Explore a better way to work – one that promises more calm, clarity, and creativity.

My Advice for Rising Freshmen

The Great WaitCollege!

It’s almost June. For high school seniors, this means two important milestones have passed: college admission decisions and graduation. You know where you’re headed next year and have nothing to do until you get there.

In this post, I want to offer you some friendly advice for how to best use this final summer to prepare for the new world you’ll soon face. If you want my general thoughts on how you should tackle college, read last year’s open letter to students awaiting their admissions decisions. Today, by contrast, I want to get more specific.

Below I’ve listed three suggestions for how to prepare for college …

Suggestion #1: Refuse to choose a major.

I know, your instinct is to immediately nail down the path you’ll follow at college. Did you like math class? Declare your intention to become a math major! Were you good in science? Then become a bio major with the the plan of going to grad school! Are you smart and ambitious, but can’t identify a specific academic interest? Go pre-med!

And so on…

I’m letting you off the hook. I want you to refuse to even consider your major until after your freshman year of college. When your aunts and uncles and family friends ask you this summer what you will study, proudly reveal your pledge of refusal.

Here’s the thing, before you arrive on campus and take some classes and learn about the college world, you’ll have no idea what options you actually have. Therefore, a choice at this point is essentially random. This has a big chance of coming back to haunt to you when you realize, down the line, that it was essentially arbitrary — a reality which can propel you into burnout.

Suggestion #2: Read about big ideas.

Dedicate significant portions of this summer to exposing yourself to smart people proposing, arguing, and defending big, intellectual ideas. Subscribe to the Arts & Letters Daily feed. Read Harpers and The Atlantic. Haunt the non-fiction tables at Barnes & Nobles, then pick up what looks interesting and spend serious time reading your selections at the in-store Starbucks.

Students that arrive at college fired up by the power of big ideas tend to thrive. This provides the filter through which they encounter their academic training. Reading assignments stop becoming chores and turn, instead, into sources of inspiration. Papers turn from dreaded foe into opportunities to express something new. These students seek out interesting speakers on campus and get involved with interesting activities. They also tend to produce A* work which generates huge advantages.

If you start a big idea addiction this summer, you can set the tone for your entire college career to follow.

Suggestion #3: Learn to drink like a normal person.

My drinking advice always seems to upset some portion of my audience, but I have to remain honest. If you arrive at college completely obsessed with the novelty of unrestricted alcohol consumption, you’ll likely make a fool of yourself — and perhaps something even worse.

Unless you plan to go dry your entire college career, sneak outside of your parents watchful gaze this summer and acquaint yourself with booze. Kill the novelty factor. Learn how to drink enough that you’re having fun, but no so much that you’re booting like a fountain. Wield this experience to blunt that edginess, possessed by so many 17-year-olds, that makes access to beer feel like the world’s most important possible endeavor.

If you’re already a drinker, learn how to stop doing it like an idiot. Again, I’m going to get yelled at for this, but if you look old, try to sneak into a bar — there’s no better way to learn some adult decorum surrounding your consumption.

Trust me, 22-year-old you will thank 18-year-old you for figuring out how to handle alcohol with some grace before your arrival at your first, packed frat party. The frat brothers at that party, by contrast, are probably hoping you’ll ignore this advice, as it eliminates their preferred entertainment — drunken freshmen fools.

(Photo by Joe Shlabotnik)

30 thoughts on “My Advice for Rising Freshmen”

  1. The drinking advise makes sense, but sounds obscure to a European. As if you had to learn something rather natural… 🙂

  2. Can we see your advice for rising grad students? I’m starting mine in the fall, and I’d love to see what you have to say. Please?!

  3. +1 for the grad school advice request. Actually, law school is where I’m headed, so any specifics you could provide for that audience would be much appreciated!

    Thanks as always for your excellent strategies and tips.

  4. I completely agree with the post. After having just finished my freshmen year I somewhat wish I explored my options more. I mean often times students look down upon others for being undeclared; however, I firmly believe that freshmen year is a time to explore the numerous opportunities your college has to offer to you. College is about YOU not about your friends, parents, siblings or uncles/aunts. Also in terms of alcohol, I won’t deny that I got drunk on numerous occasions but if you know your own intoxicated behavior and are smart about it then your fine. But yah I completely agree with Cal that everyone gets SUPER excited about the unrestricted alcohol but it can lead to terrible results. Trust me I’ve been there

  5. What if you want to become an engineer? Shouldn’t choosing a specific degree early on give you an edge (especially at schools that dive right into major prerequisites in the first year)?

  6. Cal,

    I generally agree with most everything you write, but I have to disagree with ” I want you to refuse to even consider your major until after your freshman year of college.” specifically if you are considering doing engineering.

    There are a lot of classes which you honestly should take during freshmen year, and if you don’t take, you’ll find yourself to be behind the rest of your class which is no fun. Stuff like one year of math, and the engineering prereqs. I mean, if considering an electrical or chemical engineering major, just to name a few, you could be at even a disadvantage at schools like Berkeley, where class sizes are limited and its hard to get into the classes themselves.

    What do you think?

    – Chris

  7. There are a lot of classes which you honestly should take during freshmen year, and if you don’t take, you’ll find yourself to be behind the rest of your class which is no fun.

