First Year Survival Tips

During a dash to Home Depot on move-in day with just the two of us in the car, I made my daughter put down her phone and listen as I told her two things: she could call for help, any time, no matter what, and she could bring anyone home as long as they treated her respectfully.

To me, these were the most important messages I could give her to start college and an independent life.

Every parent has something they want their student to take with them, that fundamental nugget of advice or wisdom, a skill or perspective that will help them survive their first year on campus. One wants her son to think of school like a job — take it seriously and make the most of every opportunity. Another wants her daughter to get her own drinks and never leave one unattended, reflecting concern about personal safety.

In addition to thinking about what to tell them is when and how. Move-in day with its distractions and emotions isn’t the right time for the “make good choices” speech or laundry tips. Luckily you’ll be staying in touch. Think through what is vital for your student to know and is most important for you to share. Dole out these messages after they’re settled, by phone call, email, letter or whatever way you two communicate. Keep the conversations going all school year long.

When I asked parents to share their top survival tips, their advice clustered around these important categories:


No matter their achievement level in high school, students face challenges in college, whether it’s a particularly demanding class, managing homework or having to meet general education requirements that don’t appeal to them.

Tips for Students:

  • Go to class. Talk with professors and teaching assistants.
  • Don’t get behind in your work.
  • It’s alright to get help, so use available resources like tutors and the campus writing center.
  • Treat college like a job, at least a little.


Social life has a huge impact on the college experience of even the most serious student. They will rub elbows with people from different backgrounds and be confronted by new values and ideas.

Tips for Students:

  • Join something — anything.
  • Get out of your room and turn off your screens.
  • Be willing to be challenged by, and to challenge, new friends.
  • Leave your comfort zone — eat with new hall-mates or stay after a class for an impromptu discussion.
  • Take time to really get to know people before judging them.


No matter how independent they were in high school, students deal with new tasks and responsibilities at college.

Tips for Students:

  • Manage your money carefully — pay attention to ATM fees and don’t drop below the minimum balance on your debit card.
  • Try to do your laundry and change your sheets and towels once a week.
  • Don’t be the messiest roommate; never leave dirty dishes long enough to grow mold.
  • Read and respond to your emails.
  • Ask for help — you won’t know how to do everything.


Stress can take many forms at college, and your student may find themselves without their old coping mechanisms. They often ignore symptoms of illness or signs that pressures are taking a toll. The ups and downs of relationships can sometimes make life an emotional roller coaster.

Tips for Students:

  • Get some alone time every day.
  • Go to the health center before you get sick just to check it out.
  • You will get sick so don’t ignore symptoms.
  • Prioritize sleep, and give up a party if you’re really tired.
  • When you feel overwhelmed, ask for help from a friend, your RA, even a professor. Drop by the counseling center.
  • Expect and show respect in your intimate relationships. Take care of your sexual health.
  • Last but not least: stay connected with home.


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Scott Sager is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York, who recently retired his long-running column “The Dad.” The father of a daughter in college and a new college graduate, he has past lives as a social worker, preschool teacher and at-home parent and brings a broad perspective to varied topics touching on family life.