How I Survived My First Semester of College

After struggling with my course load, I reached out to my advisor and came up with a plan.

by Gabriela Felitto

When I started college at the University of Vermont, I felt nervous but confident. I enrolled in seven classes: linguistics, race and racism in the U.S., global health anthropology, approaches to health, cultural crossroads, communication and science, and intro to psychology. While my parents and teachers were surprised by how many classes I was taking, I felt like I would be able to handle it because I’d taken a lot of classes in high school.

But I felt overwhelmed by my psychology class right away. It was my only huge lecture, with close to 300 students compared to around 30 in my other classes. The lecture format made it hard for me to pay attention; I am not used to having teachers drone on for an hour and a half with no activity in between. Plus, psychology was more about learning the content on your own since it was a lecture. My other professors were more hands-on, like my high school teachers.

Although my other classes had many readings, they didn’t feel as extensive as the ones for psychology, where each chapter was about 30 pages. I spent two and a half hours a night trying to get through those long chapters and taking notes so I could understand the context.

Tired and Overwhelmed

The further I read, the foggier my mind became. I thought learning about how the brain works and how behaviors develop would be more exciting. I thought we would learn why crimes happen, like in Criminal Minds, and about how we store memories. Instead, I found the content boring and I lost interest.

About a month and a half into my first semester, the professor told us to start preparing for the first test. He recommended making flashcards for each chapter. But I spent so much time rewriting the information from my notes onto my flashcards that I barely had time to test myself on them.

On test day, I wore my plaid mini skirt and yellow cherry sweater to feel more confident. I shuffled to my seat, anxious. My stomach churned.

I had to guess the answers for a majority of the questions. I knew that I didn’t do that well, but I was devastated when I found out I got a 51 out of 100.

I felt horrible. If only I’d gotten a few more points I would have at least passed! What made me feel even worse was that unlike in high school, professors don’t tell you what your average is until you get the final grade at the end of the semester. All I knew was that I had an awful, red 51 as one of my grades. I knew nothing about my participation, attendance scores, and quiz grades, which were mostly in the 60s.

Advice From My Advisor

During the first week of college, advisors have individual meetings with students to check in and see if they are struggling with anything. When I met my advisor in August, we instantly clicked. So after I failed this test, I scheduled a meeting with her.

The next afternoon, I sat down in my academic advisor’s office and I told her I felt overwhelmed, and about my awful test grade although I’d studied so hard. I felt relieved to get my feelings off my chest. She told me the first steps were to get study tips from both the class teaching assistant (TA) and the professor.

Although I appreciated her advice and it made sense to me, it also scared me. I am shy about asking teachers for help no matter how comfortable I am with them. It makes me feel stupid because I compare myself to seemingly smarter students who don’t need extra help. In high school, I asked my friends for help or tried to work it out myself. But I had no friends in psychology class, so I had no choice but to speak with my TA and professor.

Should I Withdraw?

Both advised me to do the activities in the online textbooks. I did them every night. As I persisted, I began to understand the content and got more of the study questions right. Instead of making my own flashcards, I used Quizlet, a website to make flashcards and find study sets, and I could quiz myself on what I knew. This was more efficient than making my own flashcards. I even took practice quizzes on Quizlet when I was out with my friends. I felt better about myself.

For the second test, I got a 67. But it still wasn’t high enough for me to feel confident about passing the course. I felt anxious no matter what I did. Just thinking about the class made me feel like crying.

YC-Art Dept.

Fortunately I was doing well in my other classes. For those, I had regularly assigned homework. My grades in these classes did not rely solely on my test grades and some didn’t even have tests. Teachers also gave out study guides for their tests, just like in high school. Still, I stayed up at night worrying I’d lose my scholarship because the psychology class was bringing down my GPA.

Then I found out some kids had withdrawn from that class because it was too hard. I also heard that the deadline to withdraw from classes was a few days away. Knowing that other kids were having a hard time made me feel so much better. That night I called my mom and asked her if I should withdraw. She told me to go to my advisor and the teaching assistant to try to calculate my average, and then we’d decide.

The next morning as I sped across the campus to the psychology building, I felt my heart racing. My calves ached from walking so fast.

But when I got there, I saw they had canceled office hours. I tried not to cry. I ran out of the building, collapsing on the cold stone stoop as I tried to calm down. I called my mom.

“They canceled office hours,” I said in a wobbly voice.

“Would you feel better if you just dropped the class?” my mother asked in a calm voice.

“Yes, but can I?”

“If this is causing you so much stress, just drop it. I don’t like seeing you like this,” she replied.

“Have you ever dropped a class?” I felt like a failure.

“I wish that someone had told me to withdraw from some of my classes rather than taking a failing grade. It’s the right thing to do.”

My biggest fear about withdrawing and failing was letting down my family. My mom assured me that my well-being was what mattered most to her. I hung up feeling better.

Ask for Help

The following day, I met with my advisor. She calculated my average. When we discovered that I was barely passing, we discussed other options. If I withdrew, I could take the lecture next semester or at a city college during the summer and transfer the credits. She also suggested a “go at your pace” online version that I could take the following semester.

“Don’t worry, many kids have trouble with psych,” she said.

I decided I’d take the online course. My advisor emailed my professor for permission to withdraw.

That afternoon, she texted me the great news that he gave permission. This meant I wouldn’t have to stress about psychology for the rest of the semester and I’d have more time to focus on my other classes.

After about a week, I was also able to start writing for the school newspaper. I had more time to hang out with my friends. Just by asking for help from my advisor, I was able to finish my semester off with a 4.0, have my name on the dean’s list, and keep my scholarship.

Still, I don’t intend to make a habit of withdrawing from classes, because I know having too many withdrawals might jeopardize my scholarship and it doesn’t look good to have too many on your transcript. I wish someone had told me not to take so many courses my first semester and that the course load is different than it is in high school. I also wish that I had known sooner that a lot of students struggle in their first semester of college, and that it’s OK to get help.

When I met my advisor in August, we instantly clicked. So after I failed this test, I scheduled a meeting with her.
Explore All Topics