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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

How to College

What to Know Before You Go (and When You're There)

Andrea Malkin Brenner and Lara Hope Schwartz

St. Martin's Griffin



You’ve put in a lot of thought and hard work to get where you are now: an “almost” college student. But if you’re like the thousands of students we’ve worked with over the years, you’ve got questions, concerns, and anxieties about what’s to come. And that makes sense—the transition from high school—and home—to college can be stressful for you and your family. That’s true whether you’re the first person in your family to go to college or not.

College is wonderful—but it’s different from high school. College is challenging—and it’s supposed to be. It’s the transition to college that’s often the most stressful part for incoming students and their families.

Here’s the good news:

1. WHAT IT TAKES to succeed in college is mysterious, but it isn’t rocket science (our apologies to aerospace engineering majors). When you understand what it’s all about, you’re going to feel a lot better.

2. PREPARATION HELPS. You already know this from your experience with tests, sports, or performances.

This book will take the mystery out of what college is all about (“adulting”) and recommend simple, important, and practical steps you should take to set yourself up for success. How to College covers the whole campus experience: living and learning with peers; college-level academics; taking care of yourself; finding and using resources; handling your finances; and getting around (and involved) on and off campus.

In addition to insiders’ advice about adulting that really works, How to College includes four types of activities:

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: In these exercises, you’ll be asked to find answers to questions specific to you or your college. For example, you need to understand your health insurance coverage, including how to find a participating provider and what a “copay” is; figure out how to use the public transportation options near your new campus; and know the differences between terms such as stress and distress.

DO BEFORE YOU GO: These are activities you should complete before move-in day. For example, you should make appointments with your healthcare providers; introduce yourself to your professors with a professional email; and add tools such as a shuttle bus tracker and your college’s suggested safety apps to your smartphone.

DISCUSS BEFORE YOU GO: These are topics to discuss with your parent(s) or your family, with conversation prompts to get you started. For example, how often do you expect to communicate with your family, and how? What role will your family play on move-in day? What backup plans do you have for uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situations you might encounter during your first semester? Which expenses (if any) will your family pay directly and which will be your responsibility?

WHEN YOU’RE THERE: These are expert tips about how to succeed and thrive in your first year, including advice for reading, studying, and writing; maintaining your health; getting involved on and off campus; and more. Preparation is essential, but these tips are about how to college once you’re at college, so make sure to pack this book when you head to school.

After completing the exercises in this book, you should be able to tackle the college transition and its typical challenges—whether it’s a roommate conflict, a disappointing grade, or your first illness away from home.

You’ll notice that the tone of this guide is both serious and fun. That’s what college and adulting are like, too. You’ll experience pride in your accomplishments and in learning from your mistakes and mishaps. Some things will be difficult, and the stakes are also high; that’s something to take seriously. But we want you to know that college should be a joyful time of new experiences, friends, learning, questioning, and freedoms.

You’ve probably also noticed that we’re talking directly to you, the (almost) college student. In college, you’ll make more decisions yourself. You will be your professors’ only point of contact about your academics (learn more about that in chapter 5); you’ll be responsible for getting enough sleep and consuming healthy food (chapter 9); and you’ll start building your future through internships and jobs (chapter 19). Your family will play a role as you prepare to leave for college (and will be a resource when you’re there, too), but this is yours to do.

You’ll also be expected to manage your time in college. As your first act of adulting, start now by planning what you should know, do, and discuss before leaving for campus. You’ll find a checklist at the end of the book that includes all the exercises we’ve included throughout the book. Some will be more relevant or interesting to you than others. You decide how you’ll tackle them. Setting priorities is an adulting skill. Remember—you’re in charge. You’re (almost) a college student.



Although it is good to have goals, you don’t need to figure out your whole life during your first semester. Set goals, but focus on the short-term goals of your first semester rather than the long-term goals of your college career or the rest of your life.


You do not need to have your life plan figured out during your first semester (or even during your first year) of college. You’ll have time to select your major (and even change it, if you want or need to), finish your academic requirements, and choose at least your first career path before you graduate.

Your first semester on campus is not the time to worry about how the next four years will play out. Instead, it is a time to try new things, like pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, immersing yourself in challenging academic work, learning to ask intellectual questions, experiencing new social situations, meeting people whose lived experiences have been different from your own, and taking some (not-too-risky) risks. Your post–high school self will shift and develop as you encounter these new experiences. Shaping and growing your mind, body, and spirit is a gradual process, and there’s no reason to rush it.


Don’t forget that when you began high school, there was always a countdown to the next step, the “prize”: college acceptance and high school graduation. Those four years of high school were probably an uphill climb, with each successive year getting more challenging academically as your workload increased and the course content in your classes broadened. Simultaneously, you were expected to juggle standardized testing, push yourself to enroll in advanced classes, pass your exams, visit colleges, and complete college applications. You needed to get through all these small milestones in order to reach the finish line of your secondary education: college acceptance. There is a reason you might be tired. And you have succeeded.

You’ll be happy to know that college is not the same game. You’re aiming to graduate in four years, but you are not gearing up for another high school–like race to the finish line. You’re in your new college environment to live, learn, and grow.


In chapter 2, you’ll read our tips for connecting with your new roommate(s) before you meet and important things to discuss with them before you move in together. But what about the other students you will meet during pre-orientation, orientation, and when you arrive on campus? If meeting new peers does not come naturally to you, here are some great tips:

Copyright © 2019 by Andrea Malkin Brenner and Lara Hope Schwartz.