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The transition from high school to college is a big change. Finding a college and academic program is the first hurdle, but how you balance classes, study time, and other commitments is what determines whether you’ll sink or swim, and is what making the college transition is all about. While colleges pour resources into keeping their students afloat, it is a two-way street. Students must be proactive in order to get on track and stay on track.

We talked to Frank Robinson, Director of Norse Advising at Northern Kentucky University. With 11 years of experience at the University, he knows a thing or two about students’ needs. Using his insight, we’re here to give you advice on how to choose a path that is right for you, how to thrive in the path you choose, and what to do if you happen to fall off course.

Picking your college

Let’s start at square one. The transition from high school to college begins well before your first day of classes. First, you have to pick a school that fits you and your needs. Evaluate what your needs are, such as campus size, class size, or location.

Check out our college search tool to narrow down school options here.

Robinson advises visiting several schools. While tours and official visit days are helpful in learning about the campus and its resources, Robinson suggests getting more off-hand information.

“Find out from the students that are actually going there, what’s the culture like? What’s the atmosphere like? Do you really like it here? What things made you attracted to this place?” said Robinson. “Feel the environment in a practical level.”

Finding your field of study

You may choose a school based on a desired major. However, if you plan to start classes without declaring a major, you should have an idea of what interests you.

Robinson explained that in order to help students find a major, advisors usually ask certain probing questions to evaluate student’s goals, abilities, and interests.

“Is there something that you like to do as a hobby, or something that you are passionate about? Maybe you like to write, would you look forward to going to class and writing everyday? Is this something that lines up with your goals? Is this something that lines up with your abilities that lines up with your interests?” said Robinson.

If you’re having trouble finding a field of study that excites you, try asking yourself these questions to determine your interests and a potential academic pursuit.

Starting off on the right foot and finding your balance

Now, you’ve chosen a college or university and you’re about to begin classes. How do you prepare?

“The big thing here is time management. I want [students] to start thinking early about their time management skills,” said Robinson.

Evaluate what activities are going to fill your time. First, you’ll have your classes and necessary study time. Then, maybe you’ll have to work a certain amount of hours per week, or you’re a student athlete. Perhaps you’ll want to join a club or be involved in Greek Life. You’ll need sleep too. It’s definitely possible to balance school with other activities—and these are encouraged for a full college experience! However, you’ll have to be on top of your schedule more so than in high school.

Robinson explains that the big shift between high school and college is class time versus study time. In high school, you’re in-class time to study time ratio leans towards the in-class time. In college, this is flipped. Expect to spend fewer hours in a classroom, but more hours studying to excel. Everyone is different, but a good rule of thumb is two hours of study time to one hour of class time.

“For a lot of students that’s a shift in the way they think, so helping students consider that early on is important,” said Robinson.

Another practical tip Robinson suggests for time management is using a planner and planning by the hour to map out your time. There’s a total of 168 hours in each week.  You need to block off time for your classes, sleep, and other commitments. It’s up to you to decide how you’re going to prioritize and how you can best organize your schedule.

What resources are available?

According to Robinson, the three main keys to college success are “class attendance, study time, and getting connected to those resources on campus.”

Let’s organize what those resources can be:

1. Advisors

Your advisors aren’t just there to confirm your schedule for next semester. Advisors are often trained to be knowledgeable in all resources the university provides and can direct you to whatever you may need. Reach out to your advisor for help planning both your semester schedules and four-year-plans, if you’re having trouble in your classes, and for any other questions you may have. Don’t be shy, it’s encouraged!

2. Career services

Once you have a clear idea of your academic path and have taken some classes in your chosen field, reach out to career services. Ask when and how to start an internship, a co-op, or other industry experience. The career services department will be able to direct you to career pages, job boards, and university partnerships, as well as review your resume and help build other job search and interview skills. Industry experience will get you ahead of the game as well as get a better idea of what you would like to do with your degree. Getting in touch with this department will help you to jumpstart your career while still in school, as well as land your full-time job post-grad.

3. Credit recovery

When issues arise and your grades suffer, or you failed a class you know you could pass the second time around, check to see if your college has a credit recovery program. These programs will allow you to make up a class and count your new grade towards your GPA, expunging the original grade from counting in your GPA on the transcript. Some colleges will also accept DSST or CLEP exams for college credit.

4. Learning communities

If you work well in community-based environments, check to see if your college or the college you are interested in provides learning community opportunities. This can work in several ways depending on the school, but the idea is that you are grouped with another student or students in classes or other groups. These other groups may include placing these students on the same floor or building if they are utilizing campus housing. This can be voluntary or involuntary depending on the program, but learning communities can be helpful for student adjustment.

“What that does is it build some community and forge those connections early on. This helps students get engaged with other students and feel more comfortable,” said Robinson of NKU’s learning community programs.

5. Programs for when you’re struggling

If your grades are slipping, don’t wait to ask for help. Reach out to your academic advisor for university programs that may offer free tutoring or study tables to help you better utilize your study time or workshops for certain subjects. Most professors offer office hours as well, so take advantage of those. Go to the office hours for the professor of the class or classes you’re struggling with. Ask for guidance through homework questions, for feedback on rough drafts of essays, or for study guide suggestions. Professors are willing to help when a student shows initiative to improve his or her grade.

You aren’t expected to be an expert on all of your schools resources, but finding out what they are is as simple as dropping by your advisor or professors office or sending an email. These resources exist for you to be in a position to be successful, so do not be afraid to utilize them as needed.

Bottom line? You have to be proactive to successfully navigate college. While you never want to be in trouble with grades or your schedule, sometimes problems emerge and it’s important to act quickly. Knowing the resources are there and how to access them helps you get things back on track should difficult circumstances arise. Other students have been successful with these strategies and you can too!