10 Things I Wish I Knew as a First-Year Student

Category Student Voices


Portrait of Alli Scharmann, student
Allison Scharmann Class of '21
Authored on April 30, 2019


In honor of Visitas, I’m sharing my tips and advice — as a rising junior — for how to make the most of your first year of college.

1. Give yourself time. Everyone adjusts differently to college. Whether the atmosphere is new or familiar, the workload stressful or standard, give yourself time to breathe and acclimate to the new environment. It’s okay to limit your extracurriculars, take a class pass-fail, or hold off getting an on-campus job until second semester (or later) if it makes the transition from high school to college easier.

2. Explore! While it might be easier to stick to the same academic subjects and extracurriculars you focused on in high school, use your first year as an opportunity to explore as many different classes and activities as you can. My biggest regret in college is that I didn’t take more classes for fun my first year! Explore art history, sociology, folklore/mythology, classics, biology, women and gender studies — whatever you want so long as it makes you wake up excited to go to class!

3. Don’t compare yourself to others. This is a hard one, especially first semester when everyone is trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in the grand scheme of college. When students brag or overcommit to activities/difficult classes it is often because of insecurity.

Surround yourself with down-to-earth people and focus on what makes you happy. Let everything else fall into place. Wherever you end up going to college, you belong there.

4. Find home (whatever that means for you). For me, finding my niche on campus meant finding the spaces in which I felt most at home. This can mean a lot of different things — students find home in cultural organizations, extracurricular activities, majors, public service, and even their dorms. Seek out friends, spaces, and activities that make you feel supported — and remember it’s okay to leave behind the ones that don’t. I found home with my friends, at the newspaper, and in Harvard’s first-gen and low-income community and I am endlessly grateful for them all.

5. Get to know your advisors, professors, and the other adults in your life. You’ll hear this advice a million times before you start college, but that’s because it’s really, really important.

Be honest with your advisors and go to office hours to meet with/ask for help from your professors — these people are resources to you as an undergraduate, even if they might seem a little intimidating at first.

I started slow, but over the last two years I’ve become close with so many warm, genuine people and I’m so thankful for the mentors I’ve had in such a short amount of time.

Harvard Square

The view of Harvard Square from the Lowell Inn.

6. Take care of yourself! That’s right folks, this means sleep, eat, exercise, nap, meditate – do whatever have to do to feel rested and healthy. With new activities, classes, and a new home to adjust to it can be easy to put aside things like sleep and exercise, but when you set aside time to relax and take care of yourself your body will thank you <3

7. Ask for help. Often, always, and from whoever you need it from! College is a huge academic shift from high school and, regardless of your educational background, you may need to seek out extensions for a paper, a tutor, or other kinds of personal and academic help. Never hesitate to take advantage of the resources available to you — they’re there for you to use!  

8. It’s okay to say no. Everybody needs a break sometimes. Remember to take time for yourself. You don’t have to go to every meeting or event, and if you’re doing too many activities it’s always okay to take a step back. Figure out what’s really important to you and your happiness, stick with it, and prioritize your mental and emotional health and wellbeing!

Harvard's Annenberg Dining Hall

Annenberg Dining Hall

Harvard's dining hall for first-year students.

9. Put effort into your relationships. High school and college are very, very different when it comes to maintaining friendships. In high school you saw your friends every day in class and you’ve often had the same/a similar friend group for years. In college, you’re constantly meeting new people and, alongside your social life, are balancing an armful of other commitments too. Reach out to your friends often, make time for people you care about, and be there for your friends when they need you. Be there for your friends and, more often than not, they’ll be there for you.

10. It’s okay to take the summer off. Around January or February (or sometimes even earlier) college students begin asking and being asked the question: “What are you doing this summer?” While answers are wide-ranging, it is absolutely okay to say nothing! It’s fun to travel or take exciting jobs in new places — but it’s equally valid to go home, take a break, work a job or internship near your house, and do whatever else you have to do to feel rested and ready for the best sophomore year ever!

Allison Scharmann Class of '21

Hello! My name is Allison Scharmann and I’m a senior from Western Massachusetts living in Winthrop House. I’m concentrating in Social Studies with a secondary in English and I spend most of my free time on campus working for our newspaper, The Harvard Crimson.

Student Profile
Portrait of Alli Scharmann, student