SOME students arrive at college knowing just what they want and where they're going. Majors in engineering, pre-med, or visual arts, for example, have tightly organized, often predetermined schedules. But many more do not.
One recent study showed that students choose an average of three or four majors during four years in college. The need for guidance and support is considerable - especially at big state universities where a freshman can easily get lost in the shuffle. (Eighty percent of all students go to 20 percent of the colleges in the United States.)
Even students who do not need help in selecting courses may be surprised by that D on the calculus midterm, or be tormented by a sloppy, beer-chugging roommate.
``Students - even the best - can't always anticipate what college will be like,'' says David Holmes of the University of Vermont, who has done several national surveys on college counseling. ``It's a new life, a new situation. Yet it's possible for someone to go through two years of school without ever speaking to an adult.''
``Kids today are very independent,'' says Charles Karelis of the United States Department of Education, former chairman of the Williams College philosophy department. ``They don't feel like they need anyone.''
Yet most serious educators say student contact with older adults is essential.
Harvard's venerable David Riesman feels adult influence and models in and out of class are essential as forms of education. If properly sought out and met with, older adults can help students avoid the cookie-cutter stamp of the impersonal university, he says.
In seeking out guidance, however, students should be careful, ask questions, compare viewpoints, and explore both official and unofficial contacts on campus, most say.
The freshman adviser is the most common first one-on-one contact. The adviser may be a regular faculty member or a staff administrator.
At large schools, students sometimes get only 10 to 15 minutes with them. Regardless, students should come prepared to talk as well as listen. Faculty members - with their academic aura, acres of books, and PhDs - can be intimidating to students used to high school guidance counselors.
But it's the adviser's responsibility to break the ice and reach out, the experts say. At the same time, students should be prepared to talk about themselves and have several clear topics of discussion prepared, such as alternative majors and directions. This might seem basic, but ``I can't tell you how many times I've seen students sit in front of a professor and say nothing - a blank,'' says Mr. Holmes.
The most common student stress points have to do with grades and peer culture. This is compounded by concern about parents, who are laying a lot of money on the line for school.
Most schools have counseling services with staff trained to help find study groups for students who need personal or academic help.
``These people tend to be highly committed and non-threatening,'' says Holmes. ``The problem is getting students to go through the door the first time.''
Sometimes it isn't until midterm grades are released that students know they have a problem. The mistake, says Holmes, is for students to try to avoid the problem - not face it - by hanging out with their friends.
But unofficial advisers are often an important source of guidance and help. The right professor, teaching assistant, or graduate student can turn around a problem.
Willard Enteman, provost of Rhode Island University, suggests that students plug into the campus grapevine to find the best person for the question or circumstance. ``The vine is not always that bad a place to go - over the years, students prove good at sniffing out the fakes,'' he says.
Dr. Riesman, though, cautions about professors - often with huge hidden egos - who cultivate student ``groupies.''
Residence hall advisers can be an excellent source of information or counsel about what professors or services to seek out. They know the network, Holmes says, and they are supposed to be trained about the need for confidentiality.
In all cases, most educators advise, find faculty members who have a sincere commitment to learning, and reputations for fairness and honesty.
Dr. Enteman suggests that students start with graduate students, since they are closer in age, temperament, and cultural reference points.
``As professors get grayer, they are less patient with adolescent problems,'' he says. ``Now that my children are out of college, I may be less interested in dating problems.''
At the same time, Riesman warns about graduate students who can be bitter, sarcastic, or manipulative with young minds. As Holmes puts it, ``The faculty may not always be aware of the power of their influence.''
That's why most educators consulted say students should seek help and direction from several sources and feel free (tactfully) to change official advisers or personal confidants at any time.
``Look to a number of sources, talk to other people - that's part of the process,'' says Enteman.
Many schools have turned to the student body itself to establish ``peer support.'' Successful or empathetic seniors and juniors (often volunteers) have in some places been effective in helping fellow students. West Virginia Wesleyan, however, has been questioning this type of support - citing cases in which untrained or immature students have done more harm than good.
At religious colleges, students often turn to meditation or prayer as a way of thinking and reasoning in a quiet, unhurried way.
Religious denominations at most major colleges have student support groups. Again, some are reportedly better than others. Unaware students glad for the solace, friendship, and help of some aggressive, proselytizing religious groups have found support gets tied to a demand to commit to the particular faith or theology.
Finally, Holmes and others agree that the individual students must increasingly learn to rely on themselves.
That runs counter to the prevailing atmosphere, says Holmes, where there's a ``cult of doing everything the easiest way,'' and where the most popular students on campus appear to get by without doing much, ``being and looking cool.''
``That doesn't work for most of us, though,'' he says. The business of becoming educated and organizing one's life is often a lengthy, difficult process.
It's like taking courses in calculus and physics, he says: ``There's just no substitute for three hours a night.''