How We Did It: Students Share Academic Advice

One writer, fresh into her sophomore year, explores the pressures of succeeding academically during freshman fall.

by Parker O'Hara | 8/31/22 3:20am

by Zooriel Tan / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

This article is featured in the 2022 Freshman special issue.

Amid all the dancing, flair and excitement of First-Year Trips and Orientation Week, it can be easy to forget that Dartmouth is a college where you actually have to attend classes, do homework and take tests. Once that reality sets in, the academic transition from high school to college can seem like a formidable challenge — you are thrust into a very different academic system, a system that may be confusing to navigate and overwhelming to approach. Quarter system? Distributive requirements? Majors and minors? 

Somehow you must choose from an endless list of classes, each of which could help determine the path you take through your remaining four years at Dartmouth and your subsequent career. Beyond that, college classes themselves often look different from those in high school, and will likely include more challenging material and higher expectations. Luckily, those feelings of being overwhelmed, worried or even excited have already been felt by Dartmouth students —  myself included — who have plenty of advice and stories of their own to offer.

To give a brief overview of Dartmouth academics, the quarter system means that each student typically takes three classes per term. In true liberal arts fashion, there are 8 distributive requirements students must meet before they graduate, which means you will take classes in literature, science, social analysis and other broad academic areas. If you’re strictly a STEM person who despises writing essays or a humanities lover who panics at the idea of spending time in a lab, there’s no need to fear. There are manageable classes within each distributive requirement even for those who are stepping out of their typical academic comfort zone.

When picking classes at the end of Orientation Week, it’s great to have the distributive requirements in mind, but you shouldn’t feel obligated to tackle them immediately. Besides the first-year writing sequence every freshman must complete, there is plenty of time to get the rest of the requirements completed — and plenty of classes to fulfill each category. Freshman fall will be a much more enjoyable experience if you take classes that appeal to your interests, rather than the requirements.

Often, as Ellie McLaughlin ’25 noted, fulfilling requirements will come as a byproduct of choosing classes that interest you. 

“I never even thought about [distributive requirements]. They just came naturally when I went with what classes sounded most fun,” McLaughlin said.

Matt Koff ’25 explained how focusing on classes that interested him —  as opposed to classes that fulfilled distributive requirements —  helped him identify a potential major.

“I think that in order to find out what you want to major in and do, you shouldn’t worry too much about [distributive requirements] freshman year and just take classes that really interest you,” Koff said. “I changed majors maybe four or five times just based on the classes I was taking… Now that I have a better understanding of what I want to focus on, I’m thinking more about [distributive requirements].”

Academic exploration is key in identifying interests, even if they contradict your predetermined ideas of what your college experience would look like. Like many incoming Dartmouth students, I came to school with a fairly certain idea of what I wanted to study. I had applied with the intention of majoring in biology and following the pre-med track, which lasted an astounding two terms before I decided it wasn’t for me. Like Koff, it was the classes I took based on interest — not distributive requirements or pre-med prerequisites — that ended up illuminating some undiscovered passions in subjects I had previously shut out. 

One of these classes —  HIST 28, “American Women in the Twentieth Century” with history professor Annelise Orleck —  ended up being my favorite class of freshman year. Though I swore to myself during sophomore year of high school that I would never again take a history class if it wasn’t required, I’m incredibly glad I decided to push myself and take this one; it took a lot to put aside the apprehension I had toward history and the fear of not succeeding when I enrolled in the class. I’m now considering majoring or minoring in history, which, if I had been told in the fall, I honestly would have laughed at.  

Having an idea of what you would like to study before coming into freshman year can provide a good foundation, but it is by no means necessary. In fact, being open to trying new subjects is often far more valuable than restricting yourself to a single department or discipline chosen before coming to college. Particularly at a liberal arts institution like Dartmouth, the ability to explore academically is a gift to be taken advantage of.

Though Caitlyn King ’24 came to Dartmouth knowing she wanted to study art history, it took some exploration in other departments to verify her interests and rule out other potential disciplines.

“I discovered there were subjects that I didn’t want to continue studying. It reinforced the other things I loved to study,” King said. “And there were things that other people were doing that I figured out I didn’t want to do.”

She also stressed the importance of blocking out outside influence when making difficult academic decisions. 

“At the end of the day, you know yourself best. If you feel external pressure to do something, but in your heart you don’t want to do it, don’t do it,” she said.

King said she took some economics courses freshman year — after some direct pressure and indirect influence  — and quickly discovered that they weren’t for her. Of course, this exploration was still valuable in reaffirming King’s lack of interest in economics, but it is worth remembering that just because everyone is doing something, it doesn’t mean you must as well. 

I’ve found this particularly important as someone now considering a humanities major, like history, instead of my initial inclination toward a STEM major, like biology. Whatever interests you is worth studying —  that’s right, the humanities are just as important!

Above all else, what’s most important to remember when starting your first term at Dartmouth is that you are capable of succeeding academically. Even if it seems like everyone in your classes always knows what to say to appease the professor or perfectly understood the reading you thought was incomprehensible, chances are they are in the same position as you.

If I had taken some of my own advice freshman fall, it would’ve been a much more enjoyable experience. It’s unproductive and dangerous to follow a path of academic comparison, especially when this comparison frames your peers in an unrealistic manner.  

Koff echoed these sentiments, explaining that “the majority of people I interacted with were just as scared and intimidated as me.”

Though I unfortunately have already made it through all of the excitement, fear and about a million other emotions that come with freshman fall and can no longer benefit from some advice, you all still can. 

Koff summed it up best.

“I would tell myself to take a breath and calm down a little, try to make friends in your classes and don’t be afraid to ask questions or speak out in class because, most likely, nothing bad will come of it,” he said.