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Dr. Jennifer B. Bernstein

(516) 362-1929

19 Tips for College Freshmen: Insights from a Princeton University Sophomore

It’s hard to believe that summer is drawing to a close.

But whenever I go into Target (which is frequently because we just moved into our new home and constantly need things), I’m confronted with all the “Back to College” displays and reminded that summer is almost over.

All these checklists detailing the superficial supplies you need to decorate your dorm room got me thinking. . . .

Yes, you need sheets and a blanket and some other basic supplies, but if you really want to make a smooth, successful transition into a meaningful college experience, you need a checklist of another kind–one that supports you in navigating the emotional, social, and intellectual transition you’re about to undergo.

Obviously, as a college professor, I’ve got lots of advice, but. . . .

I want to share with you the insights of someone who is much closer to the actual freshman experience, so I got in touch with Maggie Zhang, a sophomore at Princeton, and invited her to contribute.


1. My biggest advice would be to stay out of your comfort zone, especially in the beginning of the year.

It’s very easy for freshmen to settle into what they are familiar with in the beginning of the year, just because they are trying to adjust to a new environment, but it’s so important, especially in the beginning, to reach out and try new things and meet a variety of people.

2. Don’t limit yourself too early.

I think so many people are eager to find a “friend group” or to settle into their major, but college is all about exploration, so it’s better to try as much as you can in the beginning and then narrow down as you get to know yourself better.

In terms of making new friends, take the first few months of college to talk to as many people as possible — because there will be no other time in college when people will be as open to talk to you and as open to saying “hi” to strangers. Everyone at that point is in the same boat as you, so it’s best to make as many friends as possible before settling into a concrete friend group.

Don’t be desperate to find a best friend. It’s so hard, because after high school, you think that your friendships in college can be just as strong because you compare them to the friends you’ve had for years, but it takes time to develop these kinds of relationships.

3. Never be afraid to talk to anyone.

Make sure you introduce yourself to your career advisor, professors, college masters, and others because they are so helpful and such an under-used resource. Their job is basically to make the students feel comfortable, so you should always be okay with asking them questions or for advice.

Go to your professors’ office hours, even if it’s just to talk, because they can get you internships, write you recommendations (not just for grad school, but also for summer opportunities), and help you out with projects.

4. In terms of choosing classes, READ THE REVIEWS, and ask people who have taken them before about professors’ teaching styles. Realize that most of the time, the professor is more important than the subject that is being taught. Always go for the best professors, because a boring professor can ruin an interesting subject, while an interesting professor can make even the most boring subjects interesting.

5. Apply for as many summer jobs and programs as possible, because those opportunities are what will open doors and they will help you stand out in the future.

6. Social media will suck away so much of your time if you’re not careful, and there are much better things to do in college than Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram.

Download the self-control app because it’s helpful.

7. Realize that you’ll learn more from people than in the classroom!!!!!!

8. Never be afraid to ask for help or be vulnerable in front of people — often that’s what will help you develop the strongest relationships.


If you think your schedule is too busy, at least try to have meals with your friends once a week. It’s so, so, so, so important.


The Freshman 15 is the worst.

Don’t ever make the excuse of not being able to exercise because you don’t have time — because you always have time, and even if you have an essay due the next day, going out for a quick run will help you refresh and energize your mind, so it’s worth the 15-20 minute investment.

Eat healthy, too. There is way too much free food at college, which can totally ruin you.

11. Don’t focus on grades; focus on learning.

Of course, this is the hardest for people to do because they want their work to be measured in a tangible form, but grading is so different in college, and it’s not worth it to stress because college is so much more than academic success!

12. Communication is key in all of your relationships.

In college, you’ll be living with people who are wildly different from you. With all these different perspectives, you might have disagreements from time to time, but as long as you talk it out and are open to listening to what other people have to say, the conflicts shouldn’t be too bad.

In terms of roommates, remember that you and your roommate don’t have to be best friends to be compatible living partners. Just keep an open mind because it’s an opportunity to learn about how another person lives and how another person’s mind works.

Always be open with your roommate about how you feel. If you think they are overstepping their boundaries or being too messy, feel free to tell them. The problem won’t solve itself, and it’s better to take care of it earlier rather than later. Besides, they’ll probably be grateful that you were honest and direct.


Usually people appreciate it if you’re the one brave enough to admit you don’t know something.  Besides, you’re there to learn, not to pretend to be the smartest person in the room.

Also, this quote is not that relevant, but it’s something I’ve been living by recently: “Seek to understand, then to be understood.”

14. Keep in touch with your family!!!!!!

This is probably the most important piece of advice. Seriously. Your family just wants you to check in, at least once a week. Talking to them often will help keep you rooted and remind you of your values, and parents have SUCH good advice, it’s ridiculous.

15. Although I emphasized trying a lot of new things in college, it’s also so important to narrow things down later.

You never want to become spread too thin, because that will burn you out and also prevent you from focusing/doing your best. This can be applied to friendships, extracurriculars, academics, etc.

So after you try new things, find a few to focus on…and then really invest in them.  The same goes for people.  Even though you’ll be meeting a lot of people, make sure you’re also investing time in the people who are closest and who mean the most to you, because you never want them to feel like you don’t need them.

16. Learn to receive feedback.

It’s so hard to monitor yourself, which is why it’s important to ask others how you’re doing in terms of your goals and how you’ve been treating people. Always be open to the truth, even if it hurts, because that’s how you’re going to grow as a person.

17. Never forget your roots.

I think that a lot of people view college as a time to start over and reinvent themselves, but they shouldn’t just completely drop where they came from or try to erase history — because it’ll come back eventually, and it’s important to come to terms with who you used to be as well.

I like this quote from Joan Didion: “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”

18. Don’t compare yourself to other people!!!

There’s so much more than surface appearances and everyone’s struggling just as much as you are (especially freshman year, when we’re all super lost/confused).

19. Prioritize balance.

Never, ever, ever let yourself become consumed too heavily with one thing, whether it’s fun, social life, academics, fitness, etc.

Have tips of your own you want to share or have questions for Maggie?  Leave a comment!


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