The Freshman Survival Guide

Soulful Advice for Studying, Socializing, and Everything In Between


By Nora Bradbury-Haehl

By Bill McGarvey

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A completely revised and updated values-based guide to navigating the first year of college that speaks to college students in their own language and offers practical tools that readers need to keep from drinking, sleeping, or skipping their way out of college.

In the four years since its initial publication, The Freshman Survival Guide has helped thousands of first year students make a successful transition to college life. However, much has changed on campuses. The explosion of technology, ubiquity of social media, and culture changes have all added new layers of complexity to the leap from high school to college. The Freshman Survival Guide‘s updated edition features new research and advice on issues such as mental health, sexual assault, and finding balance. It also features expanded sections on dating, money management, and an increased focus on how the over 1.5 million incoming freshman can prepare themselves for the biggest change they’ve encountered in their lives: heading off to college.


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Table of Contents

Copyright Page


"There are options." The words were neatly handprinted in the empty space under question number four on our student survey. The surveys had arrived at our offices in New York City from the campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. It was just a single piece of paper in a thick stack of replies we had received, but amid all the dashed-off handwritten responses we tried to decipher that day, those words stuck out. A twenty-two-year-old University of Iowa senior was responding to our question: "What was the best advice you got as a freshman?"

All of the answers we received were good, but There are options was different. It jumped out at us like a clear, simple response to the much bigger questions we'd been asking ourselves about this book: What is it really about? What do college students actually need to know? What wisdom can we possibly offer to students who have been bombarded with advice from all angles?

Fortunately, this undergrad had unwittingly offered us a Zen koan–like bit of wisdom that got to the heart of what we wanted to offer college students. If this book does anything at all, we hope it gives you the sense that you have options during your college career. Not just academic, social, or lifestyle options but options in every sense. You will be faced with more choices in the next few years than you've ever imagined. Those choices will be accompanied by seemingly endless questions, ranging from small issues like how to get along with a difficult roommate to the big existential questions college is famous for inspiring: Who am I? Why am I here? What do I believe? What should I do with my life? Asking questions is an essential part of what college is all about; The Freshman Survival Guide brings together the advice and experiences of college students, professors, administrators, counseling staffs, campus ministers, and other professionals to help you deal with the big questions, the small questions, and all the countless questions in between.

There are many guides for getting into college, choosing a college, paying for college, and getting good grades in college, but this is the first to offer a holistic look into the lives of college students and life on campus.

What does that mean? Our version of holistic simply means that we're approaching your life as a student on every level by combining up-to-date practical advice on academics and student life with guidance on coping with the intangible emotional, spiritual, and values issues that college students encounter every day but that are rarely talked about.

There's no doubt that your experience in college will force you to grow intellectually, but it would be a mistake to think that is the only area in which you'll develop over these years. Your mind is accompanied on this journey by your body and your spirit—none of these three are simply along for the ride; they're all active participants that need to be integrated and in balance.

The world is an increasingly complex place with lots of competing ideas and approaches that can be difficult to make sense of. You might sometimes be tempted to resist that complexity so you can settle for simple answers instead, but that really isn't much of an option. Your time at college is supposed to be a period of questions and exploration. That's the only way any real learning takes place. "The test of a first-rate intelligence," F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote in his book The Crack-Up decades ago, "is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." We have no doubt that you will come across a lot more than two opposing ideas during your college career; our goal isn't simply to help you function, but to help you actually flourish during these years.

As an online magazine for spiritual seekers, embraces that complexity and has created an online forum to discuss the intersection of popular culture, politics, faith, and spirituality—subjects that are not generally thought to be overlapping and are often considered hostile to one another. The Freshman Survival Guide treats the issues of mind, body, and spirit similarly by recognizing them as intimately connected instead of distinct.

