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How to College: What to Know Before You Go (and When You're There)

How to College: What to Know Before You Go (and When You're There)

by Andrea Malkin Brenner, Lara Hope Schwartz
How to College: What to Know Before You Go (and When You're There)

How to College: What to Know Before You Go (and When You're There)

by Andrea Malkin Brenner, Lara Hope Schwartz


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The first practical guide of its kind that helps students transition smoothly from high school to college

The transition from high school—and home—to college can be stressful. Students and parents often arrive on campus unprepared for what college is really like. Academic standards and expectations are different from high school; families aren’t present to serve as “scaffolding” for students; and first-years have to do what they call “adulting.” Nothing in the college admissions process prepares students for these new realities.

As a result, first-year college students report higher stress, more mental health issues, and lower completion rates than in the past. In fact, up to one third of first-year college students will not return for their second year—and colleges are reporting an increase in underprepared first-year students.

How to College is here to help. Professors Andrea Malkin Brenner and Lara Schwartz guide first-year students and their families through the transition process, during the summer after high school graduation and throughout the school year, preparing students to succeed and thrive as they transition and adapt to college. The book draws on the authors’ experience teaching, writing curricula, and designing programs for thousands of first-year college students over decades.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250225184
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/23/2019
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 124,194
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Andrea Malkin Brenner, PhD taught in the Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) at American University for over 20 years. She created and directed AU’s award-winning first-year experience program and consults with colleges that wish to create their own first-year transition courses.

Lara Hope Schwartz, JD teaches in the Department of Government at American University School of Public Affairs (SPA) and is the Director of the Project on Civil Discourse. In teaching law and government, she draws on her experience as a legislative lawyer, lobbyist, and communications strategist in leading civil rights organizations.

Read an Excerpt



Although it is good to have goals, you don't need to figure out your whole life during your first semester. Set goals, but focus on the short-term goals of your first semester rather than the long-term goals of your college career or the rest of your life.


You do not need to have your life plan figured out during your first semester (or even during your first year) of college. You'll have time to select your major (and even change it, if you want or need to), finish your academic requirements, and choose at least your first career path before you graduate.

Your first semester on campus is not the time to worry about how the next four years will play out. Instead, it is a time to try new things, like pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, immersing yourself in challenging academic work, learning to ask intellectual questions, experiencing new social situations, meeting people whose lived experiences have been different from your own, and taking some (not-too-risky) risks. Your post–high school self will shift and develop as you encounter these new experiences. Shaping and growing your mind, body, and spirit is a gradual process, and there's no reason to rush it.


Don't forget that when you began high school, there was always a countdown to the next step, the "prize": college acceptance and high school graduation. Those four years of high school were probably an uphill climb, with each successive year getting more challenging academically as your workload increased and the course content in your classes broadened. Simultaneously, you were expected to juggle standardized testing, push yourself to enroll in advanced classes, pass your exams, visit colleges, and complete college applications. You needed to get through all these small milestones in order to reach the finish line of your secondary education: college acceptance. There is a reason you might be tired. And you have succeeded.

You'll be happy to know that college is not the same game. You're aiming to graduate in four years, but you are not gearing up for another high school–like race to the finish line. You're in your new college environment to live, learn, and grow.


In chapter 2, you'll read our tips for connecting with your new roommate(s) before you meet and important things to discuss with them before you move in together. But what about the other students you will meet during pre-orientation, orientation, and when you arrive on campus? If meeting new peers does not come naturally to you, here are some great tips:

[] BOND OVER SHARED TRANSITION-TO-COLLEGE EXPERIENCES, such as your travel to college, your residence hall, the food on campus, or a mandatory program you have attended together.

[] BE ON TIME AND DRESS APPROPRIATELY AT YOUR FIRST HALL MEETING. Don't be that kid — the one who shows up late and interrupts the RA's orientation; you'll leave your peers with the impression that you haven't totally bought into community living.

