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Preparing for Decision Day with Dr. Tim Miller, VP of Student Affairs at James Madison University

Deciding on "the right" college is a big decision that can feel overwhelming. Last year as I was making my decision, I procrastinated until just a few days before the May 1st deadline to make my final decision. Thinking about the big transition to come in just a few months and how drastically my life was about to change contributed to my delay in decision-making. I wanted to make sure I picked the place that would be the best for me and provide me with the resources I need to make the most out of the next four years. I’m a person who struggles to decide what I want to eat for lunch, so the task of picking a college was incredibly daunting to me. 

What does it mean to be at a university where you belong?

When trying to decide what school to pick, the concept of “fit” was a big factor for me, as it is for many students. To get a better understanding of "college fit," I talked to Dr. Tim Miller, Vice President of Student Affairs at James Madison University (JMU), where I'm a freshman. Dr. Miller shared his insights on the importance of connection, belonging, and the challenges freshmen face as they transition to college life, as well as how schools and students can make the transition easier and help whatever college you choose feel like a better fit.

The essence of college fit

At its core, finding the "right" college is about more than just academic programs and campus amenities. It’s about discovering a place where you can be “authentically you.”

Dr. Miller emphasizes that it’s about students feeling “welcomed into spaces for who they are” and finding their people, their place, and their homes on campus. This can be in student organizations, residence halls, clubs, etc.

Dr. Miller advises students to find multiple “connection points.” He has noticed that the happiest students are the ones who have found belonging and connection in multiple different groups on campus where they feel comfortable being themselves. 

Navigating the transition from high school to college

Dr. Miller notes that for most students, coming to college is “the most change they’ve ever experienced in their entire lives.” To make the transition easier, JMU, like many other universities, offers support, like summer orientation programs, to make the adjustment feel more manageable. These programs can help foster connections among students before classes even begin.

Mental health and student success

Mental health is a big deal on JMU's campus, as it is on many college campuses. JMU has a program called “Timely Care,” which offers up to 12 sessions of counseling and psychiatry, as well as an emergency line. This system ensures students have access to essential mental health services, even during breaks and over the summer.

Different universities have their own systems in place, so don’t hesitate to ask your specific institution what services they offer. Mental health is something to take seriously, so make sure you’re comfortable with how a university handles mental health care. 

Mastering time management

Being a current freshman in college, I can attest that one of the most significant (and important) adjustments for new college students is learning how to manage unstructured time efficiently. Dr. Miller has some tips on helping students allocate their hours wisely between academics, sleep, and social activities. 

He recommends having a consistent sleep schedule and waking up at the same time every morning, even if your first class of the day varies throughout the week. For example: if your first class is at 8AM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and at 10:50 on Tuesday and Thursday, continuing to go to bed at 11 and waking up at 7 – even on the days that your class starts later – will help your sleep be more consistent. 

Dr. Miller also recommends having a detailed calendar or planner to organize every part of your day – including blocking out study times between classes, or designating times to eat lunch. “I find most students who are overwhelmed by time just have no structure and no habits on how to manage time,” Dr. Miller observes. It's important to develop these skills early on in your college career. 

Preparing for the college transition

For students about to start their freshman year, Dr. Miller suggests talking to their families about expectations, safety, and life skills like cooking and laundry. These conversations and preparations can ease the transition into college life and set students up for success once they arrive on campus. Given that this will be many students’ first experience living independently, acquiring self-care skills in the months before move-in can help to make the adjustment smoother.

Adapting to college classes and coursework is challenging in itself, so learning self management and self-care skills beforehand can prevent students from having to learn both at the same time. 

Listening to your gut

As decision day approaches, Dr. Miller offers a piece of advice for choosing the right college. “One of the places you visit will feel right…there’s something in your gut on a college visit that will tell you this is or isn’t the right place,” he says. That feeling can be a guide in selecting a school.

Reflecting on my decision-making process last year, I remember hoping that there would be an obvious choice – that one of the schools on my list would “check all the boxes” and be the clear winner. I would get in my head about which school would set me up for a more successful career. I was fairly confident that JMU was the right choice when it was time to make my decision, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was still a degree of uncertainty. Those hesitations evaporated pretty soon after I arrived in August; I was able to settle in well and am extremely happy with my decision, and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. However, I also recognize that if I had chosen one of the other schools on my list, I probably would feel the same way – happy and at home.

Although this is a big decision, much of your success comes from you. Apply yourself and take advantage of whatever school you pick offers, and you’ve got a good chance of being happy with your decision. For example, since coming to JMU I’ve leaned into doing things I enjoy: I joined two school orchestras, made good friends in my hall who also love playing card games, pledged a business fraternity and even learned how to play racquetball.

Walking around campus, it feels like a fit. 

About the Author

Cecilia is EWC's Operations Assistant and current freshman at James Madison University.

"I'm currently a marketing major at James Madison University, so the challenges and excitement of applying to college are still fresh in my mind! I'm learning so much about entrepreneurship with each new task I tackle. I also enjoy being able to share the perspective of a recent college applicant with the EWC team. I remember how confusing applying to college felt (I graduated from Ardrey Kell in 2023), and I'm happy to be able to work with a business whose mission is to make it less stressful and more joyful! In my free time, I enjoy playing the violin, hanging out with friends and crocheting."


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