The stakes are higher than ever for college students. Freshman year on campus can lead to success or serious failures.
In fact, nearly 30% of college students drop out before their sophomore year never to return to campus and graduate.
For those that do succeed, earning a college degree is a game-changer. College grads have not only landed most of the new jobs, they’re also earning more — as much as $17,500 more a year, on average, compared to those with just a high school diploma.
This is why a student's freshman year is such an important time. The college experience is not simply about getting good grades and being at the top of the class. The truth is that it sets the foundation for future success in all aspects of life.
As a former first generation college student who graduated from an Ivy League University, I know this first hand. Due to some key decisions and experiences I made, my four years on campus set me up for success in life after college and in my career as an award-winning television journalist (NBC, PBS, BET, and more) and today as a business owner.
The sad truth is that the most important lessons incoming freshman need to know to succeed in college weren't taught at home, weren't learned in high school and will never be shared in a college lecture hall.
Unfortunately, many students reach the end of four years on campus realizing they didn’t develop the right skills or relationships, they didn’t stretch themselves, and they haven’t set themselves up for life and career success. It’s partly why so many students drop out right before the finish line or graduate only to end up back at home and unemployed.
The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Interestingly, the most powerful lessons during college years don’t take place in the classroom. They all happen in the world outside of it. That’s what I’m sharing with you here — 10 simple yet critical lessons (some that I share in my book 50 Things Every College Student Should Know) that will set your child up for a bright future from day one on campus.
I hope you will share these with your child — not just in the name of saving valuable money or time — but also in setting them up to have the best college experience and future career they possibly can.
#1 SURROUND YOURSELF WITH ALLIES ON CAMPUS
Your child has a simple choice to make. They can surround themselves with thieves or allies. Both exist on college campuses (and out in the world), and they can be the difference between success and failure.
Thieves are people who will never encourage, support, or empower your child. They won’t positively challenge them. They won’t inspire them. They won’t hold them accountable. And they won’t push your kid to be the absolute best version of themselves.
Thieves are energy vampires that zap all of your child’s drive and ambition. Thieves always have drama going on. Thieves settle for mediocrity. Thieves can bring out the worst in of your kid.
On the flip side are allies. Allies are those people who always encourage, support, and empower your child. They positively challenge them. They inspire them. They hold them accountable. And they do push them to be the absolute best version of themselves.
Allies will give your child energy. Allies have great things going on in their lives on campus. Allies won’t accept anything but the best. Allies bring out the best in others.
For your kid, it will be as simple as thinking about the five people they spend the most time with on campus and asking this question: “Do they make me better?”
Support your child in identifying the thieves in their lives and encourage them to create boundaries.
Empower them to find their allies and keep them close. Make sure that they are an ally to others.
Remind them to not be afraid to work with the best and to surround themselves with greatness.
#2 YOU DON’T CLIMB A MOUNTAIN BY ACCIDENT — CONFIDENCE IS EARNED.
In this age of social media from Instagram to Snapchat to Facebook to Twitter, it’s important for your child to remember that success and confidence is earned.
To provide perspective, remind your kid what would happen to them if they were miraculously dropped off at the top of Mount Everest (a nearly 30,000-ft. altitude). They would take in the view for a second and then they would probably pass out, or, maybe die.
Why? Because their lungs have not earned being at that high altitude. It takes time to earn your way to the top even when it seems like others around us are already there.
This is the reason that the careers of reality stars tend not to last long. Two or three years after they win the big competition on television, they typically disappear.
Why? It’s not necessarily that they’re not talented or gifted. It’s because they haven’t done the necessary work to stay at the top of the mountain.
Before a comedian does the big television special, she has worked for years practicing her craft and performing at small comedy clubs. Before the band you love sells out a stadium, they have played at countless small venues getting their sound just right.
Confidence is earned.
Your child’s time in college is a gift, a journey, to build this confidence so they can stay at the top of the mountain.
Encourage them to be willing to do the work to earn their way to the top. This requires faith, dedication, discipline, and on-going commitment. This way they won’t pass out when they get to the top, but instead take in the amazing view.
It’s important for your child to remember to not compare their average day on campus with another student’s “highlight reel” they view on social media.
#3 REGULARLY FIND THE EDGE
“If you’re not close enough to the edge, then you’re taking up too much space.”
To grow and develop during the important college years, students must be willing to get uncomfortable.
The only way a muscle can grow bigger is by lifting heavy weights. When you lift heavy weights, your muscle actually tears. Then something miraculous happens — it grows back bigger and stronger.
“Finding the edge” for your child means them being willing to regularly get uncomfortable.
If you’ve ever been an athlete before, you know that feeling you get before a game, match, or race begins when your heart starts racing and you get butterflies in your stomach? That’s finding the edge.
If you’ve ever been a performer before, you know that feeling you get before you take the stage when your palms get sweaty or your throat starts to feel dry. That’s finding the edge.
And, if you’ve ever had a crush on someone, you know that moment when you finally ask them out on a date and you stutter your words while you feel like your heart’s going to explode. That’s finding the edge.
Encourage your child to regularly find the edge. That’s where the magic happens. Not sitting in your dorm room playing video games or Netflix, but rather on campus meeting new people, getting involved, and finding creative ways to grow as a leader.
To give you more perspective on what it means to find the edge: Think about the last week of your life. Now think about the last month. When was the last time you felt that increased heart rate? When is the last time you felt that nervous energy? When is the last time you felt butterflies in your stomach?
When is the last time you found the edge?
If your child doesn’t regularly get outside their comfort zone, odds are they aren’t growing, developing, and moving forward in life.
They must push themselves to find the edge.
