How Can Young Adults Keep Themselves Safe at College?

Patient Presentation
A 18-year-old male came to clinic for his health supervision visit. He was going to college in a city several hours away and wanted to make sure he had enough of his medication before leaving. The past medical history was positive for attention deficit disorder primarily inattentive type, that was diagnosed in early elementary school. He had good relief of symptoms with a consistent dose of Concerta® for several years. His immunizations, including human papilloma virus and meningococcal meningitis vaccines, were current.

The pertinent physical exam showed a healthy male with normal vital signs. The diagnosis of a healthy male with ADD was made. His physician recommended that he have a local health and mental health provider identified to help with any mental health or health care issues he might have at school. Additionally, the physician discussed some general safety recommendations such as having a carbon monoxide detector and fire extinguisher in his dorm room. He also discussed party and date safety.

Going away to college or moving away from home brings new challenges for adolescent and young adults. New surroundings, situations, responsibilities and fewer trusted adults to help advise combine to provide new challenges for young adults. Simple things like not taking your keys with you or locking a door having different potential consequences in a new dorm or apartment. Using common sense and trusting one’s instinct and planning ahead usually keeps most young adults safe in many situations.

Learning Point
Tips for student going off to college include:

    Get yourself ready

    • Trust your instincts – if it feels wrong or seems wrong, then something probably is. Don’t make things worse by ignoring your instinct. Make a good choice – avoid or leave a situation.
    • Your cellphone is a tool. Keep it fully charged and take it with you. Have contacts entered into speed dial including police, fire, hospital, friends and family.
    • If you have specific health problems or take medicines, put that information in your cellphone too so people can help you if needed.
    • Identify help at school before you need it – student health service, mental health professional, pharmacy and a hospital. Keep a list of your hometown doctors, hospital etc. too.
    • Get a supply of your medications and know where you can get refills. You may or may not be considering having sex. Have, or know where to obtain, contraceptives to protect you, your partner or a friend.
    • You will be living in close quarters and infections travel fast. Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizers.
    • Make sure your immunizations are up to date especially meningococcal vaccine and yearly influenza vaccine. If you are traveling internationally, plan ahead w.ith enough time to get all additional vaccines and medicines.
    • Get a lanyard for your ID/keys and emergency cash. Keep a whistle with it for safety. Don’t mark your keys with your name, address, phone, license number etc. As if they are found they can provide access to your home or car. Only give a parking attendant the keys to your car, never your dorm/apartment.
    • Get insurance for your personal articles and car.

    Watch out for the other guy/gal

    • There is safety in numbers. Develop some friends (buddy system) you can trust – people who know where you are going, when you will return, people who will look out for you and people you can call anytime. Remember that people have to earn your trust. Don’t assume someone you just met will look out for you.
    • Do the same for your friends. Be the good friend even if it is an inconvenience for you. If it is a bad situation, don’t compound the problem. Do what is right for everyone’s safety and health and call the police, ambulance, etc.. Better to talk to them than to explain things to the coroner, funeral home and your friend’s family.
    • Keep people informed – your don’t have to tell everyone everything, but letting people know where you are going, when you will return and whom you are going out with is polite and can keep you safe.
    • Have a code word so that if you are in a situation you can communicate your discomfort without the person you are with knowing.

    General Safety

    • Know your way around campus. Walk around the buildings during the day and at night to make sure they are well lit, secured and patrolled. Avoid shortcuts.
    • Know where the emergency telephones are located.
    • Know several routes to use. Stick to well-lit and busy areas.
    • If you think someone is following you, go in another direction that is better lit, has more activity etc.
    • When walking:
      • Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t talk on the phone or listen to your music while walking – you are easy prey then.
      • Walk like you are calm, confident and know where you are going even if you don’t.
      • Keep your keys out and ready to use for your dorm, apartment, car or bike.
      • Keep your hands otherwise free.
      • Keep your whistle or have pepper spray handy.
      • Walk on the street side of the sidewalk away from shrubs, doorways etc. where people could be hiding.
    • At night: NEVER walk alone. If your friend is leaving, leave with them.
      Use the campus escort service or call a taxi.

    • Use your trusted friends and buddy system.
    • Be aware of your people and don’t be afraid to report suspicious activity.
    • If you need to:
      • Lie – Make up a reason to go or to stay.
      • Do something to bring attention and bring help.
      • Make a lot of noise – blow your whistle, pull the fire alarm, shout.
      • Stand in the middle of the road where there are brighter lights and you can see what is happening around you.


    • Never give your keys to someone else. They now have access to everything you did.
    • Always lock your room, even for a minute. Remember, your dorm room/apartment is open. Only your actual room is locked and kept locked by you all the time.
    • Lock first and second story windows when not in the room and at night
    • Use the central dorm/apartment entrance to come and go. It is usually monitored and there are more people there. It also makes it safer for everyone, because other people can easily sneak into other entrances.
    • Don’t prop doors open or allow people access.
    • Rekey your locks if your key is lost or stolen
    • Don’t leave valuables in plain sight
    • Follow your dorms rules about cooking and electronic items and extension cords. Don’t use candles and incense.
    • Have portable fir and carbon monoxide alarms and a fire extinguisher in your room.
    • Be aware of your neighbors and don’t be afraid to report suspicious activity.


