Updated August 23, 2021 • 6 Min Read

The first year of college can be an exciting time full of wonderful new experiences. But these new experiences can come with a serious learning curve if you're not prepared. Here are common freshmen mistakes with expert tips on how to fix them when things go awry.

Common Academic Mistakes

Freshmen in college will have to navigate a completely new way of attending class and tackling assignments, making it easy to get tripped up along the way. Knowing common academic mistakes to look out for and ways to fix them can smooth the transition from high school to college.

MISTAKE #1: Missing too many classes

You stayed up too late the night before and slept through your 9 am class … again. But it's not a big deal because you read the textbook, right? Wrong! Poor attendance can have major consequences in college.

Imagine skipping class on a day when a professor introduces a new topic, announces a quiz during the next class or assigns groups for a project due the following week. It's easy to fall behind. And missing more than a certain number of classes can mean an automatic fail for some courses.


Plan ahead

Dr. Todd Lidh, Provost and Dean of Faculty at Lees-McRae College, says that even though first-year students might not have a lot of say in their class schedules, there's no greater determining factor in college success than attendance. Good planning, he says, will help ensure students make it to class and stay on top of their educations.

“Don't let papers and projects and the like creep up and surprise you. Plan ahead, know what time you need to be ready for classes that may be back-to-back-to-back so that you are in charge of your schedule, not the other way around.”

Do damage control

If a class is simply too much for your schedule, it's important to drop the class before the drop deadline, if possible. If you drop a class before the deadline, it won't appear on your academic record and you won't be responsible for paying for the class.

If you drop the class after that period, the class may be listed as a “W” or withdrawal on your transcripts. While this won't affect your GPA, you may be responsible for paying for part or all of the tuition fee for that class. It can also affect your financial aid. If you neglect to drop or withdraw from the class, you'll end up with a failing grade. Check in with your academic advisor to make sure you're taking the best course of action.

MISTAKE #2: Not taking advantage of your resources

You're finally out on your own, and you're determined to prove you can handle it without asking for help. But with these increased responsibilities can come additional stress, feelings of being overwhelmed and missed opportunities.


Ask for help

Feeling awkward about asking for help is normal, but keep in mind that college campuses are full of people who want you to succeed. Professors have office hours because they want to help their students and get to know them. Writing and tutoring centers are designed to help students do well.

Find your resources

There are tons of facilities all around campus to help students with just about everything, like physical and mental health, academic and career advice, equipment rentals and IT help. You just need to know where to find them. Check your school's website, go to the freshman “welcome week,” take a freshman seminar or talk with an academic advisor or your dorm's resident assistant.

MISTAKE #3: Not managing your credits

There are so many interesting classes to take, you've sped through your first couple of years only to discover junior year that 80 percent of the classes you took were lower-division and don't meet graduation requirements. Now you're looking at an extra semester or two before graduation.


Get familiar with credit breakdowns

Schools usually provide guidelines that explain how many general education—or core—and major credits students need and what percentage of each need to be upper- and lower-division. If they're available, take advantage of course and major planning sheets, which can help you plan your schedule for your entire college career.

Register for required classes early

Don't put off signing up for required course until later in your college career. Courses required by lot of students can fill up fast, leaving you in the lurch.

MISTAKE #4: Taking too many classes

Music theory, archaeology, intro to physics—yes please! But 20 credits later, you realize you may be in over your head. What started out as an exciting journey of knowledge has quickly turned into a stressful juggling act with little time for extracurricular activities.


Start small

Students should meet with an academic advisor to determine the minimum number of credits they need to take each term to meet their graduation goal. Start there, and once you get a feel for the workload, you can take more credits in the following semesters.

Find the right mix

Balancing schedules with a variety of classes––and avoiding an academic monocrop, like three science classes with labs in a single term––can help students figure out an appropriate credit load.

Drop early if you need to

Remember that dropping a class before the drop deadline is a better option than failing the class altogether. Just keep in mind that this can affect your financial aid, so careful planning is always a better option.

MISTAKE #5: Picking your major too soon

You've wanted to be a lawyer for as long as you can remember, so you happily jumped on the pre-law track from day one. Now you're in your junior year and would rather spend your time composing sonnets than drafting legal briefs. But you're worried you've gone too far to turn back.


Take your time choosing

According to a 2016 report published by the Education Advisory Board, freshmen who declare their major in their first term and stick with it are slightly less likely to graduate. At most universities, students don't have to declare their majors until the end of their sophomore year. Take advantage of this and try out a variety of classes in a variety of majors before you start on a set path.

Talking to academic advisors, professors in different departments and upper classmen can also be extremely valuable.

Don't be afraid to change your mind

Contrary to what you might think, the same report by the Education Advisory Board found that switching majors up to the first semester of junior year doesn't lead to delayed graduation. And 25% of students who switch after that point still graduate on time. Even if you do add an extra semester or two to your college career, it's likely a better outcome than starting a career you hate.

Consider adding a minor

Students who do get pretty far into their major before deciding to change paths can talk to an advisor to see what it would take to turn the old major into a minor. That way, all the time and effort put into that area of study won't be for naught.