#4 IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT COLLEGE YOUR CHILD ATTENDS
I’m sure this is the last thing you want to read after investing in SAT and aCT test prep and all those extracurricular activities your child participated in over the years leading up to college.
Here’s the truth: the college admissions process has been hijacked. It has become big business. “Best Colleges” lists don’t tell the whole story. Instead, they make families and students seriously (and unnecessarily) anxious.
Believe it or not, the vast majority of successful people like CEOs, athletes, entrepreneurs, or executives didn’t attend colleges at the top of the rankings. Many attended colleges and universities that you’ve possibly never heard of. In fact, most say that this actually gave them an edge in their life.
What really matters is that your child earns their degree, maintains a positive attitude, works hard, and garners amazing experiences no matter what college is on their future resume.
Regardless of what college or university your child attends, their job is to be so good they can’t be ignored. Help them use whatever college they attend to their advantage and be proud to get their education.
#5 BE THE ONLY ONE
In college, it is going to be very easy for your child to be part of the crowd and do what everyone else does.
However, for them to develop as human beings and to become marketable for internships and future jobs, it’s critical that they spend time on and off campus being the only one.
This means that they find places to be the only person of their:
When they experience being the only one, they learn how to connect with others who have different viewpoints and backgrounds. They learn how much they may have in common with others. They learn how to walk into any room and feel comfortable in their own skin. They learn how to communicate with anyone.
Key skills that employers crave are those elusive “soft skills” like empathy, creative thinking, and problem solving. Sadly, these are rarely taught in the classroom. But one way that they can develop these skills is by broadening their perspectives, which comes from being the “only one.”
#6 BUILD A PERSONAL BRAND NOW
Open up a private web browser and Google your kid’s name.
What do the search results show? Is it actually them? Is it someone who has the same name as them? Is it something that they posted on social media that one day they’ll be embarrassed about? Or, does nothing come up?
The good news is that your kid can control search results by building a strong personal brand.
The first step for them is to use a free web service like about.me to create a personal website. Once they build it, they can use the link in their emails and social media profiles.
Next, go to a website like register.com and buy your child’s name. It should cost you less than $15. Nothing is worse than someone else owning your name.
Help your kid control what comes up when someone Googles their name (like future employers) so they can be proud of what people find.
#7 CHOOSE EXCITEMENT OVER FEAR
College is an amazing journey with unique experiences.
At times, this journey can spark fear or excitement for your kid as they try new things — running for student government, joining student organizations, studying abroad, or presenting in front of 300 people for their group project.
What they may not know is that fear and excitement are very similar emotions. And it’s up to them to choose which emotion to take on when they experience new things.
Remind them next time they find themselves fearing something new to take a breath and ask, “What excites me about this?”
Further, instead of regularly asking, “What if it doesn’t work out?”, ask, “What if it does work out?”
This small but important shift will allow them to focus on the many opportunities ahead of them instead of a laundry list of problems.
#8 DURING COLLEGE, GET A JOB IN THE SERVICE INDUSTRY
Service industry jobs are one of the most powerful experiences that your kid can have during their college years.
Whether they work as a server at a restaurant, a front desk attendant at a hotel, or a salesperson at a retail store, this experience will provide them with a unique understanding of people and how to connect with them.
Working in the service industry, your kid will see the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the same day, they may get yelled at for something that wasn’t their fault or rewarded with a large tip for awesome service.
What they will walk away with is the ability to communicate with anyone, problem-solve on the fly, and learn how to become a creative thinker. These experiences also will allow them to feel what it’s really like to earn a paycheck so they never take it for granted.
These are skills that employers crave but unfortunately, the vast majority of college students graduate without developing these kinds of people skills.
Many college students run away from service industry jobs. Think twice before you allow your kid to do this. Though these jobs may not be glamorous, experiencing the service industry firsthand can set your child up for life and career success.
#9 TRAVEL FAR & WIDE
Travel is life-changing.
A college experience isn’t complete without studying abroad. It can be the difference between a good college experience and a great one. Sadly, only a small percentage of students make wind up studying abroad.
A semester or year abroad will allow your kid to live in another country, study a foreign language, and give them a better understanding of other cultures, and most importantly, themselves.
The options are endless. They could choose a program in a country in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, or anywhere else on the globe.
The greatest aspect of this experience is that travel broadens their perspective beyond the microcosm of college life. In today’s world, it’s important to see life from a wider view than the piece that you inhabit.
Every day the world is becoming smaller because of technological advances. Any international experience for your kid is useful, whether they use it in their career or hold onto the memories as a story to share with their friends and family.
A bonus to studying abroad is how the experience will set them apart from the rest of the pack when applying for scholarships, internships, and jobs after graduation. (And indeed, scholarships, grants, fellowships, exchanges, and jobs can also be a great way to finance study abroad trips).
Encourage your kid to do something out of the ordinary — to leave campus, explore the broader community, and travel the planet.
#10 FIND GOOD FRICTION
Friction can be a good thing.
Imagine that you’re lost in the woods and cold, but you have two sticks and some kindling. When you rub those sticks together, you create friction that can start a fire.
Now, imagine that you’re in a car and it’s stuck in the snow with the tires spinning. The car won’t move. If you put some sand or salt underneath the tire, you can create some friction to help the car move forward.
Consider this: Diamonds are formed from carbon under millions and millions of years of pressure. Their beauty comes from friction.
On campus and in your life, encourage your kid to seek out good friction.
This means for them to get feedback on their assignments. To know that the red ink on their essay serves to make it better.
This means for them to spend time with allies because they’re going to push their buttons and not accept excuses. They’ll make them better.
This means being willing to share their opinion even if it goes against what everyone else thinks.
Good friction is where growth, development, and breakthroughs happen. There’s always an opportunity for your child to improve, develop, and grow.
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