when.

6. Be flexible. Not everyone does or should live his life the same way you do. You may just learn something from your roommate.

7. Be respectful. If your roommate is trying to sleep, don't have a long-winded conversation on your cell phone right next to his bed.

8. Hang out with each other outside the room to see a different side of the person you're living with. Go out for pizza or to a party together.

9. But don't hang out with your roommate constantly. Make other friends, too.

10. Know that arguments and grudges can suddenly occur that may make living with your "best friend" nearly impossible. Work your problems out.-- Kate Ferguson, John Carroll University


You're on your own: an independent. You no longer have your family to lean on. You're surrounded, however, by a hundred, maybe a thousand, other students in that exact situation. It's their first semester away from everything they know and love, too. Use that to your advantage. Make friends. Find others with similar interests, morals and work ethics. Stick together. Watch movies, have study groups, go to a party. Be there for these friends when it gets hard -- these are the friends you will have for the rest of your life. -- Sarah Reck, Lycoming College

My best advice for freshmen is to get involved! School is stressful, and a student needs to be involved in various activities in order to relieve their stress. You don't have to be a star athlete to participate in intramural sports; you just have to be willing to meet new people and have fun.Don't be afraid to try something new.Also, give everybody a chance. I am sure everyone knows the saying "Don't judge a book by its cover" -- heed this advice and you can never go wrong. -- Jill Antosz, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown

Meet people, make friends, and don't be afraid to entertain new ideas. At the same time, be careful to build lasting relationships with people who will support you and make you a better person. Remember, many people are not suited for college life. They will drink instead of work, get arrested instead of praised, and forget where they came from. Do not associate with this type of college student; they will only drag you along their path of mindlessness and self-destruction.

Become as active as reasonably possible, because what you do outside of the work will determine how you look back on your year. -- Thomas Matta, Carnegie Mellon University

If I have any advice for incoming freshmen, it is to be as socially ambitious as possible. Because of my shyness, I ended up spending most of my time sitting in my dorm room talking online to old friends from high school instead of going out making friends on my campus. I ended up severely depressed without any stable social network, and I could have saved myself a lot of grief if I had made up my mind to stop relying on people who couldn't really be there for me. Everyone is a little freaked out, so try not to make the mistake I made of being way too self-conscious. -- Phill Legge, University of Pittsburgh

Just go to class

The number one piece of advice that I can give to a freshman student is GO TO CLASS. You don't even need to take notes, but at leastsit there and listen to the professor. When tests and quizzes come up, it helps a great deal. So my piece of advice as a junior is go to class! -- Jennifer Mannella, University of Pittsburgh

Do not get in the habit of thinking "I can pick my classes and what times I want to go to class, so I am going to start every day at 11." This will not work! If you know that you have a problem subject, for example, math, if possible try not to schedule that class early, for a lot of students tend not to go to early classes that are difficult for them. That way you can take a shower and be wide awake for the class. -- Jill Antosz, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown

Attend your classes (and be on time for them), don't get behind in your schoolwork, ask a professor or a tutor for help, talk to your professor, introduce yourself, make sure he/she knows your name. Do your reading, take notes in class (no sleeping!), study for midterms and finals. Don't write your papers the night before they're due. Stay ahead. Read your syllabus. -- Sarah Reck, Lycoming College

My advice for freshman students would be (1) to do the assigned readings when they're assigned, not a week before the midterm and (2) not to take naps after 5 p.m.; you'll wake up at 8 or 9 and be up all night. -- Beth Mackin, University of Pittsburgh

Don't walk out of class early or sleep through, thinking that you'll pass. Even if there isn't an attendance policy, get it together. You're paying for school, plus you risk failing. Go to the classes, even if they post the notes on the Web. -- Darinka Maldonado , University of Pittsburgh

