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From maximizing your Lit Hum experience with a decent professor to not eating alone in Ferris, we’re sure there are many things about being a first-year at Barnumbia that still worry you, despite all our past coverage on Required Reading.

But fear not, because you certainly are not the only ones with these concerns. Every year, there are a number of common questions (What if none of my professors like me? What if I made the wrong decision by choosing Columbia in the first place?), and since this week’s Required Reading issue is on adjusting to college life, we thought it was best to address them.

The first half of this two-part series will address some of your academic fears. After scrolling through this page, pop on over to the second installment, which will put your social and lifestyle concerns to rest.

I’m conflicted between signing up for everything because FOMO and settling for the bare minimum because I won’t be able to keep up with a lot of work. What should I do?

OK, first things first—throw the thought that you have to do everything your first semester out the window now. The only person who expects you to take every class in the course directory while still completing an internship and rising to the highest leadership position in your club of choice is you. When in doubt, do without. If you’re worried about signing up for too little/too much, we’d caution you to err on the side of too little—you can always add more to your plate later once you get an idea of what you’ll realistically be able to handle.

That being said, I wouldn’t automatically assume that you’ll have difficulty keeping up with your work. With a little guidance on task management (from former self-proclaimed procrastinators), clever schedule-planning so you only have classes for half of the day, and a three-day weekend (very few classes meet on Friday), you will have enough time to get things done—it’s all about how you prioritize. “How?” you ask?

Realize your limitations

My promise that things will get done is completely dependent upon the fact that you keep everything in moderation and don’t sign up for 10 thousand things. Know your limits—try starting out with four classes, an extracurricular or two, and ramp things up as you get a feel for what you can handle.

Force yourself to make time for yourself

I know, I know, scheduling multiple breaks may seem counterproductive, but—if you’ve seen any of the finals content I wrote last semester—I’m of the school of thought that things only get done with proper motivation. Promising that you’ll allow for some time to yourself later in the evening, whether that’s by eating a meal that you love or even something as simple as watching an episode on Netflix, can do wonders for your productivity.

Ask for help when you need it

This cannot be stressed enough. If you need a tutor, look for one. If you need to go to office hours for clarification on a topic or even help with a p-set problem, go see your teaching assistant or professor. If you’ve had a particularly tough day and need to talk it out with someone, look into Columbia and Barnard’s walk-in listening hours with Counseling and Psychological Services or The Rosemary Furman Counseling Center.

Expectations are everything

It’s good to set yourself to a high standard. It’s good to set goals for yourself and to let those goals be the thing that motivates you to succeed. It’s not good, however, to let the outcome of your performance define your worthiness. No one will leave Columbia getting an A on every single assignment they submit or receiving every internship they apply for. Learning to focus on the process, not the product, is one of the surest ways you can help yourself stay happy and motivated, even in the face of disappointment.

What if my Lit Hum/UWriting/First-Year Writing/First-Year Seminar professor is the literal WORST?

Unfortunately, professors at Barnumbia are not all created equal. You’ll have some that you absolutely adore … but then it’s inevitable to stumble upon the odd one who you just can’t jibe with.

If you find that you don’t mesh with your first-year Core/Foundations professors, take a deep breath and move on—you don’t have to agree with their methods of teaching to get something out of the class. Remember that you will only have them for one semester and that this is just a small portion of your college academic experience.

I want to double major, but I’ve heard conflicting opinions about it. Any input?

Whether you’re a Barnard or Columbia student, you won’t have to declare your major until sophomore year, so you can still weigh these pros and cons for a while longer if you’re seriously considering it.

The pros? Hopefully, you’re studying something extra that you love. Plus, an extra major never hurt anyone’s résumé.

The cons? This isn’t the answer you want to hear, but an additional major doesn’t do that much for your résumé, especially if acquiring it has caused your grades in either majors to drop. Many with the hope of double majoring have the idea that it will help them get a job, get into graduate school, etc., but this is blatantly false—it might be more advisable to spend the additional time doing extracurriculars related to your career path.

Ask yourself this: Why are you double majoring, if majoring in just one thing and then taking a handful of classes in another subject may be just as valuable?

There’s a lot to say on this subject—for anyone wanting to consider the full list of double majoring pros and cons, make sure to check out this article.

But everyone else is going to be so much smarter than me. How will I be able to compete for grades, internships, awards, etc.?

Impostor syndrome is definitely a thing here (so you are by no means the only person worrying about this), but accept the fact that none of you ended up at Barnumbia by chance. Pay attention to what opportunities are available to you, not those which your peers may take away.

Grades? It’s not uncommon for an exam average to be around 70 percent (or even 50 percent if you’re in the School of Engineering and Applied Science), and many tests and classes are curved. Office hours are also an option, as are tutoring programs. (Some departments, such as the French department, even have their own tutors.)

