My first two pieces of advice are the easiest:
1. Try not to worry. In so many ways, being a first-year college student is very different from being a high school freshman. You’ll meet more people all at once than you have before, you’ll be away from family and friends who know so much about you, you’ll have more options available to you (classes, activities, and so on), and you’ll be able to discover things that really excite and motivate you. These four years ahead of you are an opportunity to read books you wouldn’t ordinarily read, spend time with people you might not ordinarily get to know, and think about new ideas that might otherwise elude you if you weren’t reading these books and spending time with these people.
2. Have fun. There’s a lot of work to do, but there are also so many new things to experience. Don’t forget to do the kind of work that got you to college in the first place, but don’t neglect everything that a university has to offer you. I’m not talking just about new friends, football games, and parties … but I’m not not talking about those things either.
OK, now it gets a little more serious:
3. Get involved. Go to the student organization fair — or whatever it’s called at your school — that’s usually held during the first week or two. Maybe you already know that you want to be involved with a particular club or organization; if so, you’ll find out when they meet and you can jump right in. If you’re not sure, you’ll see what your campus has to offer. Whether it’s a political group, a service organization, a religious group, or something else, there’s probably something that will strike you as important, fun, or both. Once you get involved, involve your friends.
4. Go to office hours. Going to class is obviously important, but you would do well to introduce yourself to your professors and spend some time visiting them during their office hours. It’s often the case that first-year students will find themselves in large classes so taking a moment to introduce yourself is a good way to differentiate yourself from the majority of your classmates. Also, if you get in the habit of talking to your professors, they won’t seem intimidating (if they do at first) and you’ll give yourself an opportunity to learn from them outside of the classroom. Go to see them before you have a question about a specific assignment, especially if they teach a subject in which you have an interest. Not sure what to talk with them about? Ask them about their research interests. When students come by to chat with me about my work, I’ve often found ways to get them involved in it (and often with pay). Later, when you do have a question about their class, they’ll know you and will likely be eager to make sure you understand the issue or do well on the particular assignment. And, of course, call your professor “Professor” unless you’re asked to call him or her something else.
5. Go to lectures or films on campus. There are always events happening on campus, hosted by the university or by student groups, and they are usually great ways to learn more about a subject (often from an expert). Sometimes professors will offer extra credit to attend these events; sometimes they’ll simply announce them to bring them to your attention. You’ll likely also see posters around campus. These events are often sparsely attended but they’re great ways to extend your education on topics of particular interest to you outside the classroom. Find something that sounds interesting and spend an hour on it. Bring your friends.
6. Be open-minded. This doesn’t simply apply to meeting new people or going to a lecture that you might not chosen if you hadn’t read #5, above. It also applies to new ideas. Try out ideas or arguments, be willing to listen to other people, and be critical of your own beliefs and opinions. What’s more, be open-minded about your studies. Pretty sure you’re going to hate that required math class? Maybe you won’t hate it. Absolutely certain that you want to be a lawyer? Allow yourself to explore things as they come to you rather than cutting off the possibilities right from the get-go. When I was a first-year student, I was certain that I wanted to go to law school. When I asked one of my professors about classes I should take in my second year, he recommended a political theory class that I knew I would hate. I tried to keep an open mind, I signed up for the class, and it completely changed my life. You never know what might speak to you.
This is just a quick first pass; there’s certainly a lot more to be said, so perhaps others will chime in here too, in the comments or by reblogging.
Also, remember #1 and #2.