College Professors Offer Seven Things to Do the Summer Before College

Finally—all of your hard work has paid off. You (or your child) have been accepted by a great college, and your fall deposit has been sent in. Now what? You might be tempted to kick back and enjoy a leisurely summer, blissfully free of homework, standardized-test prep, and responsibility in general. Or, if you’re more a type-A personality, you might be running around like a chicken without a head, so frazzled by the prospect of getting ready for college that you end up unable to check anything off your growing to-do list.

Fortunately, there’s a happy medium—and The Secrets of College Success is here to make sure you start your first year of college completely prepared, and to guarantee your success in the college years to follow.

“No matter where you’re going to college, there are several things you can do to help the transition—both social and academic—go smoothly,” says Lynn F. Jacobs, coauthor with Jeremy S. Hyman of The Secrets of College Success: Over 800 Tips, Techniques, and Strategies Revealed, 2nd Edition (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, April 2013, ISBN: 978-1-1185751-2-3, $16.95, “You certainly don’t have to devote your entire summer to college prep, but the sooner you get started the better.”

Jacobs and Hyman, who have taught at eight different colleges and universities, know what they’re talking about. The Secrets of College Success shares decades’ worth of their observations and advice on everything from choosing a major to avoiding bad professors to developing college-level study skills and much, much more. (In fact, it should be required reading for every incoming freshman who wants to avoid taking classes in the School of Hard Knocks!)

“Ideally, your college experience should start before you ever set foot on campus for your first semester,” says Hyman. “You’ll want to put yourself in a position to hit the ground running, instead of scrambling to get everything lined up the week before you move into your dorm—you’ll have other things on your mind by that point!” NOTE to EDITOR: See attached tipsheet on what students should focus on the week before college.

Here, from the professors’ perspective, Jacobs and Hyman share the seven best things to do the summer before you start college:

#1 Get to orientation—early. Unless your future alma mater is the exception to the rule, you’ll have the opportunity to visit campus for an orientation session sometime during the summer. Typically these are day-long affairs—some as early as June—in which students and their parents can tour the campus, learn more about the school, and visit with a few faculty members and academic advisers. Depending on your college, you may even be able to sign up for courses. (Ideally, make sure it’s you doing the picking and not your parents!)

“Many colleges follow the so-called airline model, which means they offer only a limited number of spaces in each class, especially in large required first-year courses,” shares Jacobs. “When the spaces are filled, that course is closed. Unless you want to spend your freshman year in your second- or third-choice classes, you can see why it’s a good idea to go to the very first orientation session you can attend!”

#2 Get some hardware. If you take a walk around a typical college campus, you’ll still see some students taking notes the old-fashioned way, with a notebook and pen. But increasingly, various types of electronic devices are appearing in classrooms…and they’re definitely being used in dorm rooms to do research, write papers, put together presentations, etc. The point is, if you don’t already have a computer—preferably a laptop, tablet, or e-reader—now’s the time to get one. (Before buying, though, double-check your college’s policies—some schools issue laptops to students, and others recommend that students purchase specific brands and models.)

“If you opt for a laptop, whether you choose a PC or Mac, we think your computer should weigh no more than three or four pounds and have at least a six-hour battery life,” says Hyman. “You don’t want to break your back carrying a laptop to class or to the library, and you definitely don’t want it to run out of power in the middle of a lecture. We also recommend laptops with a webcam and good speakers (if nothing else, your parents will appreciate being able to Skype with you), and that have a full-size (or at least 92 percent of full-size) keyboard.”

#3 Get some software. Once you’ve decided which computer you’ll be taking to college, it’s time to think about software. No matter what you’re studying, it’s a fair bet that you’ll have to write papers—so a word processing program is a must. Microsoft Word is the college standard (try the new 2013 version), though many students like the free OpenOffice or LibreOffice alternatives. Whatever software you end up with, take a few hours to play around and familiarize yourself with how it works, assuming it’s a program you haven’t been using already.

“If you’re buying more task-specific software—say, for your business, graphic design, or urban planning course—we strongly recommend that you hold off until your course has started and your instructor tells you what to buy,” Jacobs warns. “It’d be a shame to spend $329 on the wrong program, only to find that it’s nonreturnable.”