    • Don’t bring them to campus.
    • Don’t leave them or any other personal property unattended
    • Keep them locked up if possible.
    • Register them with local law enforcement – cars, bikes etc.
    • Engrave them with identification so they can be more easily tracked and returned
    • ATMs – use ATMs located inside a building and never count cash there. Count cash when you are in a secure location.


    • Have your keys ready to unlock before you get to the car.
    • Always look in the backseat before getting in
    • Always lock your car as soon as you are inside and when you leave the car
    • Don’t leave valuables in plain sight or in the glove box.
    • Park your car in well-lit places, close to activity
    • If you think someone is following you, go to a police or fire station, gas or convenience store or other open place to get help.
    • Always keep more than 1/4 tank of gasoline, so you don’t run out of gas. Keep your spare tire inflated, a set of jumper cables handy.
    • If your car breaks down, roll up all the windows, turn on the emergency flashers, and stay in the car until help arrives. Don’t open the car unless trusted assistance arrives like police, or a wrecker service that you have called.
    • Enroll in a motorist assistance program like AAA
    • Don’t mark your keys with your name, address, phone, license number etc. If they are found they can provide access to your home or car. Only give a parking attendant the keys to your car, never your dorm/apartment.
    • Never pick up hitchhikers. Consider your safety before agreeing to share a ride with someone.

    Parties and Activities

    • Before going out to a party or activity, always have a friend with you and decide in advance when you will leave. Always leave together. Do not stay somewhere alone. Check in with your friends during the party/activity to make sure they are safe.
    • Plan in advance how you are going to get home.
    • Take a cellphone and emergency cash with you.
    • Don’t accept drinks from someone you don’t trust. Always pour your own drinks and always keep control of your drinks, so someone cannot tamper with them. If you put it down, do not drink it, get another. Rape drugs can easily be put into drinks without you knowing.

    Drinking and Drugs

    • Don’t do illegal activities.
    • Drugs and alcohol decrease your ability to care for yourself and make good decisions.
    • Don’t drink if you are under aged. Don’t put yourself in situations where people can think you are drinking under aged.
    • Don’t do drugs.
    • If you do drink, drink responsibly.
    • If someone has drunk too much, make sure they get home and are okay. Stay with them if needed or get medical help. Remember to do what is right for everyone’s safety and health. Call the police, ambulance or other help.


    • Use common sense. If your instincts say something is not right, get out of the situation.
    • Going out in a group is safer, especially for first, blind dates or people you have met online. Meet in public places.
    • Always tell your trusted friends where you are going and when you will return.
    • Plan in advance how you are going to get home.
    • Take a cellphone and emergency cash with you.
    • Don’t leave a party/activity with someone you have just met.
    • Plan ahead to protect yourself and your partner from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Remember, contraceptives do not work if they are left in your wallet, purse, etc..

      For any person, male or female, saying “No” means No. Period. No discussion. The person does not want to have sex.

    • Never have sex with anyone who is inebriated or passed out. This is sexual assault.
    • Just because someone dresses in a certain way, agrees to go home with you, is kissing you or performing other sexual intimacies, previously had sex with you, or anything else, DOES NOT MEAN THEY AGREE TO HAVE SEXUAL INTERCOURSE WITH YOU.
    • Never force or coerce someone into have sex. If you see someone who appears to be pressuring or forcing someone into a sexual or other situation, do not be afraid to intervene or call for help.
    • Always check with your partner, several times to see if they still are consenting to have sex.
    • If sexual violence occurs, get help right away by calling the police, or crisis phone numbers, or going to the hospital.


    • Set up virus protection and firewalls on your laptop.
    • Don’t use public Wi-Fi, when transmitting personal or financial information
    • Use pseudonyms online and don’t give out personal information like your address, phone etc. If you call someone you met online, use phone number ID blockers
    • Check your privacy settings on social media monthly
    • Be careful of your “away” messages as this can tell people of your activities.

Questions for Further Discussion
1. What other safety equipment should a college student have available?
2. What other tips do you recommend to college students?

Related Cases

To Learn More
To view pediatric review articles on this topic from the past year check PubMed.

Evidence-based medicine information on this topic can be found at, the National Guideline Clearinghouse and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

Information prescriptions for patients can be found at MedlinePlus for this topic: College Health.

To view current news articles on this topic check Google News.

To view images related to this topic check Google Images.

To view videos related to this topic check YouTube Videos.

Sarkis S. 50 Tips for College Students.
Available from the Internet at (rev. 8/23/10, cited 3/3/15).

Campus Safety Magazine. Back-to-School Safety Tips. 9/7/2011
Available from the Internet at (rev. 9/7/11, cited 3/3/15).

State Farm Insurance. 15 Safety Tips for College Students.
Available from the Internet at (rev. 7/18/13, cited 3/3/15).

Hoyt E. Top 10 Safety Tips for College Students.
Available from the Internet at (rev. 6/27/14, cited 3/3/15).

Loyola University. Safety Tips For Students While at College.
Available from the Internet at (rev. 2015, cited 3/3/15).


Donna M. D’Alessandro, MD
Professor of Pediatrics, University of Iowa Children’s Hospital