All too often, advice about college life presumes that students are just a collection of brains, hormones, and appetites entering some sort of ivy-clad educational pressure cooker that will help their brains grow bigger, hopefully without the side effects of letting their hormones and appetites get too out of control at the same time. The fact is a lot of the stories you've heard about college are true. There will be tons of challenging information offered to you over the next few years to enhance your knowledge and intellect; there will also be plenty of opportunities to indulge your appetite and let your hormones run wild (we're guessing those are the opportunities you've heard most of the stories about). We promise that within these pages you'll get the most honest, current information possible on the reality of college life today.

Whether it's academics, dating, sex, drinking, drugs, roommate problems, dorm life, sexual identity, safety, mental health, nutrition, or any number of other issues you're liable to come across in college, you will find the information and advice you need on them here. And if for some reason it's not here, you'll be able to find it at our website: We've added additional information online as well as numerous interactive features, including an Interactive RA, where resident assistants from colleges around the country are available to answer your questions online through our partnership with, the nation's leading online resource for residence life—a free service of Campus Advantage, Inc., the largest private student housing firm in North America.

Along with this dose of reality, we will also offer you options. Without your parents watching over you, you'll be in a position to make a lot of decisions that will have an enormous impact on your college career.

  • Can you stay out all night drinking and sleep in without getting into trouble?
  • Can you skip your classes without somebody reporting you to your mother?
  • Can you spend all of your time on Facebook or in training to become the greatest Guitar Hero champion your dorm has ever seen?

The answer, of course, to all of the above is yes, and we have little doubt you will come across people who seem determined to do all of those things and more during college.

This book offers you the tools and accumulated wisdom of hundreds of students, administrators, professors, counselors, and campus ministers to help you take advantage of the options in front of you and make good decisions in the years ahead. We've surveyed hundreds of students and recent grads from small private colleges and huge public universities from every region of the United States to give you as complete a picture as possible of what life on campus is truly like. We've also interviewed professors, resident assistants working in college dorms, administrators, and health professionals to get a sense of what you should expect when you arrive.

We've spoken to campus ministers from the Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Protestant, Jain, and Buddhist faith traditions to get their sense of what's going on in the spiritual lives of students. They have a unique perspective on campus life and the sometimes hotly debated intersection of faith and reason. Their insights into the spiritual, religious, and intellectual lives of college students are revealing, to say the least, and are among the book's most provocative and compelling passages.

Ultimately, however, The Freshman Survival Guide has been generated for students by students. The upperclassmen and recent graduates who helped make this book possible were once in the same position you're in now. Not that long ago, they were incoming freshmen with the same sense of anticipation, anxiety, exhilaration, and fear you're now experiencing. They've made the transition to college and have lived to tell the tale. We hope that, once you've survived, you'll come back and tell subsequent classes yours.

We're always looking for feedback and insights that could help new batches of incoming college students. If you would like to see other issues addressed or learn about things that might be helpful to you, please be sure to e-mail us at .

User Guide

A “How to” (and “Who Is”) for Using The Freshman Survival Guide

The Freshman Survival Guide’s greatest value is its versatility and depth as a tool and a resource for the transition to college. Though it is addressed to students, the reality is that parents, mentors, educators, counselors, ministers, and friends are putting it to use as a textbook, orientation manual, discussion starter, workshop springboard, curriculum component, graduation gift, or simply an opportunity for honest conversation with students embarking on their collegiate careers.

When The Freshman Survival Guide was first published in April 2011, we were confident that—after years of research—the information, insights, advice, and real-world, on-campus experience found in these pages would prove to be helpful to students heading off to college. Two years and tens of thousands of copies later, that initial confidence has been validated many times over.

What we hadn’t anticipated, however, were the audiences beyond the students themselves who also found the book helpful. In fact, there’s a small army of people helping students make the transition to college—parents, high school guidance counselors, teachers, freshman orientation and first-year experience staffs, residence life staffs and RAs, college administrators, campus ministers, on-campus counseling services, and so on—all of whom have a deep interest in the tools and information that The Freshman Survival Guide offers.