[] DON'T DOUBT YOURSELF. Don't forget that you belong at your school. You've earned your spot in the first-year class, just like everyone else.

[] THINK ABOUT HOW MUCH YOU ARE CONTRIBUTING TO A CONVERSATION. When you're nervous, it's easy to speak more than is necessary. Remember to listen and respond to your new peers during conversation just as much as you speak.

[] GET INVOLVED AND ATTEND AS MUCH PROGRAMMING AS YOU CAN HANDLE. The first week or two of college should be an overview of campus for new students, so push yourself to check out everything. Following that, you can narrow your focus to the people and activities that suit you.

[] DON'T BE A KNOW-IT-ALL. Remember that everyone you meet had the intellect to be accepted by your school. Instead, work on being a good listener.

[] ASK FOR HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT. There are faculty, professional staff, student staff, and upper-class students who will be happy to give you directions if you're lost on campus or answer your newbie questions. Remember that after a few months at school, you'll be a student on campus who is able to help others.

[] CHECK OUT ACADEMIC DEPARTMENTS AND EVENTS THAT INTEREST YOU EVEN IF YOU ARE UNSURE WHAT YOUR MAJOR WILL BE. Professionals in specialty academic fields and students who are concentrating their studies in a particular department are the best resources around. Telling someone "I'm a first-year student and thinking about majoring in ..." will take you far.

[] TRY NOT TO WORRY, EVEN IF YOU FEEL INSECURE. Every transition takes time. Think of how big and strange your middle school or high school felt when you first arrived. Feeling free of undue stress is one of the most important elements of preparation for your first week of college. There are many resources to turn to on campus if your stress does feel overwhelming, including your RA (chapter 2), the counseling center (chapter 10), or a peer leader (chapter 13).

[] GIVE NEW PEERS THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. Chances are, they're nervous as well. If your first impression of someone you meet is less than favorable, commit to giving them a second chance, but don't waste a ton of time forging friendships with people who don't share your values.

[] ASSUME THAT THERE WILL BE CHALLENGES. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself to succeed in everything new you try. College is hard and often overwhelming; stress and fatigue add to the challenges. If you assume that baseline stress and worry are normative, you won't be so hard on yourself when social or academic situations seem tough.

Here Are Some Differences:


YOUR IDENTITY Usually tied to the activities you More complex and nuanced; tied to your social have engaged in connections, course of study, andcareer aspirations

CHOOSING Might be a strategy for college To find a peer group, learn new skills, and ACTIVITIES acceptance enhance your lived experience

DEMONSTRATION Standardized: GPA, test scores, Variable: Individualized and based on academic OF "SUCCESS" hours of community service, interests and career aspirations leadership roles

INSTRUCTORS What you know and what knowledge The questions you ask JUDGE YOU BY ... You retain


It's impossible and unhealthy to take on every new college experience with a friend by your side. As you grow and develop into an adult, it's crucial to allow yourself to think freely, form opinions, and embrace the freedom you have to its fullest. This is often challenging for a first-year student, especially if you were raised with siblings. For some, spending hours alone feels like a waste of time; for others, it might even be anxiety-provoking. Please trust that spending time alone is an important skill to have in college, and the summer before you transition to campus is a great time to appreciate how different a new experience can be if you take it on by yourself.

You hear a lot about how college is a time to develop close friendships, and that is absolutely true. But it's also an important time to appreciate being by yourself. In high school, that might have meant just staying in, watching Netflix, eating a sandwich, and waiting for your family to get home. We're not talking about that. We're talking about really having new experiences by yourself. This is a crucial skill, especially when you live in a residence hall, as there aren't many places to actually be alone, and the constant presence of other people where you sleep, eat, and even shower can get a bit overwhelming. If you're successful at this skill, you might even begin to welcome staying in on an occasional Friday night or heading out by yourself to have a new experience on a Saturday afternoon.

In college, taking time each day to be alone, even thirty minutes to take a walk or just sit and think, is helpful. College is a lot more work than high school, and the stakes are higher, but remembering to stop, slow down, and spend some time focusing on yourself is a necessity for success.