Stuff you need -- or don't

Make sure that you invest in a good pair of shower sandals, a warm robe, and a basket for all of your showering needs. For your bed, when you buy a comforter, remember that other people in your room may not be as careful as you. White is not recommended! I would buy something that doesn't show dirt or stains as easy. The sheets are an interesting issue. Most beds are considered twin extra-long, but, for the most part, regular twin sheets fit on the bed without any problem. I would buy a set of extra-long sheets, and if by chance you have a twin bed at home, try those sheets out on your bed at school. (It'll save some money.) You also can buy bed risers, which make more room under your bed. -- Jill Antosz, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown

As the father of a coed who was a freshman last year (that makes me a sophomore father) and as director of public relations at Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, who has watched the annual arrival of freshmen for 30 years, I thought I would check in with some sage advice: Don't take everything you own with you! It is amusing to see car, van and truckloads of everything you can imagine arriving on the first day, some of which inevitably has to go back home when students realize that they don't need it or don't have room for it in their college residence rooms. -- Don Orlando, Saint Vincent College

Just wanted to share a really simple but really overlooked thing for freshman: Have at least one REAL plate, bowl, some silverware, etc. This will make your room (and breakfast) seem a little less like living in a hotel. You don't go to the cafeteria for every meal, so having real plates (not just paper plates) in your room is great. -- Sarah Hughes, University of Pittsburgh

Take lots of pictures. Having photo albums and picture frames all over your room is a great conversation starter when people wander into your room. Plus, they also help cure homesickness. -- Laura Jerpi, University of Pittsburgh

Keep a daily planner! You'd never believe how much it keeps you organized. Although the professors provide you with a syllabus at the beginning of the year, they don't always remind you when you have a quiz or test coming up. And so when you get that syllabus, put these important dates in there, and keep track of what's coming up for the week. -- Jackie Roman,West Virginia University

DON'T GET A CREDIT CARD. I'm more than $12,000 in debt from just a year and a half of uncontrolled spending. Every freshman I know gets a credit card as soon as they can. This is a mistake. Most don't even have jobs; they use them for "emergencies," and then "little stuff" that becomes "big stuff." It's a massive mistake and one I'm still paying for. If you can't pay cash for it, you can't afford it. There you go, my two cents! -- Kelly McCoy, University of Pittsburgh graduating senior

Advice for the families at home

To the families of the students: Send mail/money!! Getting mail is a big ego booster (packages are even better), and money will never go unappreciated. -- Beth Mackin, University of Pittsburgh

Grandparents: Keep in touch and send money when you can; five bucks can be a lifeline to a college kid. Siblings: a short note in the mail can really be tearjerker, so go for it. Friends: Ditto. A phone call will make you their hero. -- Martha Loeffert, Shadyside Hospital School of Nursing, Class of '78

CARE packages, cards, letters and notes of encouragement are great! Everyone loves them! Phone calling cards are a great thing to invest in if your child is going to a college that is a long distance away. Sometimes it's hard to let your child go off to college, but remember, this is their time to explore and find where they fit in the world. -- Alicia Greathouse, Allegheny College

Really odd social situations

Avoid passing out in fraternity houses at any cost! Countless inebriated coeds fall victim to the allure of a comfy couch, only to arise the next morning covered in ink. So unless you want to walk home with a male reproductive organ crudely depicted upon your face, make sure your overnight stays at fraternities are premeditated or nonexistent.

Avoid taking your clothes off or being overtly sexual when flirting, because these incidents can be quickly turned into a form of communal entertainment. Remember that no party is complete without a digital camera! So while you may not recall licking the beer off of a frat boy's chest, his brothers can all relive that moment. Thanks to the paparazzi of Greek life, the incident may not only be documented but also posted on Web pages. -- Braden Hassett, Carnegie Mellon University

Do your laundry! And try to be considerate of others who want to do their laundry. Don't forget your clothes in the dryer forever. Otherwise people will take them out and possibly throw them on the floor. Ask someone to show you how to do laundry before you go to school. I have seen many people with odd colored shirts that were once white. -- Jill Antosz, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown

Kim Crow can be reached at or 412-263-1308.

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