Over the past two years, we’ve visited numerous high school and college campuses around the country and worked with the full range of those helpers to adapt our book’s resources to each specific community’s needs. There’s a tremendous amount of information in the chapters that follow, but not all of it is relevant to everyone. We suggest you browse around and read the chapters that are the most interesting and pertinent to you and keep the book handy for when questions come up in the future (as they inevitably will).

Below you’ll find some suggestions for how The Freshman Survival Guide can act as a toolbox that you and your community can use for programming, classroom discussion, or when specific issues arise.

Online Survival Guide: Visit and click on User Guide for even more tips as well as a free, downloadable “Survival Guide Shortcuts” PDF.

We love to hear from our readers directly to get feedback or consult on what strategies might benefit you or your organization. We’ve helped develop customized programming free of charge for a number of high schools and colleges that have bought the book in bulk for their students. We encourage you to contact us via email at to discuss how we might help.

How to Use The Freshman Survival Guide for…

High School Juniors and Seniors

A great deal of energy and attention is given to applications, scholarships, and how to choose the right college, but a crucial question is sometimes left out in the admissions scramble: How will you manage once you’re actually in college?

Reading through The Freshman Survival Guide now will help you consider some of the issues beyond simply getting in, such as: How will you maintain the friendships you have now? (See Chapter 1.) What kinds of friends will you look for once you start college? (See Chapter 1.) What are your biggest worries? Are you a procrastinator? (See Chapter 12.) Where do you struggle academically (Chapter 11), socially (Chapter 5), or emotionally (Chapter 8), and what can you do now to prepare to deal with the problems that might arise?

Some suggestions:

  • Make this book your own. Highlight important information and take notes. Keep a journal of questions it raises for you and things you want to remember.
  • Bring your questions to a trusted mentor, teacher, minister, or even a friend who is already in college, or email the Interactive RA ( on our website.
  • Find a few friends who will commit to reading this book with you and discuss each chapter.
  • Talk to your parents about the issues The Freshman Survival Guide raises. You deserve the support and guidance of the people who have gotten you this far in life.

College Freshmen

There is a big difference between reading a book about college life months before you arrive and actually setting foot on campus. Here are some shortcuts for using this book once you’ve hit the ground.

  • Struggling academically? See Chapters 11–14.
  • Homesick? See Chapter 4.
  • Struggling spiritually? See Chapters 9 and 17.
  • Bored or lonely? See Chapter 16.
  • Not feeling healthy? See Chapters 20–23.
  • Take a look at the Interactive RA (iRA) section of our website. Our veteran team of resident assistants—Megan Stamer (NJ), Kailynn Cerny (WV), Danielle Shipp (CA), Josh Martin (CA), and coordinator Jennifer Sawyer (NY)—is ready to help with any questions. Email them at The iRA blog is also updated regularly with timely content addressing real issues facing first-year students in dormitories across the country.


Just because you’re not living on campus, don’t sell yourself, or your college, short. Follow these tips to fight that “I’m just a commuter” mentality:

  • Get involved in campus activities; it’s a great way to meet new people and feel more connected to what’s happening on campus. (See Chapter 16.)
  • Use your school’s resources: Study groups, the library, writing and math labs, and professors’ office hours are there for your use. (See Chapters 11, 13, and 14.)
  • Set up your schedule so you’ll have some time on campus a few days a week. If you’re also working it can be tempting to pack your classes in the morning so your afternoons and evenings can be spent off campus. If at all possible, though, consider leaving some gaps in your schedule so you’ll have time built in to hit the offices (financial aid, academic advisement, the registrar), go see your professors, visit the library, or attend student activities.
  • Visit and click on the Commuter Lounge for more great tips.

Parents, Siblings, Aunts, Uncles, and Other Relatives

The first concern for many parents sending kids off to college is survival in the literal sense of the word. Too often our campuses have been places where a poor decision or simple bad luck can have tragic consequences. We encourage parents to read this book and use it as an opportunity for family discussions about the things that matter. Fortunately, most challenges in college don’t have life-and-death consequences, so make sure you also emphasize the small, everyday habits that build success and happiness.

