Advice for Incoming First-year Students

 Embarking on the “Best Years of Your Life”

By Bailey Burke July 11, 2023
Advice for Incoming First-year Students

The summer before my first year of college, I worked, had fun with my friends, went on a couple of family trips, and counted down the days until college move-in. I was so excited to truly become a Michigan Wolverine. I was also anxious to meet my roommate and start classes. College seemed like this mystical place that everyone spoke of with an air of sophistication and joy. The best four years of my life were about to start, I thought.

As I look back, having completed my undergraduate education, I laugh a little bit at all of the expectations I had for college. As an incoming first-year student, I partially didn’t know what to expect. But I also hoped that college would be more enjoyable than high school and a new opportunity to truly discover myself. I expected it to be a-maizing (sorry, couldn’t help myself).

It’s clear that, societally, we put a lot of pressure on college. While I can honestly say that my college journey here at the University of Michigan has been some of the absolute best years of my life — I have made wonderful friends (who I hope to have for the rest of my life), learned so much about myself and the world, and achieved far more than I could have imagined — the experiences you might be hoping or expecting to “get out” of college take time and can’t be forced from the moment you arrive on campus.

This brings me to my first piece of advice: Don’t stress if your first semester is challenging. It doesn’t mean that you’re not cut out for college or that you don’t belong at Michigan. Your first semester here might be challenging academically and/or personally. I was really glad that I took a balanced course load my first semester, as it meant that my first few courses were comparable to the rigorous IB courses I took in high school. My classes here at Michigan were more challenging as I progressed, but my early classes prepared me for the more difficult coursework later on. 

Adjusting Academically

However, your first semester courses might be more work than you had in high school, or you might find that the more independent structure of college is an adjustment. For example, you may have to keep track of your assignments more diligently than in high school, as not every professor will send out reminders before every assignment is due. Just know that it’s OK if college coursework is a big adjustment. Michigan is one of the best universities in the country – you’re going to be challenged, but you’re also going to grow. One of my first college classes was an astronomy lecture. I showed up to class on the first day not knowing what Canvas is, only to find that most of the class was already well-acquainted with the Canvas page and had already read the first chapter of the online textbook. I momentarily freaked out – it was my first day and I was already behind! But if something like that happens to you, don’t worry. It takes a bit of time to figure out how each professor structures their class and how they organize information on Canvas. “Syllabus Week” — the first week of the semester — can be overwhelming. But you’ve got plenty of time to get all of your assignments done, and you will adjust to your class schedule after the first couple of weeks.

When it comes to doing well in your classes, I highly highly recommend getting to know your professors and graduate student instructors (GSIs). Everyone says it, but it’s true: Go to office hours. The professors here are such cool and intelligent people. Sometimes I went to office hours just to chat about life, learning, and obscure historical tidbits. It’s especially important to go to office hours as a first-year, when you might be taking larger lectures that have a lot of students. You’ll understand the material better, and you’ll benefit from building relationships with faculty early on. You might end up having other courses with these professors, or they might be able to write you letters of recommendation later on down the road. 

To stay on top of your schoolwork, I also highly suggest having a planner. When I was in high school, I used a physical planner to keep track of assignments. However, I found that Google Calendar worked best for me in college. I liked being able to put in all of my classes with their locations (and having them repeat each week with the push of a button), the due dates for my assignments (with reminders in the days leading up to their deadlines that went to my phone), and any social events (which allowed me to send email invitations to friends for different events). My whole life is in Google Calendar at this point. It keeps me organized, and I’m able to share my schedule easily with friends and classmates (which makes setting up meetings or social activities much easier). It might take some trial and error, but college is a great opportunity to learn new organizational skills. Figure out what works best for you and stick to it!

Adjusting Emotionally

I also mentioned that your first semester might be challenging personally, not just academically. It can be stressful or scary to move away from home for the first time. Even if you’re excited about college and the independence that it offers, it’s OK to have butterflies at the prospect of moving to a new place where you might not know anyone. Making new friends can be hard. My mom helped me move in my first year. After we finished unpacking all of my stuff, we got dinner and then said goodbye. I remember sitting on my new bed after she left, unsure of what to do with myself. It can be hard to find your footing during your first few days and weeks on campus. Don’t stress if you don’t instantly make friends. It might look like everyone else immediately finds their crowd and is loving college life, but don’t be fooled: Everyone else is still trying to find their place, too.

