5 Things I Wish I Knew Before College

By: Carl Nelson | July 8, 2016
Topics: Education
College is many people’s first time being fully independent. With this independence comes uncertainty, and the realization that there’s a lot you didn’t know you don’t know.

Most of the wisdom you’ll gain is sure to come as a result of new and exciting challenges.

Taking a gap year is easily one of the best ways to gain self-confidence and maturity before beginning a demanding four years as a student. But whatever your plans are before freshman year, here are five tips to take the edge off.

1. Master the Art of Finding Time for Yourself

Between taking classes, writing twenty page papers, participating in clubs, making new friends, and going out on weekends, it can be hard to carve out quality alone time.

Social life in college is often 24/7, starting in the morning when your roommate insists on telling you about his weekend, continuing throughout the day until the late night cramming session with your study group, and ending as you fall asleep facetiming a high school best friend.

Intentionally planning some daily isolation can do wonders for your mental clarity. Especially in the first year of school, when so much effort goes into first impressions, being alone can be relaxing and rejuvenating. When campus life gets overwhelming, one of the best things you can do is overcoming the wrath of #FOMO.

Take a run, watch a show, make some art – if even just for a few hours. Then get back out there and make the effort!

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2. Don’t Make a Habit of Skipping and Being Late

This one depends a lot on the size of your school. At a huge university, your professor might not notice if you show up to class at all. At a small college, like mine, professors set clear standards for tardiness and attendance.

All it takes is a little humiliation to set a flake on the straight and narrow. I was never late to one particular class again after a very awkward situation involving me getting locked out and having to bang on the door during a professor’s passionate speech on personal accountability, before tip toeing through a maze of people in a tiny room while carrying a 50 pound chair over my head, which of course only fit in the far back corner.

If skipping and being late really are so convenient, consider the true benefits of flaking. Will you actually do the readings and take the notes outside of class? Or are are you just telling yourself you will, until the night before the final when you don’t recognize half the content on the study guide your studious friend just sent you.

Frequently skipping and being late is a bad look. If a class is too early, don’t take it. If a class is too boring, drop it. If it’s required for your major and you hate it, either reconsider your major or knuckle down and stay motivated.

But every now and then, when you’re too cold to get out of bed and the weather’s crap, feel free to turn off your seven subsequent iPhone alarms and roll right back over.

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3) Don’t Try to Do It All in Four Years

College offers a lot, but too many freshmen go into their first year of school expecting the “best years of their lives”. If you frantically seek this unrealistic, glorified endgoal, you may come out four years later exhausted, disappointed, unfulfilled, and unable to shake the feeling that you missed out on something.

Meet tons of people, but don’t try to meet everyone. If you’re lucky enough to have found a supportive friend group, be able to recognize and appreciate that.

Sign up for clubs that really interest you, but don’t sign up for every club. Or do, go to the first meeting of each one, and blow off the rest. Branch out and take classes outside your major, but don’t sacrifice your mental health over a 300-level Russian literature course.

Nobody likes feeling boxed in or confined to a narrow routine with a select few things or people, and during freshman year it can be especially stressful feeling like you’ve made too many defining decisions too early.

But we also don’t often appreciate what we have while we have it. Seek this mindfulness, and reap the benefits of your current situation.

4) Get to Know Your Professors

Professors are old people in spiffy clothing who know everything. Just ask, and they can tell you about the secrets of the world, legends of the past, stories of trust and betrayal, ancient scriptures, or maybe just something pertaining to their particular area of study. You’ll never know if you don’t ask!

Building relationships with professors is invaluable. Not only are they well paid and (hopefully) nice people who are often very receptive to interested students, they are also an incredible resource.

Your professors can help you thrive academically by telling you exactly where you need to improve and giving out personalized advice. If you bring them a draft of a paper during office hours, then they’ll make edits to the paper that they’re themselves going to be grading later! It’s so convenient it almost seems corrupt. It’s not though – because in a good college your professors care about you and what you’re learning far more than they care about the grade.

That’s not to say you can expect to spend the whole semester skipping class, only to cruise into the professor’s office the day before the final paper is due, throw a draft on the desk and receive some magical annotations for an A. The benefits you get from the relationship are tied directly to the effort you put into it.

Most professors are published at some level, and are part of a network of professionals in their particular field. Ideally, at the end of four years you’ll be able to reach out to a professor and take advantage of their references and professional connections.

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5) Learn How to be Smart with your Money

As a college student, you’ll be broke most of the time.

But the type of school you go to and how the students spend their free time can have a big impact on exactly how broke.

If your campus is in a big city, prepare for the pressures of nightlife, expensive food, and constant event admission fees. The extra expenses may be worth it if you crave access to an exciting metropolitan lifestyle. Balance out the costs by mastering public transportation, walking, cooking for yourself, or supplementing your diet with dollar pizza.

If your campus is in the middle of the woods or in a small college town, you’ll still find ways to go broke. Most of your money will probably go towards food, gas (if you have a car), textbooks, and weekend debauchery.

Trim the fat by taking the campus shuttle or carpooling when possible, gently mooching off of people, and buying used books online. Get a job as soon as quickly as possible, and figure out whether or not jobs in town pay more than those off campus.

Go to parties, don’t host them; and if Greek life is your thing, reap the benefits of free refreshments. Optimize your school breaks by figuring out who lives in your area and who has the best summer houses.

If you’re interested in going abroad, find out the cost of the abroad programs your school offers and the foreign universities they partner with compared to a regular semester’s tuition.

Overall, the best advice is to simply get comfortable being broke. And remember, some of the most successful businesses began in college dorms. So get busy!

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