First Semester of College: Five Tips for Success | The Prudent Professor

First Semester of College: Five Tips for Success

If you’re reading this post, there’s a good chance you (or your child, for my parent readers) is starting college soon. I’m so excited for you! I love working with first year college students.

I want you to have great start at college, and assume you do to, which is why you clicked through to read this post. There’s so much to write about the first year of college. Freshman year is such a time of transition and change. When I thought about the topic for this post, I knew I wanted to write specifically about those first few months on campus.

Here I offer five tips for a successful first semester of college. If you read the full post, you’ll notice the words “habits” and “systems” come up a lot. That’s because academic (and life) success pretty much rests on having solid routines that support your goals. The first semester of college is a great time to establish these routines, but there’s no reason to wait. Many of the five tips below are things you can start working now.

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​Five Tips for a Successful First Semester

​Tip #1: Establish Several Core Habits

One of the strangest things about college is how often your life undergoes major changes. Each new semester brings new classes and probably a new weekly schedule too. Over the first few years, you may move from the dorms to an apartment​. You may switch roommates or majors, too. And you'll make new friends and lose old ones. That’s a lot of change in a fairly short amount of time.

To help you navigate the changes, try to establish two or three core personal habits your first semester of college. These are habits or routines that you perform regardless of how your schedule or your life might change.

​Examples of core habits

One example of a core habit is maintaining fairly consistent sleep and wake times. That may seem difficult when your class schedule changes every four months. You likely won’t ever have class at 6:00am or 10:00pm, though, so should be able to keep to a fairly regular sleep schedule.

Other examples of core habits are packing your backpack each night and ​planning out your schedule each week. Going to church or doing some other activity on a weekly basis is also a core habit.

Establishing ​good core habits during your first semester of college can help ground you through challenges and changes. Relying on these habits and routines give you a sense of normalcy and feelings of control, especially during stressful times like midterms and finals.


Whether you do yoga first thing in the morning or journal before bed every night, adopting a few core habits your first semester can reap positive benefits throughout your entire college career.

​Tip #2: Create Sustainable Systems

​Once at college, you'll need to create systems for things like organizing your class materials and keeping ​your living space clean. The key here is making sure those systems are sustainable – something you can keep up with over the long term.

Every semester I see students determined to get organized or manage their time better. They buy planners or download apps meant to keep them on track. But planners and apps only work if you commit to using them. If you don’t commit to maintaining the system you create, you can’t be successful.

It can take time to figure out systems that work for you. Some people like to start a project and see it through to the finish, while others are content to break it into steps. So, some students may do well to set aside an hour a week to clean their dorm room. Others will find success devoting 15 minutes a day to the task.

Systems are really just a set of habits and routines bundled together. If you can establish core habits, you can establish systems. Don’t be afraid to experiment a bit during your first semester of college to figure out what works for you. But if you can get these systems in place your first few months on campus, you’ll be miles ahead of most of your classmates.

​Tip #3: Develop Good Study Habits

I know, this one pretty much goes without saying, right? Your life will be so much easier if you develop good study habits during your first semester of college. Otherwise you may be on the struggle bus for the next four to six years.


As with systems, it may take awhile to figure out what study methods are most effective​ and which study techniques you should avoid. The best you can do in the meantime is to not develop any bad study habits you’ll have to overcome later. The truth is, if you’re a procrastinating freshman, you’ll probably be a procrastinating junior. Try not to fall into a pattern of procrastinating.

​Tip #4: Manage Your Time Well

One of the reasons many students do procrastinate is because there’s a lot of unstructured time in college. There will be entire days when you have no classes and other days where you may have a three or four hour break between classes. When you see large chunks of uncommitted time in your schedule, it’s easy for procrastination to creep in.

To keep procrastination at bay, you need to manage your time well. I know that’s easier said than done, because good time management is hard. It requires a bunch of related skills, like organization and prioritization, all working together. But there are some things you can do to master time management.

​Two steps for better time management

First, you need to get a realistic picture of how you actually spend your time. Students tend to suffer from several common time management problems​. As a result, they’re often running behind schedule and overwhelmed by their ever growing to-do list. Tracking how you spend your time can help you tackle any obvious time management issues. You can find a time tracking activity in my free resource library; just sign up below.


Second, you should learn how to properly use a planner. Whether you prefer a paper planner or a digital calendar, you need to find ​a planning system that ​helps you manage your time well and stay on top of your tasks.

As with any system, a planner will only work if you commit to using it. Every year I see students buy planners and then write almost nothing in them. I also see students who put ​way more effort into making their planners look pretty than they put toward actually planning. When you’re buying a planner, you need to think about function over fashion. Choose a practical planner that will actually help improve your planning skills, since that’s the real goal here.

​Tip #5: Manage Your Money Well

College is often students' first experience with managing their own money. To avoid getting yourself in financial trouble, you should establish a good money management system your first semester of college.

Managing money ​can be more challenging for college students than for other young adults. College students may earn money from a job, get money in the form of financial aid, and get money from their parents. Having irregular income ​arriving at different times from different sources makes it difficult to track income and spending and to create a monthly budget.

That said, you should still strive to keep a regular budget in college, so you ​won't overborrow student loans. You should also set aside a time at least once a month to pay ​bills and check your bank balance and credit card statement, if you have one. Put this financial appointment in your planner and keep it, so you can avoid nasty surprises like expensive overdraft and late fees.

If you’ve never had a personal finance course, see if your college offers this as an elective class. If so, consider taking the c​ourse during your first semester or first year of college. It can help you better understand budgeting and student loans, and ​put you on ​a good financial path as you enter adulthood.

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Following the five tips laid out here will set you up for success not only during your first semester, but for your entire time in college. The benefits will last much longer than that, though. Both life and career success depend a lot on having the kind of good habits you can ​develop in college.

Fortunately, you don’t have to learn and put all five of these tips into practice your first semester of college. Many of them are things you can work on before you get to campus. For example, the summer before college is a great time to start working on your core habits or to put a money management system in place.

I don’t want to scare students into thinking that having a bad first semester of college means they’re doomed. It’s totally possible to recover from a rough first semester. But it’s much easier if you never find yourself in that position to begin with. So, do some experimenting your first semester and find what systems work best for you. Once you do, nothing can stand between you and your goals.

​Until next time, best wishes and keep learning,

The Prudent Professor

The Prudent Professor is the alter ego of Amanda Coleman (BS, MS, PhD), who has taught, advised and mentored students for over 20 years. Amanda has worked with students in high school through graduate school, at schools ranging from community colleges to large state universities. Amanda spends most of her free time bookmarking crafts she’ll probably never make and planning trips she’ll probably never take. She also outlines plots for novels she will eventually write (maybe).