College Life Mishaps

“Being new at college is a wondrous experience. Everything and everyone is exciting. And so it's easy to say yes to every party, yes to going out to eat or to a concert or to a movie. But what then becomes hard is what you are in college for in the first place,” says Dr. Lidh. “If you don't get enough sleep or don't study or start overspending, you'll be taking away your greatest chance at lifelong success: an education.”

MISTAKE #1: Not getting enough sleep

Between attending classes, going to rowing practice and going to parties at the fraternity you're considering joining, you're burning the midnight oil every night to squeeze in studying. When your alarm goes off for your first class, you're barely able to make it out of bed.

According to a 2014 study, 50 percent of college students report daytime sleepiness, and 70 percent admit to not getting enough sleep. This can lead to lower GPAs; worsened mood; higher risk of dropped classes; poor overall health, including weight gain and compromised immune system; increased mental health issues, like anxiety, depression and stress; and higher risk of car-related accidents.


Say no sometimes

“Pace yourself,” says Dr. Lidh. “Have fun as a person, but make sure you are not compromising yourself as a student. Learning to say “no” is a terrific skill.” While it can be tempting to say yes to every new opportunity, know that you have at least four years to devote to your college experience. Do a little at a time so you can actually be awake enough to enjoy it.

Study early in the day

Slotting out time early in the day to do homework can keep students from having to pull all-nighters and will help them feel well-rested and prepared for class the next day.

Embrace naps

Try a brief, but refreshing, nap between––but not during––classes.

Join athletic clubs

Exercising and joining athletic clubs that meet regularly can help students establish routines and fall asleep faster when it comes time for bed.

MISTAKE #2: Not getting out enough

You're so focused on acing your classes that you realize half way through the semester you've barely left your dorm room. Once you come up for air, homesickness hits hard as you start to feel isolated from your college peers.

While college is certainly a time for students to increase their knowledge and understanding of their world and gain new skills, social interaction is an important part of the college experience. Students who focus solely on academics can miss out on creating meaningful relationships and are prone to feelings of loneliness.


Join a club

Sororities and fraternities aren't for everyone, but freshman should try to explore different on-campus social opportunities. Joining athletic, academic or personal interest clubs can help you meet peers with similar interests.

Create a study group

A 2014 study of shift workers found that working in isolation can actually decrease cognition, which, for college students, is probably the opposite effect they're hoping to get from such dedicated study. Putting together study groups with classmates can be the perfect combination of social and academic time.

Get out on campus

If clubs and study groups feel like too much commitment, attend on-campus events. Colleges often host a variety of activities, from small concerts and movie viewings to nature hikes and crafting sessions.

MISTAKE #3: Not keeping track of your spending

After a semester of eating out with new friends, stocking up on books and decorating your dorm room, you realize you've blown through your budget for the entire year. Now you reach for your student credit card to cover pizza and avoid looking at your balance.

Debt can pile up quickly, but it doesn't go away nearly as fast. Money mistakes in college can haunt you long after graduation, so it's important to start smart spending habits your freshman year.


Make a budget

Is it boring? Yes. Is it helpful? Absolutely. Students can make preliminary budgets before they start college, accounting for any tuition, fees and housing costs, and make estimates for expenses like food, school supplies and transportation. Whatever is left over in the budget can be earmarked for frivolous spending––or saving to pay off any loans.

Taking out a consistent amount of cash each month can also help with avoiding credit cards and not having the money to pay bills. Once the cash is gone, the spending stops.

Try an app

There are a variety of apps, both free and paid, that can help students manage money, see where they are making unnecessary purchases and even help sock away some cash for later. Mint is a good one to start with.

MISTAKE #4: Not being careful about social media

Your social life is bustling and you love tagging your friends in post-party pics. But when you go to your much-anticipated interview for a competitive internship, the hiring manager lets you know your partying ways aren't compatible with their company's culture.


Be choosy about what you post

When it comes to social media, there's a fine line between sharing too much and not enough. Employers like to see that potential hires have social media accounts, but students should be wary about what can be seen by the public.

Make sure you understand exactly what certain privacy settings hide and be smart about not sharing photos of reckless behavior.

MISTAKE #5: Cutting off friends or family

In your excitement to meet new people, you've forgotten your high school best friend's birthday and haven't called home in weeks. But now you're struggling to make some big personal choices and you're not sure where to go for advice.


Find the right balance

Try to keep a balance when maintaining relationships back home and developing new bonds at school. Students may feel like they're losing touch with old friends, but keep in mind that strong, long-term relationships aren't too difficult to rekindle, and those friends are likely going through the same balancing act. Check in now and then with old friends and call home once in awhile to keep the lines of communication open.

Take advantage of family ties

“For many people, family is a vital reason they are in college in the first place,” says Dr. Lidh. “Maybe your dad helped you with your application? Your mom helped with your class schedule? Your grandmother talked about how to keep your Instagram obsession in check?”

“Only you can know what help and support you need from these folks, so take full advantage of their generosity, their advice, their love, their scolding. They want the best for you, and they want to know how they can help you succeed. So, stay connected.”

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