Internships? There are so many listings on LionSHARE and NACELink that there will always be another opportunity if the one you had your eye on doesn’t work out.

Awards? Sure, University-wide recognitions (such as invitations to Phi Beta Kappa in your junior or senior year) are less common, but departments will give out their own awards as you approach graduation. Plus, contrary to what your Common App-adjusted self may be thinking, awards are not nearly as important as other things when one is on the job hunt—it’s all about previous experience and networking.

Just how bad is it to miss a class? I don’t want to skip one day and then be drowning for the rest of the month.

The answer to this depends on the course. Despite what some professors would like you to believe, missing one class is not the end of the world, nor does it mean you’ll be playing catch-up for the next two weeks. Things happen—they know it. If it happens to you, or if you can anticipate it, here’s the proper class-missing etiquette to follow:

Absence in a lecture with TAs

For the love of all things sweet and kind, do not email the main professor if you miss a class. If you have a TA, email them and ask if you can meet during their office hours to discuss the material missed.

Absence in a lecture without TAs

There’s no need to email the professor—they are teaching several classes and are fielding inquiries about course content and the like, so emails about absences will probably just annoy them. Ask a friend in the class (or even just the person next to you) if you can take a picture of their notes from the day you missed.

Foreseen absence in a small class

Email your professor about your absence two weeks in advance, and then politely remind them in-person after the class before the one you are to miss. Schedule a time during their office hours to discuss what you missed, or coordinate in advance with a classmate who can fill you in on what you missed.

Unforeseen absence in a small class

Email your professor as soon as you can with an explanation for your absence. Let them know when you will attend their office hours or that you’ll communicate with a classmate to get the information you missed.

What if I hate all the classes I picked and then am stuck with them for the rest of the semester?

While this dilemma may read as any student’s worst nightmare, rest assured that you will likely figure out if a class is or is not for you during the shopping period from September 5-15. These 11 days will give you at least four opportunities (perhaps more, depending on how frequently the class meets) to attend the class, see what the teaching style of your professor is like, figure out what the workload is like, and decide if you have time for it in your schedule and enjoy the class.

Even if you discover that you’ve made the wrong decision about keeping a class on your schedule after the shopping period ends, you can still choose to drop it without a “W,” withdrawal, up until November 16—just make sure you stay above the minimum 12-credit requirement.

Textbooks are hella expensive, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford them. What do I do?

We know this struggle is all too real. Fortunately for you, most professors couldn’t care less about where you get the book from—here are three alternative methods to buying your books outright, and also a side-by-side price comparison of buying and renting options at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Culture, and the Columbia Bookstore. Just make sure you pay attention to the edition assigned for the course—it’ll make it a lot easier to keep up in class when you’re not trying to figure out where page 78 in their edition is in your edition.

I want to make a good impression. How can I get my professor to like me?

The answer to this one is simple—go to class, participate, and show up at office hours.

Since most of you will be in Lit Hum, UWriting, or First-Year Seminar/Writing, you’ll get a taste of smaller, seminar-style classes, which are the most conducive classroom settings to forming good relationships with your professors. You’ll get to speak with them face-to-face at least twice a week and will actually receive their feedback (rather than a TA’s) on your assignments—many of them will even require students to come to office hours at least once or twice during the semester to talk about whatever essay you’re working on at the moment.

It’s harder but not impossible to get to know professors in lectures. Your professor will have office hours open to students (check when and where it meets on the syllabus), and even though they’re all knowledgable—and perhaps even low-key (or high-key) famous—in their respective fields, they’re usually more than happy to meet with undergraduates to talk about the course material. Just make sure you’ve done the reading (IMPORTANT!) before showing up and have good questions to ask.

(Don’t forget that most lectures will have a number of TAs to lead discussion sections and grade exams. Even though TAs are usually grad students, it’s still important to get on their good side since they have more control over your grades then you might think. Make sure you figure out when their office hours are as well.)

The good thing about being a first-year is that your professors and TAs recognize and understand that you’re still new to the game. Your first essay for UWriting doesn’t get the grade you hope for? Keep working at it and your professor will likely note your progress when they report the final grade. Need additional help to study for the midterm or final? Professors and TAs may offer extra office hours just for you and your classmates. Even though it’s normal for all first-years to worry about some of the above academic fears, be conscious and take advantage of the resources Columbia provides to help you succeed.


Have any other first-year fears that we can trample into the dust? Tell us about them here, or on our Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat @CUSpectrum.

Veronica Grace Taleon is Spectrum’s editor and a Barnard junior. One of her fears upon coming to Barnumbia was whether she’d be able to find a group as dedicated to watching Jeopardy nightly as she was. Of course she had more substantial worries, too, but this is the only one she can remember now. Reach her at

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