Around this time last week, my younger sister was supposed to have her high school graduation. While that’s not possible right now, I’m still watching as she churns out enrollment paperwork for her new school. I remember how scared I was the summer before I went off to school. In preparation, I swear I watched every college advice vlog on youtube and talked to any and every person that Yale sent to put my mind at ease. I still made a lot of mistakes my first year–that’s inevitable. But if I had it to do again, here are 9 things I wish I had known before college.
You have not peaked
It might feel like the last twelve years of your education were culminating in this moment, and that’s not your fault. For years, people have justified the late nights they spent slaving over calculus or running from one extracurricular to the next with some version of the argument: “it looks good on a college application.”
Regardless of if it made a difference, you’re joining the minority of the earth’s population who will go to college. There are great things ahead of you and getting into a selective college will not be your life’s greatest achievement. Framed this way, it seems obvious. You are 18 years old, and it would be sad if the single greatest moment in your life had already occurred. But that does mean that the road ahead is still hard. The Common App is not the last time you’ll have to sell yourself to a panel of seemingly arbitrary evaluators.
Adjusting to college will be hard, like adjusting to high school or middle school was. You might have to change the way you do certain things, but this growing process is good. It means you’re learning!
So congrats on getting into school. You earned it! But this is a beginning, just as much as it’s an end. Remember that.
Professors are not out to get you
In high school, teachers often punctuate their leniency on grading or accepting late work with the words “but college professors won’t be so nice.”
Here’s a secret: a lot of the time, they’re actually nicer, you just have to communicate. In my first year, I was scared my professors were judging me, my writing, and my contributions in class. While that’s true to a point (they are grading you, after all), professors don’t want people to fail. Most of them have your best interests at heart.
Listen, college is not real life. The papers, projects, and tests you spend hours slaving over are all for your personal edification and learning. You have the rare opportunity to have someone who knows a lot more about the thing you’re trying to do give you feedback as you improve. Sometimes, especially around midterms or finals, it doesn’t feel like such a privilege. It’s easy to get weighed down by academic stress and lose sight of what made you fall in love with the school in the first place. Just know, professors aren’t the enemy.
They can help you process your jumbled thoughts into a paper outline. I’ve had countless one-on-one meetings with professors that have not only clarified my confusion about class but also helped me understand the material in a deeper way. If you tell professors a week in advance, many are happy to grant extensions or even move test dates around.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions in class if you don’t understand. Go to office hours (even over Zoom) and talk to your professor, even if you don’t have questions about the homework. Seriously, some professors have office hours every week, and they sit alone because nobody comes. Aside from learning more and making your life easier, you’ll eventually need a letter of recommendation or references. It’s hard for a professor to write anything meaningful if they don’t know who you are. You can’t lose here.
Pick a planner and use it
Between class, meetings with professors, clubs, meeting up with friends, and homework, there’s simply too much to keep up with. You need some way to organize everything whether it’s GCal, a physical planner, or just a notebook.
When you start a class, you’ll get a syllabus (or some digital equivalent) with all the projects, readings,and tests for the entire semester on it. Take time to put those in your calendar, so you’ll know what’s coming.
Every week on Sunday, I take thirty minutes to write out my assignments, appointments, and meetings for the week. I divide my assignments into smaller tasks and give myself checkpoints throughout the week. For example, if I have a 300-page novel to read by Tuesday, I might divide that over the two weeks before that Tuesday so I only have to read about 21 pages a day. It may seem like a waste of time, but planning can save you time and stress in the long run.
As you’re putting together your schedule, I don’t know which professors at your school are hard graders or which ones will turn out to be your lifelong mentors. One practical thing I can offer is that you need to eat lunch–every day. When I drafted my first college schedule, I completely forgot about that. I had classes from 10:30 AM to 2 PM. Thankfully, someone talked me out of it.
It’s easy to get swept up in the novelty of college and forget about the basic things you need to be a functioning human. Friendly reminder: you need to sleep for more than six hours per day, laundry takes way longer than you want it to, and things get dirty when mom doesn’t tidy up after you.
Just because things are changing, doesn’t mean that you’re back to square one. You know what you need to work at your best, and you don’t become superhuman because you move away from home. Know yourself. If that means not taking 8 AM classes because you do your best work at 2 AM, don’t sign up for those classes this semester! If it means setting aside more time than other people to finish readings for class, there’s no shame in doing that.