#4 Surf the college website. Sure, you’ve flipped through glossy brochures, watched the exciting propaganda videos, and maybe even been on a campus tour or two while you were applying to college. But now that you’ve been accepted, it’s time to take a second, more in-depth look at your college—especially concerning the academic side of things. First, go to the college portal of the university you’ll be attending and look for the academics or for current students tabs. Then search for the college requirements, the list of majors and minors, the individual departmental home pages (where you might even find syllabuses for the courses offered), and the course schedule (the actual list of courses to be offered in the fall—not to be confused with the course catalog, which is the list of every course ever offered at the school).

“The more you know about the structure of the school, the easier it’ll be to navigate once you get there,” Jacobs points out. “As you look at the academic calendar, take note of when classes start and end, when finals are held, the dates of those all-important fall and spring breaks, and whether your school celebrates Martin Luther King Day, Earth Day, or Tu B’Shevat. Now’s the time to try to make sure that your sister’s wedding or the family ski trip to Steamboat Springs doesn’t get scheduled smack in the middle of final exams week.”

#5 Dust off your language skills and crack open a few books. Many colleges—especially those with liberal arts curriculums—have a foreign or world language requirement, often a four-semester sequence in a language of your choice (although you may be able to test out of all or part of these classes). Now would be a good time to brush up on a language you learned in high school or speak around the house. If your summer plans include travel abroad, and if your second-language skills are up to the challenge, resolve to speak only the language of the country from touchdown to return home.

“Better language proficiency will not only save you some of the distribution requirements, it’ll actually be a boon if you major in a field that uses other-than-English language resources—European or Asian history, international marketing, Slavic literature, or pre-med or other healthcare professions,” Jacobs explains. “And if your school assigns summer reading for the first-year experience course or the freshman seminar, plan to get it done. You don’t want to be behind before the race has even started.”

#6 Reach out to your roommate. It’s always a good idea to find out with whom you’re going to be sharing your digs for the next nine months or so. If you’re planning to live on campus, your college may be sending you all sorts of information about your assigned roommate, but even if they don’t, you can check him or her out on your own. You don’t have to scour or; a simple Google search or glance at his or her Facebook page should give you a little dirt—er, information—provided your roommate hasn’t set the privacy settings too high (which is a fact about the roommate, too). Of course, you could also do things the old-fashioned way and pick up the phone, too!

“Once you get to know your new roommate a little—or if you’re rooming with a good friend from high school—it wouldn’t be a half-bad time to make some room rules,” advises Hyman. “When do lights go on and off? What will the ‘do not enter—you wouldn’t want to see what’s going on in here’ signal be? And how much noise and partying is too much (or not enough)?”

#7 Pursue your passion. The summer before college is one of the last times you’ll be able to do what you most enjoy doing for 100 percent of the time. (After all, summer jobs, internships, or extra courses might lie ahead!) For Jacobs, age seventeen, this activity was reading Russian novels. For Hyman, age eighteen, it was working in a camera store. For you, maybe it’s mountain biking or tinkering with your car or painting.

“Getting in touch with your true passion—and cultivating it without the demands of school—will put you in a really good and motivated mood for college in the fall,” shares Jacobs. “And, with any luck, it’ll interest you in taking an elective course in Tolstoy, marketing, or civil engineering that you’ll actually look forward to going to. Actually, that’s one of the big secrets of college success—lining up what you want to do with what you have to do. If you succeed at this, you will succeed at college.”

“When it comes to doing well in college, knowledge really is power,” concludes Jacobs. “Knowing what to expect and being prepared to hit the ground running can mean the difference between confidence and uncertainty, seized and missed opportunities, and success or failure. So don’t wait—put your summer to good use!”

About the Authors:

Dr. Lynn F. Jacobs and Jeremy S. Hyman are coauthors of The Secrets of College Success: Over 800 Tips, Techniques, and Strategies Revealed, 2nd Edition. Jacobs is a professor of art history at the University of Arkansas and has previously taught at Vanderbilt University, California State University Northridge, and NYU. Hyman is the founder and chief architect of Professors’ Guide™ content products. He is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Arkansas and previously taught at UCLA, MIT, and Princeton University.