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College 4 . Us

Plan and act today so you have no regrets tomorrow...

Tips for New College Students

The Very First Thing

Make friends!!!  Especially someone who is local to the college neighborhood.  You need to learn a lot of things very quickly:

Good places to get friends, besides those in your dorm, are the extracurricular groups on campus.  Those upperclassmen are eager to know and help you.  So join one of interest to you at the extracurricular activity fair or contact them via e-mail before you even arrive at your new home.

Planning Ahead

Just like how you planned your high school years (with tips taken from this website, right?), you need to plan your college years carefully even if you have very little interest in going to grad school.  You should always plan your academic pursuits with the possibility of going to grad school in mind.  So talk to your counselor and find out the prerequisites for grad school.  It may be as simple as signing up for a slightly more advanced math or intermediate courses.  That way, if you suddenly decide to go to grad school, you won’t have to make up classes late in your college career.

Use your summer wisely.  Get internships at institutions related to your intended career.  Sometimes you can get job offers from those places even before you graduate.  If nothing else, you make some valuable connections and learn about the real world.  Money is not your top concern during those summers.  Your future career should be the main concern, and so see your summer activities as opportunities to advance your future.

Auditing Classes

Maybe this is just a Harvard phenomenon.  Some students would attend all the lectures (and sometimes even attend the sections and do the homework) for no credit the first time around, and then take the class for credit next year.  Do this if you really have spare time.

Honestly your GPA is not as critical as in high school unless you want to go to grad school.  It may matter for your first job – they have nothing else to evaluate you – but not afterwards.  If you are thinking about your job hunting after college, pay more attention on research, internships, and other achievements (senior thesis, etc.).  I don’t recommend spending that much time just to get an A instead of a B in a class.

I did attend all the lecture for a class simply out of interest on the topic, and I learned a lot from it.  It’s really fun when you are not worrying about your grades.

If you are lucky, you can find the classes you want to try online at edX.org or other MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) sites.

Getting Cheap Textbooks

The minute you know what classes you want to take, go to the bookstore and find the assigned textbooks.  Buy used ones if they are available.  Used ones may have valuable notes in them and they cost about ¼ less.  You can also buy online at many bookstores and textbook exchanges (e.g., eCampus, BookRenter, and Barnes and Noble).  You can even rent them instead of buying them.  If you find a textbook online for a lot less, you can always return the ones you buy from the school bookstore within the first few weeks of the semester.

Although the campus bookstore and online bookstores do buy back used textbooks, they pay very little and get a rather big margin.  So you may make more selling your books privately or online.

The campus bookstore will not buy back textbooks if the professors decide to use a newer edition.  Not all the professors in all the schools will switch to the newer edition at the same time, and so you may still have a chance to sell them online.  Also, oftentimes there’s very little difference between the old and the new edition, and some professors will actually help students who bought older editions by telling them when there’s a difference between the two editions.

Some books are available in the library as “reserved” – you can check them out for a few hours each time.  For some books that you don't need to read often, that may be good enough for you.  Some books are actually available for checking out because the school has more copies than needed for reserves.  (I survived one semester without buying any textbooks once.  Just keep renewing and get your friends to help you if you have to.)  Remember, you cannot just copy unlimited pages from the reserved books.  Local copy shops will refuse to do it for you, and doing it yourself (beyond a few pages) may lead to trouble if seen by the librarian.  

In some cases, only a small portion of a book is used in class.  Therefore, read the syllabus carefully and figure out which books are minimally used, and just borrow them from the library or friends when you need them.

For those of you who have to read a lot of classics (e.g., books that are old and whose copyright have expired) or who are more comfortable with electronic gadgets than paper-based books, consider getting an e-reader.  Books whose copyright have expired are generally available for free on these e-readers.  These e-readers also make great reference tools for those who need it, and most can let you browse the Internet if you have wifi.  If you have Amazon Prime, you can borrow a lot of books for free also.

Must-have Equipments

First and foremost is a good computer that's reliable, and has service plans with a retailer near the school so you can always get help if needed.  Unless you are a visual arts or GIS major, chances are any computer on the market today is good enough for you.  You don't have to get a top-of-the-line machine; just one that does what you need.  There’s no reason to spend an extra $500 to save 15 seconds of boot time each day.  A majority of college students use Macs, but digital documents are so interchangeable nowadays that there's not much compatibility problems between the Macs and PCs anymore.  Still, check with your advisor from your field of study to see what they prefer.  They may have special instructional software for one type of computer but not the other.  (Please note: Macs can run many PC software through the use of virtualization software, but PC cannot run Mac software due to copyright issues.)

A website that tells you what’s on sale each week is http://salescircular.com .  Any regular desktop or laptop computers being sold today are probably good enough for most college students, and so there’s no need to buy a top-of-the-line model.  Instead, invest in peripherals such as a printer-copier and a second monitor.  Tablets are good second computers.  If you do want to use a tablet at the library often, you should get an external keyboard.  (I can actually attach a monitor and Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to my Samsung Galaxy Note II and use it as a basic computer.  All you need to know is what parts to buy...)

You can buy software with educational discount, and these are often found on-campus.  So don't buy the software at home before you can take advantage of this.  Also, some online sources (e.g., Academic Superstore and Studica) may be cheaper than your on-campus sources, and so shop around first.  Many software also have a two-installation policy – one for your main computer and one for your portable computer.  Therefore, in most cases you don’t need to buy two copies of the same software.

You can also ask your parents if their employers offer Microsoft Office through the Home Use Program.  Some schools also participate.  Go to that website and put in your new school e-mail and see if you can get Office for $10.