The summer before you head to campus is a great time to become independent in many areas of your life.

Some important things you should learn to do before leaving for college:

[] Do your laundry (learn to separate colors from whites, and what needs to be air-dried)

[] Change your sheets and make your bed

[] Make your own medical appointments and renew your own prescriptions

[] Iron your clothes

[] Sew on a button

[] Purchase tickets to events, for air travel, and for public transportation

[] Read a bus schedule

[] Pay an appropriate tip at a restaurant or coffee shop

[] Set an alarm (or alarms) to get up and out of your room on time

[] Manage your personal finances, including money transfers

[] Mail a package and an envelope

[] Register to vote and/or request and submit an absentee ballot

[] Read nutrition labels on food

[] Locate and use local businesses (dry cleaner, hair salon/barber shop)

[] Purchase used textbooks

[] Read unit prices to find cost-effective food

[] Write a professional email

[] Leave a professional voice mail

[] Clean shared spaces (sinks, floors, minifridge, microwave, and other surfaces)

Remember to keep your expectations (and the expectations that others have of you) reasonable. No one goes from dependent to independent overnight, and there is no doubt that you will make some mistakes along the way. If you lose your student ID, accidentally bleach a load of colored laundry, oversleep and miss a class, or have to call home for support more than you would like, remember that you are still learning how to college and how to be an adult. We promise your college professors all made similar mistakes when they were first-year students.

Being independent does not mean never seeking help. As a matter of fact, truly being an adult means being willing to find and use resources (either on campus or from your support system at home) when you need them. It also means making healthy choices (this is discussed in depth in chapter 9). With your new independence comes new responsibility as well. Sure, you can stay up all night with friends, but if you have class or work the next day, is that a smart decision?

Can you count how many times in the past someone at home reminded you to do your homework, clean your room, or take out the trash? At college, that someone is you — or no one (but if you wait long enough to change your sheets or do your laundry, it might remind you in its own scary way).

Foundations of Self

Although your experience in college will change your perspective about a whole host of things (and you should open yourself to new opinions — that's what college is all about), it's important not to lose track of your core values. They will ground the decisions you will have to make and prepare you to thrive in your college environment. As clichéas it sounds, don't be someone who is swayed by the masses or by popular opinion. You be you.

College is most likely the first time that you will live without your immediate family over an extended period of time, and lots of people think that is the toughest transition. We would argue that what is the most challenging for first-year students is realizing that you are at a point in your life where you have to stop doing things just to please your family, and instead start doing what is best for you and your future. That is a step toward being an adult. Establishing your independence really means learning to take care of yourself, and this is an ongoing process.


Your daily interaction with your family will (and should) be altered when you leave for college. With preparation, you can avoid what often turns out to be a significant source of conflict between new college students and the people they've left at home. While there really isn't a "normal" college student–to–home communication formula, it's important to discuss both sets of expectations — yours and your family's — and it's crucial to find a plan that works for everyone's needs.

The communication arrangement you make will be unique to you and your family. Some first-year college students and their parents talk or text multiple times a day, and others talk or text weekly. Others report that they talk on the phone infrequently, but text often. Some video chat with their families each week, and others don't at all. The communication varies by schedule (and sometimes time difference), limited privacy, and family members' comfort in exploring options beyond the traditional phone call.

Social media can make it easier to let your family know what you've been up to, but it comes with its own challenges of appropriateness and privacy. It's important to note that there are also special circumstances: not everyone has an open and communicative relationship with their family. Some first-year students come from divorced, multigenerational, or multilingual families, which may complicate communication or the time it takes to check in with all parties.

Concerns from the Home Front

Remember that it isn't all about your needs. Your family has dedicated years to raising you, and they aren't going to turn off their concern about you when you move out. You won't be around for them to see you regularly, so they will want to know how you are doing while you're away from home. It will be crucial to take on a more conscious role as a conduit for that information.

