Starting college soon? UWM faculty offer tips to prepare before leaving home

A woman stands in front of a class of students.

Millions of students across the country will soon be starting college, a transition that can be both exhilarating and stressful. The first few months of the first semester can be an especially important period in getting freshmen acclimated to new surroundings, new social groups and class workloads.

Students can get a head start on preparing for college life at home, long before arriving on campus.

For instance, an incoming freshman can email professors or academic department offices asking for a current or past syllabus for the course, said Jacqueline Nguyen, an associate professor of educational psychology in UWM’s School of Education.

Seeing a syllabus might help a student learn things like the costs of textbooks. It can help students figure out when to be caught up on readings if, for instance, they are planning to visit home for a weekend.

“We also don’t want students to read too far ahead because of the way a course is structured,” said Nguyen, who teaches one of several UWM courses that help students get acclimated to college. “It’s a balance between planning and not planning too much. Planning for how you’re going to do the work – not necessarily doing the work itself ahead of time.”

Nguyen and other UWM staff and faculty members offer more tips to students and parents about getting ready for freshman year.

Deciphering a syllabus

The Higher Learning Commission requires that a syllabus include other information that can help students plan their weekly routines, including breakdowns of the amount of time spent in class, as well as reading assignments and other work outside the classroom, like doing research at the library.

“Reading the syllabus is a really important skill that can be gained. Once you get access to the syllabus, then you can figure out how to decipher it,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen suggest that students also start getting used to navigating the online platform at each university used for classwork. UWM is transitioning to the Canvas platform in the fall semester.

Advice from the adviser

At most colleges, students are assigned an academic adviser to help shepherd them through the course selection process and answer questions about the requirements of their major. For students who didn’t attend an orientation program, reaching out to the assigned academic adviser before arriving on campus can help a student plan ahead.

David Clark

“The best thing that we can do for students is to make sure you make active use of your adviser and make sure that you are getting 15 meaningful credits every term,” said David Clark, senior associate dean at UWM’s College of Letters & Science.

Taking 15 credits in each of eight semesters allows students to reach a total of 120, which is what’s typically needed to graduate in four years. Taking a course over the summer or winter breaks can also help. The adviser can help map out schedules to make sure the right courses are being taken the first year.

Knowing areas to improve

Before they get to campus, students should take time to think honestly about their biggest fears when it comes to college life, said Jeremy Page, assistant dean of student services at the School of Education. Some people might be worried about whether they can keep up with academics, while others might feel uncomfortable meeting new people.

Jeremy Page

Maybe that means deciding to make a concerted effort to join a student organization. “Or, right when school starts, when there are all the activities and barbecues and the get-to-know-you gatherings, I’m going to try and challenge myself and meet people other than just my roommate,” Page said.

This is an area where parents can help, too, especially when it comes to figuring out where their child might be able to go to for encouragement or support on campus. Maybe it’s an academic adviser or resident adviser who can help, or perhaps a faculty member that the student met during a summer visit.

Some colleges also have courses for first-year students that serve to establish connections while allowing for more interactions with faculty and staff. For instance, the School of Education this fall is starting a First-Year Experience program in which freshmen will meet in small groups periodically for the first seven weeks.

“It’s really less about your academic connection or what you plan to study or what you plan to be,” Page said. “It’s what you need to know to be successful immediately as you transition to college.”

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