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September1, 2009

Experts offer tips to help students succeed in their first year in college

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -
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As students across the nation head back to college, they should be aware that, on average, one in three of them will not return to the same school for their second year.

But there are things each new student can do to improve their chances of success, say experts who have studied the issue.

Andrew Koch, director of Purdue University's Student Access, Transition and Success Programs, points out that students leaving for college are doing more than changing schools.

"These young people are now establishing their own norms," he says. "They are now responsible for their own physical, mental and spiritual well-being, and they have to balance academic success in the midst of all of this."

Although students think they are prepared for college-level courses, Koch says the difficulty still catches them by surprise.

"We asked 14,000 freshmen about their first year in college, and as a group they all said they didn't know they'd have to work as hard as they did," Koch says. "What was interesting was that they said this regardless of whether they had been successful."

John Gardner, author of "Your College Experience: Strategies for Success," the academic work "The Freshman Year Experience: Helping Students Survive and Succeed in College," and a senior fellow at the National Resource Center on the First Year Experience and Students in Transition, says simply leaving home is harder for students than they realize.

"Homesickness is a factor, particularly for men," Gardner says. "Believe it or not, men adjust less well to leaving home than women do. Men tend to be less mature at age 18 than women."

Koch and Gardner agree that students must focus on both the social aspects of fitting in at college as well as stepping up their academic efforts. They offer these tips for making a successful transition:

* Make friends with people who share similar goals

"The first item on your to-do list should be to make friends," Koch says. "Not to party, but to make relationships with your peers. You should attend as many orientation activities as possible, and if your school has an academic learning community where students in similar majors are housed together, you should join that. There, you'll find students who are going through the same things, taking the same classes. As I tell students, serendipity is too important to leave to chance."

Gardner points out that the single biggest influence on students is other students. "You should pay attention to who you associate with because you are going to become like them. If they like to party every night, you will, too."

* Don't go home for as long as you can

Although students may think that going home on weekends and staying in touch with high school friends is a way to ease the adjustment, the experts say the opposite is true.

"We have research that shows the more frequently you go home the less likely you are to survive the first year," Gardner says. "The worst thing you can do is stay in your room and text old friends from high school about what you are going to do that weekend."

* Join a club or group

Research has shown that students who joined at least one co-curricular activity were more likely to be successful in their freshman year.

"This is part of finding people who share your interests," Koch says. "This gives you a reason to be on campus on the weekends and gives you a group of new friends to enjoy. You have to find your niche, but it's also a great opportunity to try new things."

* Take care of your physical health, including managing stress

The enormous amount of life change that accompanies the transition to college produces stress, and often students try to deal with it in ways that actually increases the stress - by sleeping less, eating more or drinking alcohol.

"Overeating and drinking alcohol are not only damaging to your health, but they also lower a student's self-esteem," Gardner says.

* Go to class and do the homework

"Academics should be your first priority," Koch says. "This is why finding friends in your classes or through learning communities is important for student success. They'll literally drag each other out of bed to attend class."

Koch and Gardner point out that even the best high school students find they need to learn new academic behaviors in college.

"Students may be brilliant, so they never had to study in high school or really pay attention in class," Koch says. "They can find themselves on academic probation at the end of their first semester in college. They need to know they have to go to class, take good notes and read the assigned materials, even if they could get good grades without doing that before."

* Attend help sessions

In high school, help sessions may have been seen as unnecessary and may have even carried a stigma. University freshmen need to quickly understand that college is different.

"Students have to learn a new set of rules about getting help," Gardner says. "No one is going to tell your parents, and it doesn't mean you are a bad student or person. Ironically, it's the top students, the real fast burners, who seek out help first.

"Asking for help in college is like the old joke about voting in Chicago: Do it early and often."

This fall Purdue launched an online program called Signals that encourages students to seek help and recommends appropriate steps to take. Signals alerts students with a red, yellow or green stoplight when they log into their courses, depending on their predicted success, and sends the students messages from their instructor about how to improve.

"Signals offers a host of interventions," Koch says. "It alerts them when they are not being as successful as they could be, and it helps students make connections with teaching assistants or study groups."

* Maintain your personal standards

Life away from home has many opportunities and temptations, and many of these are exaggerated by immature peers. Students who put their personal values at risk can damage their self-esteem, which will have an impact on their college career. Poor decisions about drinking alcohol, sexual relationships or overspending and credit card debt can put students at risk.

"Students are going to be confronted with choices about doing things to belong, and they should not compromise their values," Gardner says. "If they do compromise their values, this can cause tremendous damage to their self-esteem."

* Parents should be prepared for a text or e-mail message saying things aren't going well

Parents have a role to play in students' success, too, Koch says, although it is less direct than when the students were in high school.

"You have to allow the student to grow and to let go, but not let go completely," Koch says. "Read the resource material for parents the college provides so that if the student calls and says they are struggling, you can offer good information about resources as well as emotional support. Both are important."

Writer:  Steve Tally, 765-494-9809, tally@purdue.edu

Sources:  Andrew Koch, 765-494-2451, akkoch@purdue.edu

John N. Gardner, 828-883-4093, gardner@fyfoundations.org

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu

PHOTO CAPTION:
College freshmen can improve their chances of academic success by participating in orientation and back-to-class activities, such as Purdue's Boiler Gold Rush, shown here. Experts say making social connections early in a student's academic career is an important factor in whether the student stays in school. (Purdue University photo/Andrew Hancock)

A publication-quality image is available at https://news.uns.purdue.edu/images/+2009/koch-freshmen.jpg

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