Quick Tips for New College Students

by George Huang

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The Very First Thing

Make friends!!!  Especially someone who is local to the college neighborhood.  You need to learn a lot of things very quickly:

Good places to get friends, besides those in your dorm, are the extracurricular groups on campus.  Those upperclassmen are eager to know and help you.  So join one of interest at the extracurricular activity fair or contact them via e-mail before you even arrive at your new home.

Finding a Bank

In the U.S., banks are licensed on a state-by-state basis, and so the bank your parents use may not be available at your college neighborhood.  So don't rush to open an account without checking out the availability of branches first.  Transferring money between different banks are very easy nowadays so using different banks is not a major obstacle to money transfer anymore.

Most banks have special account for college students that have low or no minimum balance requirements, fees, and extra conveniences.  But you are not required to open such accounts.  Compare your usage and decide what's the best deal for you.

In college, you are much more likely to withdraw money than to deposit money, and so you want to pay attention to the locations of ATMs.  For safety reasons, you want to know which banks' ATMs are on campus and in safer locations.  Many banks have contracts with retailers so they always have an ATM at specific stores (e.g., Citibank ATMs at 7-Elevens).  So research online before opening up an account.

Getting a Credit Card

Getting the very first credit card is hard because you don't have a credit history.  There are, however, two guaranteed ways to get your first credit card and build up your credit history.  First is the credit cards that your bank offers.  In fact, this is likely something that the banks will ask you when you open an account nowadays.  They want to sell you a comprehensive package and make you less likely to switch to another bank in the future.

The second source is a credit card company affiliated with your school.  They may be a bit tougher to get than the one from your bank, but normally they don't turn anyone down unless they see a bad mark on your credit report.

Getting Cheap Textbooks

The minute you know what classes you want to take, go to the bookstore and find the assigned textbooks.  Buy used ones if they are available.  Used ones may have valuable notes in them and they cost about ¼ less.  You can also buy online at many bookstores and textbook exchanges.  If you find a textbook online for a lot less, you can always return the ones you buy from the school bookstore within the first few weeks of the semester.

Some books are available in the library as “reserved” – you can check them out for a few hours each time.  For some books that you don't need to read often, that may be good enough for you.  Some books are actually available for checking out because the school has more copies than needed for reserves.  (I survived one semester without buying any textbooks once.  Just keep renewing and get your friends to help you if you have to.)

Must-have Equipments

First and foremost is a good computer that's reliable, and has service plans with a retailer near the school so you can always get help if needed.  You don't have to get a top-of-the-line machine; just one that does what you need.  A majority of college students use Macs, but the documents are so interchangeable nowadays that there's no real issue between the Macs and PCs anymore.  Still, check with your advisor from your field of study to see what they prefer.  They may have special instructional software for one series but not the other.

You can buy software with educational discount, and these are often found on-campus.  So don't buy the software at home before you can take advantage of this.

You may also want a highly portable unit that you can take to libraries, classrooms, etc.  You'll spend a lot of time in the libraries, and so you'll hate taking that heavy laptop around.  A 10-inch netbook is good for research and taking notes but not for typing long documents.  Things like iPad is cool to look at and play with, but not practical for doing real work.

A second monitor does wonders for you, and with LCD monitors being so cheap and small, getting a second one shouldn't be an issue.  Once you have tried using two monitors, you'll never want to go back to just one.  (Personally I have four monitors attached to my desktop PC at work!)

You should get a black-and-white multi-functional laser printer that can also copy and scan stuff.  Here's the most important reason: You cannot legally photocopy copyrighted materials (e.g., books), and some copy centers enforce that rule.  At the libraries, you may run into problems if you photocopy too many pages of a book also.  So you may want to do that in your room.  You will be very, very popular with your dormmates also.

Why not ink-based machines?  Ink-based machines are cheap but their operational costs are much, much higher.  So get a laser B/W printer for yourself and borrow your roommates' color printer when needed.  And always keep an extra toner cartridge handy.

Online backup is a must.  Your school should have such services for you.  Still, buy a few flash drives to keep some documents handy.  If you use a desktop computer, you should get an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) for the machine in your dorm.  If you use a laptop, get a good surge protector.  Surges can damage your machines without warning.

Bring extra USB cables (A-B and extension), a mouse, and Ethernet cables.  These are expensive if you have to buy them at a convenience store.  Get a good cooling pad for your laptop because it will be on for hours most days (and nights).

Do you need a device that gets you Internet everywhere you go?  These are expensive, and so check for wireless broadband connectivity on campus before you decide.  Chances are you can get wired or wireless broadband Internet in most classrooms, libraries, cafeterias on campus.  If not, then you can consider some cheaper alternatives to an aircard.  First, does your mobile phone allow tethering?  iPhones don't, but many Blackberries and Droids do.  Some new Droids can broadcast wifi on their own.  Blackberries have to go through a USB cable.  An option is to get CradlePoint PHS-300, which connects to most tether-capable phones and aircards and broadcast wifi Internet via a 802.11g hotspot (http://cradlepoint.com/products/phs300-personal-wifi-hotspot-3g4g).  It's powered by a rechargeable battery or power cord, and so you can share Internet with your friends even at a park.

One Last Tip – Taxi Rides

You'll need to take taxi rides to and from the airport if you bring any significant amount of luggage.  These are expensive.  So bring some cash and small change.  At airports, you get taxis at a centralized location, and there's usually a small line so follow the crowd.  Before you jump into the line, ask to see if other students (they shouldn't be hard to spot) are going to Harvard also. You can share a taxi and split the cost.  If someone needs to get off before you do, that person should pay for half of the bill at that time.  You should figure out the precise location to get off to minimize dragging your luggage.  Print a map to show the driver where your dorm is and where is the closest place they can park temporarily.