Make time for the things you love
On a similar note, make time for what you love doing. There seem to be two main responses to the freedom of college: doing whatever you want at the expense of your classwork or becoming chronically stressed and constantly working.
The optimal college life is somewhere in the middle, but that looks different for everyone. Don’t ignore your assignments or leave a 10-page paper for the day before it’s due, but schoolwork will always be there. It seems to expand to fill whatever time you have, so you need to create time for things you enjoy.
One potential way to do this is to join clubs dedicated to your hobbies. This way you have a community and structure to help you make the time. Sometimes, even that can be stressful. I always schedule myself 24 full hours to not do work every week in the form of a sabbath.
Seek out advice from people older than you, then take it
Possibly the dumbest thing I did first-year was to assume that I was uniquely out of place. People would say things like “if you have questions, other people probably do too, so you should just ask” or “everyone feels like they don’t belong sometimes, but they really do”, and I would assume that I was the exception to the rule or that they just didn’t understand the specific nuance of what I was going through. Maybe they didn’t. But a lot of that advice, especially older people’s advice, pans out over time.
Sometimes, you have to take it on faith that things will work out. And if an upperclassman tells you that taking a fifth class is a terrible idea for your first semester, believe them.
You probably picked your college for the campus or the classes or even the clubs within it, but don’t miss everything around it. College should not be a bubble, there’s a whole community of people outside of that world who you can be learning from.
The majority of what you learn in college is never taught in a classroom, so don’t just be friends with people who are the same age as you. Make non-school friends who are already adult-ing. They’ve already walked through the crazy stage of life you’re in. Even if they didn’t go to your school, their insights are still valuable.
Remember we’re all faking it
The great (yet terrifying) thing about starting college is that it’s new to everyone. Remember that the one thing you and everyone else have in common is that all of you have made it this far, but none of you have done this before. The person who has somehow already published a book, the super-smart kid whose private high school tuition was more than your current college tuition, and the person who started an international non-profit before they could vote don’t really know what they’re doing either.
I met with my pre-law mentor last semester, and I was stressing because “everyone” was already networking for law school. My mentor shook her head and reminded me that none of those people have gotten into law school before either. Why should I take what they’re doing as the template?
There are amazing things that you will learn from your peers, but there are also a set of assumptions that people might not realize they’re making. At Yale, there’s an unspoken assumption that moving to New York after school is somehow inherently better than moving to a city in the South. That’s not true for everyone, but those collective assumptions shape what people value and the actions they take in the meantime.
The secret about impostor syndrome
Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you don’t really deserve your accomplishments because you succeeded by luck/mistake. It is often coupled with the fear of being exposed as a fraud. According to this article in The Journal of Behavioral Science, an estimated 70% of people struggle with these feelings at some point in their lives.
I hope you never experience impostor syndrome, but I really struggled with it my first year. If you do, I have two pieces of advice:
There are two ways to deal with impostor syndrome.
You can bottle it up, further isolating yourself from the people around you. Or you can press deeper into the community and really get to know the people around you. In doing so, you’ll realize they feel the same way you do. No one knows what they’re doing at this age, and that doesn’t have to be terrifying.
Admissions doesn’t make mistakes unless you let them
The second piece of advice is actually something my first linguistics professor told me on my first day of college:
The admissions office doesn’t make mistakes, not unless you let them. By making it here, you’ve already done something that over 90% of people will never do. You’ve already accomplished the impossible. It’s like you’ve won the golden ticket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Some people got theirs by buying every chance they could possibly get. Maybe that’s why they’re so sure they deserve it– it felt like an inevitability. Maybe you feel like Charlie, like you had one shot, and you got really lucky. But regardless of how you got here, it’s only the beginning of the story. It’s what you do now that counts.
The point of college is learning
You’re in college to learn. There will be things you don’t know, experiences you haven’t had yet, and insights to glean. In fact, you might have to relearn some of the things on this list. I got plenty of advice before college, but there’s often a disconnect between head knowledge and emotions.
If you forget everything I said, just remember that if you already knew everything, you wouldn’t need to go to college. You won’t love every second of your college experience. You will make mistakes and maybe even accidentally embarrass yourself in ways that your friends will never let you forget.
Don’t constantly try to orchestrate the perfect experience. Instead, learn to enjoy 4 imperfect years which will include lots of mistakes, new friends, growth, and laughing until you cry.
You’ll do great.