Chapter 24 deals with emergencies and how to handle them. Chapter 3 could be a good starting point for talking about the first few weeks of on-campus living. Chapter 18 deals with all the different places on campus to find help.


  1. Listen as much as you talk.
  2. You’ve already done most of the work.

You’ve been teaching life lessons since this kid appeared on the scene. Find out how much he or she has picked up. Consider setting aside time each month during senior year to talk through the worries and concerns you both have about college.

High School Educators, Teachers, College Counselors, Guidance and Mental Health Professionals, Principals, Librarians, Ministers, and Others

The Freshman Survival Guide has been used as a text for half-year courses for seniors, as the springboard for panel discussions, off-to-college nights, and leadership programs. It has been used with parent groups and student-parent discussions, and as a gift for members of the senior class and senior award winners. It can be a great tool for preparing first-generation or at-risk students for the issues they will face. One way it might be helpful to divide the material for use in workshops and mini-courses is as follows:

  • Balance: dealing with time management, procrastination, mind-body-spirit health, choosing activities and extracurriculars (Chapters 8, 11, 12, 16, and 21–23)
  • Relationships: parents, dating and sex, homesickness, friendship, maintaining old friendships and finding new ones that will help you grow (Chapters 1, 2, 4–6, and 18)
  • Identity: setting goals, decision making, habits (Chapters 7, 9, 15, and 17)
  • Academics: learning how to be a college student, study budget, dealing with profs (Chapters 10–14)
  • Risk: positive risk taking (stepping outside your comfort zone) and negative risk taking (drugs, alcohol, sex, criminal behavior) (Chapters 3, 5, 9, 19, 20, and 24)

College/University Educators, Residence Life Staff, RAs, Freshman/First-Year Orientation Staffs, Counseling Center Staff, Campus Ministers, and Others

We’ve worked with administrators, professors, professional staff (counseling, orientation, and residence life), and campus ministers at institutions ranging from large state universities to small private colleges and everything in between.

Just a few of the ways The Freshman Survival Guide has been implemented at colleges and universities so far include:

  • It was mailed out to an entire class of 1,500 incoming freshmen as summer reading.
  • It was used as a textbook for a semester-long, small-group first-year experience class (for credit).
  • Residence hall staffs have used it as a discussion text for mandatory floor meetings.
  • Campus ministries have purchased it for their university congregations and hosted workshops.

The challenges that affect incoming college students are as varied as their individual personalities, but some perennial issues include:

  • Roommate drama (Chapters 1–3)
  • Struggles making adjustments to college academics and time management (Chapters 10–14)
  • Drinking and drugs (Chapter 20)
  • Sex and dating (Chapter 6)
  • Mental and emotional health (Chapters 7, 8, and 18)
  • Emergencies (Chapters 18, 19, and 23)
  • Visit and click on User Guide for additional tips as well as examples of how other colleges have implemented the book


Be Generous with Your Friendship but Stingy with Your Trust

Survival Strategy #1: Making good friends in college is important, but it takes time. Be patient, be smart, and stay connected to your support network—the friends and family who helped get you this far.

The friends you have back home didn't get to be your friends overnight. It took months—or more likely, years—to establish those relationships. If you're like 97 percent of freshmen entering a four-year college, you're either eighteen or nineteen years old.1 The fact is you already have years of experience under your belt building the kinds of relationships you'll need in the next few months and years. You've been through tough times with your old friends and have learned their strengths and weaknesses. You trust them because they've proven themselves trustworthy. They know and keep your secrets and you know and keep theirs.

At college, new people can feel like your old friends. You're eating together, studying together, crashing in each other's rooms, and sometimes spending more time with them than you ever could with your friends from back home. The relationships feel familiar, comfortable.