Many people don’t truly find their crowd until a few months into their first year. I met a LOT of people in my first few weeks on campus: in my residence hall, in my classes, and in the clubs I joined. But it wasn’t until the start of my second semester that I actually began to form deeper friendships and truly feel at home here. It’s not something you can rush, though I do encourage you to keep meeting new people and exploring different groups on campus. It might mean that your first few weeks on campus are lonelier than you expected, but try not to get too discouraged. You’re not alone in trying to navigate college life and make new friends.

Know that it’s OK to be homesick, especially during your first semester. I recommend that you bring a few pictures of your family and friends to put in your residence hall room and regularly call and text your loved ones. I called my parents once a week all throughout college and would text them throughout the week. It may be helpful to talk with your loved ones about how often you’re going to communicate before you leave — perhaps you can set up one or more designated times to catch up each week.

Exploring Campus Life and Finding Balance

While it’s good to stay in touch with loved ones, don’t spend all of your time on the phone in your residence hall room! In those first couple of days and weeks on campus, I encourage you to explore what Michigan has to offer. Attend as many of the Welcome Week events as you like! There’s loads of free stuff at events like Artscapade, and you can learn about all of the different clubs and organizations on campus at events like Festifall. Michigan also offers a plethora of free events throughout the year, like UMix Late Night events! Keep an eye on your email each week for free student events around campus.

Getting involved on campus is the best way to meet people and make friends. Find what interests you, and don’t be afraid to try new things. My first year, I was interested in finding faith-based, environmental, and artistic groups on campus. I got involved with St. Mary Student Parish, joined an environmental group in the Residential College called Eco Forum, and — despite never having done woodcarving in my life — joined a wooden spoon carving club (also in the Residential College). My evenings were soon filled with meetings and social activities that took me all around campus, and I met a diverse array of people who were interested in the same things as me. I also joined K-Grams (a pen pal program where university students are paired with a local elementary school student and write letters back and forth the whole school year) and started my own letter-writing club in the Residential College (called RC Letters Forum) by the start of my second semester. Michigan has so many great clubs, sports (both club and recreational), organizations, and activities. There is something for everyone!

In truth, there are likely more things on campus that you’ll be interested in than you’ll actually be able to do. Don’t try to do it all your first semester at U-M; pick a few things that interest you (maybe at least one of which is outside your comfort zone) and be diligent about showing up to them. You’ll form deeper bonds with people if you’re consistent about showing up! Definitely shop around and explore a bit, but once you’ve found a few organizations or groups that you’re really interested in, make them part of your routine. If you’re very active and engaged in one or two student groups, you might be able to gain a leadership position by your sophomore or junior year.

It can be very tempting to bite off more than you can chew early on during your first semester. Ann Arbor has so much going on 24/7, but you’ll quickly learn that you have to be selective about how and where to spend your time. Stay on top of your assignments and don’t skip out on your classes; you’re here to get an education and develop your character. While forming new relationships and connections is an important part of college, it’s all about balance. Be careful with partying. You’ve got four whole years to have fun with friends; you don’t have to cram it all into your first few weeks on campus. Going out every night is not sustainable, and you don’t have to go to parties in order to make friends.

In short, you’re about to embark on such an incredible adventure. I hope that your years here at Michigan bring you lots of new growth and great memories. Know that it’s OK if things don’t always go smoothly; it’s just part of the process. We all have rough weeks and even rough semesters. But you’ll get through the challenging parts, and there are so many enjoyable aspects of college that will truly change your life for the better. It really is great to be a Michigan Wolverine!

Bailey Burke
Bailey Burke

Bailey Burke is a senior in the College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts, pursuing majors in history and creative writing & literature, with a minor in Spanish. She is from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Bailey is in the Residential College, where she founded RC Letters Forum. She is also involved in campus ministry with St. Mary Student Parish and the Kateri Institute for Catholic Studies. She studied abroad in winter 2022 in Dublin, Ireland, and is hoping to travel after she graduates. In her free time, you can find Bailey reading, writing letters, and drinking tea.