This doesn't mean you need to share every detail of your life, but your family will expect and appreciate some type of regular update in whatever format you decide upon together. They will want to hear some stories about your new routine, and it's your responsibility to share some. Be prepared for them to ask you a lot of questions in the beginning (and these might seem annoying). When they do reach out, it probably isn't because they want to interfere, but because you haven't been communicative enough for their needs. And if you call your family when you are homesick, upset, or in need, don't forget to contact them again when you're feeling better or more in control so they'll feel better, too.

Balancing Independence and Communication with Your Family

First-year students need and require independence to successfully transition from home to college. "Adulting" involves taking responsibility for your own life as you figure out your goals, make mistakes, revel in your new accomplishments, and compromise on a communication strategy with your family. If it would make your mom feel good to receive a smiling photo of you and your roommate, send one. If you know your grandfather would "know" that you were safe if he just heard your voice, make the effort to call him. If your younger sibling needs goodnight texts to adjust after you've left home, it's pretty easy to send them.

As much as you like to think that you have finally found your freedom and you're away from your family, you will still need them. Tell them a few details about your week and ask them how life is back home. Even if you do not feel homesick, you should make the effort to call.


Flexible Communication Relationships

You'll probably have to adjust your phone or video chat schedule once you get a better idea of what your college life looks like. For example, you might have agreed to video chat with your family every Sunday evening, but then you join an organization that meets at that time. Maybe you miss your siblings more than you expected to (hey, stop laughing!), or they have a harder time with you being away than they thought (now tell them to stop laughing). As long as you respect each other's needs and time, you'll be able to build a communication plan that works for everyone.


I had all sorts of preconceived notions about sounding like that annoying first-year student with stupid questions and that my professors would be frustrated with me taking up their time. In reality, my ideas could not have been more wrong.


As professors, we often hear that our students feel like imposters. They're intimidated by their peers. They tell us that their classmates seem to know everything and that they're embarrassed to ask a question in class. When we ask where they got this idea, students tell us that their classmates are more confident and certain, argue passionately in residence hall lounges and at meals, or learned all about the material in their internships. In college, we call this "imposter syndrome." It can discourage students from speaking up, seeking help, or sharing what they know.


Excerpted from "How To College"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Andrea Malkin Brenner and Lara Hope Schwartz.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

An Introduction for Students 1

We Need to See Other People: A Letter to Parents and Families 5

A Guide to This Guide 8

Part I The New College You

1 Your Identity: Is Reinventing Yourself a Real Thing? 11

2 Doubling (or Tripling) Down: Sharing Your Living Space 31

3 Beyond icebreakers: Getting to Know Your College Peers 42

Part II College is School

4 What Do You Want from Me? Academic Standards 55

5 Going Pro: Professionalism in College Academics 72

6 Get to the Point: Read and Study with Purpose 84

7 There Are No Bad Writers, Only Unpersuasive Papers: College Writing 93

8 Know Your Network: Academic Support 103

Part III Take Care of You

9 Eat, Sleep, Pray, Play: Wellness 121

10 Health 101: Access to Care in School 137

11 You Are Your Own Safety Net: Staying Protected in College 156

Part IV The Resident Experts

12 Key Players on Campus: Staff and Administrators 169

13 Not So Scary After All: Professors 176

Part V Money Talk

14 You're Not a Loan: Paying for College 189

15 Your Life's Transcript: Financial Literacy 197

16 Turns Out, There's a Math Requirement: Understanding Budgets 210

Part VI Life beyond the Classroom

17 The Lay of the Land: Your Campus 223

18 After the Activities Fair: Involvement and Community Responsibility 230

19 Work It: Career and Internship Resources 247

20 Act Locally: Your New College Town 258

Part VII Your to-Do List

Do This. Now. Seriously. 271

Know and Do Before You Go 272

Make Your Smartphone Smarter 277

Boost Your Browser: Bookmark These Sites 278

Acknowledgments 279

Notes 283

Index 285

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