Walking across the stage at your high school graduation, shaking hands, and receiving your diploma is a big moment in your life – a distinguishing rite of passage in our culture. In working with high school students and seniors, specifically, I often see the home-stretch mentality of “if-I-can-just-make-it-to-graduation…” and fill in the blank. After 12 or more years in school, everyone deserves a celebratory break, but many graduates lose momentum and have a hard time picking back up when they start college in the Fall semester. However, there are several strategies students can employ to maximize the time they have between school years and lower their stress levels in their undergraduate studies.
First of all, stay healthy and strengthen your immune system. Cramming for end-of-year exams or Advanced Placement tests can mean chronic lack of sleep and heightened stress levels, so take the summer opportunity to develop a good sleep and waking routine so that your body can recover. Stay away from chemicals and substances, such as drugs, alcohol, and nicotene, not only for legal reasons but to give your health a head-start. Many of you will be offered the opportunity to drink, do drugs, and smoke in college, and the appeal of fitting in and exploiting your new freedoms can be very strong. Decide what your priorities are before your college career starts and realize that all those activities and substances will compromise your success.
Attend to relationships and a network of support in the summer. Many students have a hard time being away from friends and family if they are leaving their local areas or losing their friends to other colleges. Take the summer vacation time to work on those bonds so you can keep your friendships and familial ties for when you go through the inevitable culture shock of entering this foreign world of higher education.
Do not take a lot of things with you. Packing and moving books or possessions that you will not have time to read or use takes up packing time, space, and money if you are shipping luggage. Students generally do not have time for outside pleasure reading and more compact sentimental comforts are easily stored in phones and hard drives these days.
Work on your writing skills as much as possible. As a writing teacher, I can safely say that being able to write an effective essay does not have to take as much time or worry as students usually put into it. Brush up on grammar if you need to, but thoroughly understanding the function and parts of an argument essay – especially when you need to incorporate quotes and other evidence in your papers – will save a lot of time and hassle. If you know how to write well, you will do well in most classes.
Do not spend a lot of time looking for shortcuts. As a teacher and college graduate, I know that assignments and reading lists can be overwhelming, especially when a student is making new friends and joining social activities. The dorm life and events are fun ways of getting involved and enjoying the college experience, but when studies and social priorities start competing the school work is more likely to suffer unless you have built a very strong work ethic already. Students easily spend almost as much time – if not more – trying to find homework shortcuts and summaries of readings at the last minute and end up getting lower grades for them. Even if your grades do not instantly suffer, you may find later on that you did not get as much out of college as you could have, which means substantial debt for parties and mixers instead of an education.
The assigned readings help in homework and in class. We as teachers carefully plan lessons and readings to complement each other and build your skills systematically, so buckling down and taking notes or highlighting prepares you to participate in class and do well on tests. There is a structural reason for the syllabus that students can take advantage of. Believe it or not, most teachers want you to succeed.
Be honest with yourself so that you are clear on your purpose for going to college. Just heading off to university to meet peer and parent expectations leaves you with debt and an unstable foundation when you need your resolve the most. College work brings constant pressure, and if you are not quite ready to deal with that, you can get just as much benefit from working for a year or two for the “real-world” value. When they apply for jobs later on, young people with work experience in addition to a college degree are usually more desirable than someone with a lot of “head knowledge” and no practical skills in the field.
If work study is an option, take it. Taking a job on campus or associated with your school is a great way to get work experience while taking classes, and at graduation you have a degree and a decent resume. Your supervisors can also write recommendations for you as an employee and not just as a student.
Overall, the college experience can teach you dedication and commitment in finishing what you start, so set yourself up for success by establishing and practicing balance before and during. You can come out on the other side a stronger, more grounded human being. School is not just about knowledge and curriculum, but about growing as an individual and contributing to the world in positive ways. Do what you can with the time you have.