But be aware that there can also be a kind of artificial intimacy early on in freshman year. These new friends need to earn your trust. Don't just give it to them. The people you meet in your first few weeks of school may be great, some of them may turn out to be the best friends of your life, and some of them may turn out to be criminals (seriously). Every freshman class has its gems and its jerks; which are which will become clear over the next few months. Remain open to new friendships, but wait until you get to know people a little before you loan them your car, give them all your passwords, or share your deepest secrets with them.

As you make friends, don't let the relationships become limited or isolating. Remain open to new friendships and as a matter of habit check the pulse of the ones you're in. After your first week, reassess your new friendships. Do it again after your first month. If the friends you connected with initially don't seem to be a good fit, keep looking. Think of your entire first semester, not just the first two weeks, as a chance to keep meeting new people. It can get tiring, especially if you're not an outgoing person, but the benefit of finding the right friends for you is really worth the effort.

There's a tendency to settle in with the first group of people you meet. It feels safer, somehow, when everything else is suddenly different, to have at least that part of life handled. But the people you choose to be friends with can make a huge difference in nearly every aspect of college life: study habits, interactions with other groups of people, how you spend your free time. Choose carefully and remember you can make a new choice anytime.

Have you ever heard the saying, "Tell me who your friends are and I'll tell you who you are"? If all your buddies are always on you to come out with them when you've got work to do, it's going to take superhuman strength to keep saying no. If you're struggling to work more and party less, look for friends who are doing okay academically and imitate their habits. Conversely, if you feel as if you're spending all your time in the library, find some friends who are involved in campus activities and get out there a little yourself. Need help sorting through all that? Check out The 6 Kinds of Toxic Friendships at the end of this chapter.

Look for companions who are positive, who have healthy lifestyles, who are exploring wellness or healthy alternatives in how they approach various things, whether it's their physical bodies or their religious seeking or their relationships. Seek people who have a positive approach as opposed to a negative, self-centered, extremely individualistic one. When you surround yourself with companions who have something deeper, something healthier, then you yourself are protected from the negative influences that are out there and so endemic.

—Ven. Bonnie Hazel Shoultz, Buddhist chaplain, Syracuse University

In with the New (and Keep Up with the Old)


  • THE FRESHMAN SURVIVAL GUIDE is a strikingly clever work from Bradbury and McGarvey in which the potentially tremulous first weeks of college life are dissected into 25 must know survival tips. From healthy relationship building to avoiding the disastrous pull of procrastination, the guide colorfully dispenses common sense and holistic development. The newest members of any college community will find in this guide a wonderful blend of down-to-earth advice and answers to the deepest of life questions. It is not afraid to address the big life questions of faith, service, the meaning of life and one's spiritual journey. I can not think of a better gift to give a son or daughter, a niece or nephew, a godchild or grandchild who is heading off to college.—Michael Galligan-Stierle, Ph.D., President, Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities
  • Every young person goes to college with a computer-and now they need to go with THE FRESHMAN SURVIVAL GUIDE.—Bob McCarty, Executive Director, National Federation of Youth Ministry
  • College students arrive on campus with impressive resumes and advanced academic skills. Many, however, do not have the ability to confront the profound questions of meaning, values or spirituality that will face them as they enter the adult world. This book makes an important contribution to helping college students navigate these defining moments.—Wayne L. Firestone, President, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life

On Sale
Apr 5, 2016
Page Count
400 pages
Center Street

Nora Bradbury-Haehl

About the Author

NORA BRADBURY-HAEHL is a writer for teens and 20-somethings and a twenty-year veteran of youth ministry. She has a unique perspective into the challenges they face, their fears and concerns, and the risks involved in beginning college.

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Bill McGarvey

About the Author

BILL MCGARVEY is former editor-in-chief of the award-winning BustedHalo. He has written and commented extensively on topics of pop culture and faith for BBC, NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, America, The Tablet (London) Time Out New York, Sirius-XM Radio, Commonweal, and Book magazine.

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