There are even free software the do the work of those expensive office suites (I personally use these myself):

Take the money you save from the computer and software purchase and spend it on peripheral equipment.  A second monitor does wonders for you, and with LCD monitors being so cheap and small, getting a second one shouldn't be an issue.  Once you have tried using two monitors, you'll never want to go back to just one.

You should get a black-and-white multi-functional (a.k.a. “All-in-one”) laser printer that can also copy and scan stuff.  Try searching for “Brother refurbished” on Staples.com and you will see a few listed.  Here's the most important reason for getting such a machine: You cannot legally photocopy copyrighted materials (e.g., books), and most copy centers enforce that rule.  At the libraries, you may run into problems if you photocopy too many pages of a book also.  So you may want to do that in your room.  You will be very, very popular with your dormmates also.  And always have a spare toner cartridge handy.  Have your dormmates pitch into the fund for toner.  You can buy compatible toner cartridges at low costs from places like Amazon.  Comparison shop carefully and save a bundle.  Also, I had bad luck refilling toner cartridges myself, but that’s another option you can consider.

Why not ink-based machines?  Ink-based machines are cheap but their operational costs are much, much higher ($30+ per ink cartridge that gets you only 500 pages).  So get a laser B/W printer for yourself and borrow your roommates' color ink-jet printer when needed.  Color laser toners are too expensive and you probably don’t need them enough to justify the price.

Online backup is a must.  Your school should have similar services for you (or just upload your files daily to online storage provided by the school).  Or use something like Dropbox.  If you use a desktop computer, you should get an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) for the machine in your dorm.  If you use a laptop, get a good surge protector.  Surges can damage your machines without warning.  Also get a spare power cord from Amazon or eBay so one is always plugged into the outlet in your dorm.  An aftermarket unit will do just fine.

Bring extra USB cables (A-B and extension), mice, and Ethernet cables.  These are expensive if you have to buy them at a convenience store.  Get a good cooling pad for your laptop because it will be on for several hours on most days (and nights).

Most people have cellular phones.  Get one that has “tethering” capabilities, either through a USB cable or through a wifi hotspot, and sign up for such a feature.  Most newer Android phones do.  iPhones don’t.  With such a phone, there’s no need to get an aircard or go to places that have free hotspots.

Finally, should you get an extended warranty/service plan?  For peace of mind, I’d recommend it.  But perhaps more importantly, you need to know who will do the repairs and where they are done.  Some on-campus computer stores have pre-arranged maintenance agreements with certain manufacturers and they’ll repair those machines if they are under warranty or extended service plans offered by the manufacturer (regardless of where you bought that machine).  If that’s the case, then choose the brand with that consideration in mind.  Nowadays almost all office supply and electronic stores offer extended warranties for computers, and so if you have one such store very near your school, that’s another option.  So shop and compare carefully.

Getting clean drinking water is a major problem for college students.  For those who don’t have private bathrooms in their suites (which is the case for most freshmen), you are stuck with high-cost yet ineffective portable units such as Brita and Pur.  For the upperclassmen living in suites that have private bathrooms, you can consider installing a completely removable system such as those from Aquasana (I use that at home myself).  You will have to uninstall it before the room inspection and install it back afterwards, but as long as you don’t leave permanent “modification” to the room, it’s not an issue.  If a water delivery service such as Arrowhead or Sparklett are allowed, then that’s another (expensive) option.  For the sake of the environment, please do not buy small bottled water for in-dorm consumption.

Buying Furniture on the Cheap

Freshmen are often envious of upperclassmen who have the sofas, fridges, futons, TVs, and other non-necessities.  Your dorm rooms are probably too small for many of those things anyway, but it doesn’t hurt to plan for the next three years.  Near the end of your freshman year, you’ll see tons of “for sale” posters on campus from seniors who are leaving for good.  That’s when you can pick up furniture and some electronics at bargain prices.  So don’t spend that $100 on a new fridge now.  You can probably get one for $25 by the end of your freshman year.  And timing would be perfect – you’ll actually have room for those things starting your sophomore year.


Prices of airline tickets fluctuate drastically with or without oil price fluctuations.  Your best strategy may be to set up price alert notifications on sites such as Expedia long before your trip and grab a ticket when prices drop to a level you are comfortable with.

If you live at or your school is near a major hub for a major airline (e.g., Chicago or Denver for United, or Atlanta for Delta, etc.), you may want your parents to have an airline rewards credit card that gets you miles on those airlines.  It’ still hard to exchange your miles for seats sometimes, but could come in handy in case of emergency.  Once I got a ticket 30 minutes before departure.  Also many airline cards will give you free luggage allowance.

Some credit cards offer flexible rewards that can be used on any airline.  Do your comparison shopping and read the reviews.  Some have so many restrictions that they may be worthless.  If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  I was in a great program once but they kept cutting the benefits over the years, and now I can’t even get tickets (for a flat rate) from it anymore.  

One Last Tip – Taxi Rides

You'll need to take taxi rides to and from the airport if you bring any significant amount of luggage.  These are expensive.  So bring some cash and small change.  At airports, you get taxis at a centralized location, and there's usually a small line so follow the crowd.  Before you jump into the line, ask to see if other students (they shouldn't be hard to spot) are going to your school also. You can share a taxi and split the cost.  If someone needs to get off before you do, that person should pay for half of the bill at that time.  You should figure out the precise location to get off to minimize dragging your luggage.  Print a map to show the driver where your dorm is and where is the closest place they can park temporarily.


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