Student Survival Guide: College 101

15 courses you should take ASAP
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  September 25, 2013


Looking at my own long-ago experience in college and at my recent experience as a college teacher, and looking at my four sons’ and their friends’ experiences as they took the plunge into post-high-school life, I’ve often felt that — in addition to Introduction to Calculus and American History 101 — every young woman and man needs some short, practical courses in how to survive the first experience of independence.

The 15 short courses here are idiosyncratic (that’s a word you’ll have to know in college, so look it up). For the most part, this is not a list of academic stuff. It’s more important. Your literal survival may depend on the mastery of a point or two on this list.

Fundamentals of First Aid

You don’t need to take a Red Cross course, but they’re useful and easy to find. In the dorm and on the sports field, there are people who may take care of you if you break your leg. But you and your new-found friends may want to (and should) go hiking, try rock climbing, or strap on snowshoes. And if you or your buddies don’t know how to patch up a bad leg gash or treat frostbite (briskly rubbing the affected area is the wrong thing to do), perhaps the survival of a part of your body will be in question.

At minimum, read a first-aid book, find a qualified person to teach you CPR, and put together a basic kit that you can throw into a pack. If you keep the kit in your book bag, think how impressive you’ll be when you whip it out to treat a nice-looking classmate’s paper cut with a Band-Aid.

Food and Cooking for Non-Dummies

The “freshman 15” pounds have turned out to be a myth, but you may make food choices entirely on your own for the first time, and to look at the rate of youthful obesity the choices often made are dreadful. Many college “food courts” are an extension of America’s fast-food empire, which has become successful by addicting us to fat, sugar, salt, and excess carbs. Still, “healthy choices” can be found. Make sure they’re really healthy by sticking with mostly bare-naked vegetables and fruits; whole-wheat bread, brown rice, and other whole grains; and eschewing (as opposed to chewing) a lot of meat and fried food — and by not swilling soda.

The ideal: prepare your own healthy food, often possible even in dorms. Ever-inexpensive pasta, rice, and oatmeal are easy and quick to cook; and it’s simple to throw some vegetables into the pot or on the plate to accompany them. You can actually live well (probably, better, health-wise) on $5 a day per person for food. (I am not making this up. See the foods for under $1 a pound at If you control the rest of your diet, you’ll still be able to drink beer (moderately) without getting fat. (Ritual disclaimer: Of course, you have to wait until you can legally!)

Topics in Street Law

I knew some students who thought it was fun to drive around town one night shooting out windows with a BB-gun. They were arrested, expelled, and the last I heard faced jail and fines. As in that case, alcohol (see Remedial Alcohol and Drugs below) is at the root of many youthful run-ins with the law. So much is written and spoken about excessive teenage-and-beyond alcohol use that I’ll restrict myself to this: be aware that the police seem to have an enormous interest in breaking up drunken parties involving underage students. If you are hauled to the police station, your life will become immensely more complicated.

The cops are imaginative in going after young people. I knew a student who was arrested for drunken driving on his bicycle. He spent the night in the drunk tank at a city jail. It was educational — and expensive, to pay a lawyer to get the charge dismissed.

In Rhode Island, if you’ve been arrested for Driving Under the Influence (DUI) and you decline to take a chemical test, you will automatically lose your license — again, generally speaking — for six months for a first-time refusal. For folks under 21 with BAC [blood alcohol content] greater than .02% but less than .1% can be convicted of “driving while impaired” and have their license suspended for 1-3 months (first offense), 3-6 months (second offense), plus fines and community service. Persons under 18 have mandatory license suspension until age 21.

Here are two final street-law rules, and they are not contradictory: 1) Obey the police without talking back; they have guns. 2) Generally, you don’t have to tell the police anything when they ask you questions, except your name; but be polite.

I must again give a ritual disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer. But here’s a lawyer, Zach Heiden, a legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, elaborating on dealing with the cops: “I think that it is very hard in the moment for anyone to answer any request from a police officer with anything other than ‘Uh, sure.’ How about: ‘I have a personal rule against consenting to police questioning without an attorney present,’ and ‘I have a personal rule against consenting to searches,’ and ‘I am not trying to make your job harder, but if you would like to search my belongings you are going to need to show me a warrant.’”

Remedial Alcohol and Drugs

The obvious-yet-often-futilely repeated Eternal Truths about alcohol for young people are: 1) flee drunken parties (see previous item); 2) don’t operate a vehicle when intoxicated; 3) don’t get in a vehicle with an intoxicated driver; and 4) beware of sex when intoxicated. These lessons could be preached (more or less) about the use of other drugs, although the use of some drugs requires additional and heavier warnings.

But here’s the problem: parents, teachers, Officer Friendly, and other old fogies have been preaching these sermons for generations. Yet they don’t seem to be learned very well. Why? One scientific theory is that until you’re 25 years old or so the decision-making part of your brain may not be fully developed. Sorry about that! (I could soften the blow by telling you how stupid I was in my youth, but the statute of limitations may not have expired.) The trouble with the theory about undeveloped brains, of course, is that there’s plenty of evidence that excessive alcohol use and a tendency toward bad decisions can last whole lifetimes.

Some people believe that warnings from elders are wasted, that people only learn from their mistakes. But if that were the case, there would be no such thing as human wisdom.

Exercise Seminar

Maybe you think that if you play a sport you’ll be fit and not gain weight. It happens, but much of team sports involves standing around and sitting on the bench. The “individual” sports like running and cross-country skiing are best in giving you aerobic benefits, which means strengthening the most-important cardiovascular system. These benefits, of course, can be obtained without being on a team. You can run or walk by yourself or with friends on cross-country trails, hike the hills, and use exercise machines in the fitness center. Forty-five truly vigorous minutes four or five times a week will normally keep you in good shape, although not eating too much is even more important than exercise in keeping weight off.

For many young men, building showy muscles is important for the sexual sweepstakes, but the women (or men) those weightlifters are trying to impress should keep in mind that without aerobic activity those guys are probably building muscles larded with fat. Bonus point: A still-little-known benefit of energetic exercise — only recently scientifically proven — is that it grows brain cells and increases brain chemicals for better mental performance, including reducing anxiety about exams.

Advanced Transportation

You probably don’t need a car. Colleges and the communities they’re in have public and private transportation options, including many for commuters: buses, vans, bike shares, and — for visits home — trains and planes. Getting in a car is probably the most dangerous activity you’ll ever participate in, and cars are helping destroy the world with their pollution. Young people appear to be recognizing these truths, since they are not driving at an accelerating rate.

They may also have been forced to recognize that automobiles are cash cavities. At the three colleges where I taught, I was appalled at the time subtracted from studies (not least, the courses I was teaching) by the many hours a lot of students worked at fast-food and other poorly paying jobs to support their cars. If you do have a car, make sure you know where the oil dipstick is, how to change a tire, what bald tires look like, and what that blue smoke coming out the exhaust of your clunker means.

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