    With my method students tend to experiment with the intro classes for subjects that pique their interest. That is, for the type of student who likes math and engineering, they are going to take some intro math and engineering as a freshman.

  8. Hey Cal!

    I was wondering if you could add this to your list.

    Basically, I found that sometimes, my professors notes were unclear, so I tried to find supplement notes online.

    I found this site, which is a great database for notes and it even pays out students to upload notes online.

    With your userbase, I thought it would be cool if you promote this site as it builds the database of notes out and it helps your readers online.

  9. Great post, I particularly like suggestion 2 and I’d like to add a (*). Reading about big ideas is great, MINDBLOWINGLY great. However, I would suggest one slight alteration.

    Get ready for this one cause its a doozy.

    Take a class that is completely out of your league and that you might fail.

    If you’re in mathematics, take an arts course.

    If you’re in Philosophy take a physics course.

    Take something completely out of the norm and don’t worry if you get a D. I say this from personal experience. I find so many students are so scared to get 4.0 GPA’s that they don’t actually enjoy the university experience. University should make you an organic intellectual, not an automaton that can run a regression analysis perfectly but has no insight on history, philosophy or the arts.

    In grad school I sat in on a econometrics course, I loved, it made me think of sociology in a completely new way and the B (Which for graduate school is like a failure) didn’t bother me at all. I enjoyed the journey not the destination.

    I get so frustrated with students who are so concerned with the marks that they miss the point of university.

    To LEARN

  10. I couldn’t agree with you more about surrounding yourself with big ideas. I think that big ideas and waiting before choosing a major are THE best ways to end up with a major and a job that you will love and grow in for the rest of your life.

    I might also add that you should study abroad or travel before you decide on a major or at the very least, before you graduate. Getting out of the country and experiencing the world from outside US borders is the best perspective to have before coming back and taking a job/major/etc.

    Great post!

  11. Its good advice I feel to drink before college. I grew up in quite a strict Catholic family, and none of my parents drank. So when I got to college, I became the drunken freshman (being Irish in England, didn’t help stereotypes) and I really feel that it dampened some of the fun of my first year. Although I quickly got over this behaviour, I was tarred by it all.

  12. Getting drunk is a good advice I guess. But in Europe drinking is legal from your 16th, so as an 18 year old I have some experience with it, already know my boundries!

    The get a big idea addiction sounds just great! A really strange thing, but getting your mind in the mood to discover great ideas sounds really logic, it will be something I am going to do this summer!

    Thanks for these great tips,


  13. I’m an RA and an adviser for freshman at my school and this is the advice that I wish I could give when I’m giving them a tour or running an educational program, especially the alcohol advice. While seemingly counter-intuitive for many of my peers, I truly believe that people should have alcohol experiences before college and never choose a major before the first semester.

    I was lucky alcohol wise as I live next to canada and I could go out, get drunk, see adults in bars…legally and realize the stigma and stereotypes regarding alcohol are true, but also not the norm. Then proceed to drink illegally but smart.

  14. From watching American high school movies, I thought alcohol was pretty common in the years prior to college? Is it common to be a booze virgin when going to college?

  15. From watching American high school movies, I thought alcohol was pretty common in the years prior to college? Is it common to be a booze virgin when going to college?

    High school drinking is pretty common. But it’s not universal.

  16. Heyo!

    This was a great article, fast read and easy to get the points. I am going to be a Sophomore and everything you said here has merit. I personally went sober this year (as difficult and challenging as it was), but I have seen idiots that think they are “responsible” but actually have no idea what they are doing. Learning to drink TRULY responsibly is extremely important (of course I would advocate 21 drinking age…)

    Andresito, thank you for those links they are great! I just registered for TED, I saw one of their talks on that major statistics website (forgot what it is called). I would like to briefly post one that may be helpful to new college students:, it focuses on success, leadership, and life through the stories and ideas of major successful people (who are the authors of course).

    In response to Eng, and to everyone for the major piece, make sure to work within the boundaries of what you would like to do, take the required freshmen courses to make sure you are on the correct track for your prechosen major, but also revel in the liberal ed requirements, they help you see a little bit more of the world and to explore your own passions.

    In response to VTAMethodman, I like your term “organic intellectual”. The fact is you should broaden your horizons, learn about all different disciplines and ideas and choose the one that you like the most. You will simply learn how to learn and think and speak.

  17. On #1and 2, refuse to choose a major, etc. Nearly 30 years ago when our eldest started her freshman year at U Chicago, the dean invited parents and entering students (we had delivered her with her clothes, etc., to the dorm)to an introductory meeting. He essentially made the same recommendations you’re making, as did John Silber two years later at BU for our second daughter. But one statement has stuck in our mind for all these years. The purpose of a college education is to be able “to make an informed decision.” I doubt that there is a better focus for those four years.

  18. I really like how such advice is condensed nicely especially the drinking and big advice bits. coming from a country big on rum production tasting alcohol as a child/teen isn’t uncommon and i find the taste disgusting which is why i don’t drink at all. Also do you think writing stories during the summer is a worthwhile thing? most of my stories (while fiction) require a lot of research into political/military and mysticism/religious concepts. does that count as ‘big ideas’?

  19. Also do you think writing stories during the summer is a worthwhile thing?

    Yes. But see my recent article on the Pyramid Method. Instead of just writing in an unstructured way, try to find your personal pyramid to accelerate your development.


Leave a Comment