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Off to college? What you need to know

It's graduation! Many of you high schoolers will be heading off to college. Here are lessons from my own college days, my son's adventures and 35 years of being a professor at one private and four public universities.

Didn't get into your preferred college? Keep in mind that you can transfer. It's much easier to gain admission to another school if you have a decent freshman year record. Why? Because at every kind of college, many first-year students drop out. I started at one college, but decided I really wanted to go to Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. I did, and my best friends were two other women who also transferred after a first year elsewhere.

You don't have to have a major on day one. Resist the pressure to declare. College is a lot different from high school. You'll have options that you haven't even heard of. Colleges like to steer you to a major early because it makes advising and planning easier for them. But it's quite possible to wait until your junior year to decide and specialize. Or change majors. Use your first year to sample from all possible fields. Figure how what you really love to do and which majors match your strengths.

My son went to University of Wisconsin hoping to major in engineering. He hadn't applied for admission to engineering. So in his first two years, he took German, geography and assorted other broadening classes, and a lot of engineering classes.

At the end of two years, he was sure he wanted to be a mechanical engineer, but because he didn't have a 3.0 grade-point average, he was turned down by the computer. So he wrote to the dean of engineering: "I've taken many engineering classes. I've done better every semester and I almost have a 3.0 overall. You only require admitted engineering students to maintain a 2.0. You should let me in."

"Yes," the dean responded. "Welcome to engineering!"

You don't have to stick to the classes you registered for. Colleges will also channel you into introductory classes, often large and not always well-taught. You can drop and add for the first week, sometimes longer.

Your first week, go to all classes — all subjects — that you might even remotely be interested in. The first day of a course, the professor reviews his or her "syllabus" — the outline for the course, the readings, the papers and tests you'll be asked to write. You can get a feel for subject matter and the teacher's style and quality from these pitches.

If the class is officially closed, approach the teacher after the first class, explain why you want to take the course and see if they'll let you in. Often, they will, especially because others may drop.

If possible, avoid working during your first and second years. You'll learn a lot more, and your record will be better. If you have to work, keep it to 10 hours a week. If you can't afford that, think about taking more than two or four years to finish. Even though schools discourage this, you'll be short-changing yourself if you are work 15-20 hours a week.

Make new friends — one of the best things about college. Although we are now spread across the U. S., my college friends are still among my dearest. You'll find many classmates, including roommates, to be very different from you. Figure out what their values are and how those fit with yours. Most freshmen are leaving home for the first time, and many go through a tough adjustment, including mental illness. Don't lend money or things to anyone you don't know well.

Find friends who will support your aspirations for doing well in your courses. Our grandson Micheal, who just who just completed year one at Itasca Community College, recommends: "Be friendly, cautious and not defensive. Everyone is scared, but be honest, confident and open. Seek friends in multiple demographics and types of classes. Listen to your own voice; be an independent thinker. And be open to debate. You might learn and educate yourself and others."

Keep fit. Get some exercise every day. Walking to class is good — add on something more every day. Try intramural sports or working out in the gym. Find others who share your favorite individual sport: running, skateboarding, cross-country skiing, ice-skating, biking, yoga. Check out the clubs at your school; go their meetings just to see what they offer. Outings clubs organize trips, provide equipment and help you learn about your city or region. If politics is your thing, join up.

And don't pig out on the food. Period.

Study every day. Figure out your preferred study times and stick to them. I always left math to the last of the evening. Because it was puzzle-like, it held my attention. (Though I sometimes had bad dreams in which I was stuck on a formula.) Find a quiet space that is not open to invasion. The library is a very good bet.

My husband, Rod, found music supportive while studying: "It quiets the soul." I preferred instrumental jazz. From our grandson, Micheal: "When your mind is boggled up, go out in nature."

Micheal also counsels: "Find alone time that is not studying. Go out walking — just breathing. And you gotta have a pastime." One of his, rapping, made it into the ICC's homecoming show.

Ask older students in your community and college for advice. You'll find them willing and full of insights.

Work hard. Make new friends. Don't get all your news from one source. Have fun!

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