When I look back over the past sixteen years (whoa) of education, I find that I have a lot of mixed feelings. I recall that back in elementary and middle school—and even in high school to some extent—all I wanted was to grow up and be treated as an adult. I felt that what I was learning had little to no basis in what I would need to know in the real world, and I was endlessly jealous of my brother, three years older and living it up in college, being all self-sufficient and whatnot. And so I slogged my way through high school, doing my homework, making the grade, playing the team sports, and waking up every morning to do it all over again. It’s safe to say I took high school for granted, not considering that life outside my parents’ house was a little less glamorous than I’d imagined.
I was one of those annoying people who managed to get into their dream school—in my case, the University of Washington in Seattle. It was the same school my brother was going to, about to enter his senior year, and some of my closest friends from high school got in too. In my mind’s eye, I could see it now: big lecture halls full of academics, classes full of relevant information I wanted to learn, big, spacious libraries to study in, and the freedom to set my own schedule. Well, some of these things are true. Indeed, the lecture halls are pretty big, there is an abundance of large, well-stocked libraries, and there is the potential to set a schedule that works for you—but let’s break it down a little with some truths and misconceptions about the college life:
Lecture halls for freshmen are not “pretty big”; they’re huge, especially if you’re entering one of those famous “weeder courses,” AKA a huge class meant to sort through the students actually passionate about a given subject vs. the people just trying to get a credit. I took an introductory biology course with more than 700 people in one classroom.
Libraries are grand and wonderful places to study, but it may be more difficult to find a table than you could have imagined possible. On that note, if you’re studying by yourself, don’t be that person who takes up a huge table—if you have to be that person (if there are no smaller tables open, for example), then for goodness sakes let other people sit with you.
Your schedule will be ridiculous. At least, your freshman year schedule will be. It’s very possible that you will take an 8:30 a.m. class and not re-enter a classroom until 3:00 that afternoon. But you roll with it, because you need those classes and who really needs consistency? Worry not, though—the higher you climb in credits, the earlier you get to register, and the earlier you register, the more likely you are to get the classes you need at a time you want.
Study. Abroad. If your university/college offers a study abroad program, you really should look into it. Chances are, your school will make a lot of hoops for you to jump through to qualify and be accepted into the program, but it is absolutely worth it. I personally missed out due to some credit snafus, but friends who went had the most amazing time and wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. After all, how often does the opportunity to live abroad for several months with no strings attached (minus $) come along?
You probably have no idea what you want to do with the rest of your life, and that’s totally okay. As I just mentioned, I had some “credit snafus,” and these snafus had everything to do with the fact that I changed my major no fewer than ten times (and that is no exaggeration). When you graduate high school, there’s a lot of talk about “the rest of your lives,” and there’s pressure to feel like you have to know what the “rest of your life” is going to look like. So you may get to college with the definitive aspiration of being the world’s best surgeon… Only to take a year of science classes and realize that chemistry may just be put on this earth to ruin you, and you’ll have to tweak your goals a little. True story: I started college with my eyes on the medical school prize; I graduated last week with a degree in English and Comparative Literature (there’s no need to discuss my stints in international relations, economics, computer science, art, industrial design, etc.).
College culture can be encompassing… And distracting. It seems that movies, in their depiction of college life, tend to look at undergrads as party animals, and rarely do they show a lot of actual homework, studying, or even attending class. No doubt, there are plenty of opportunities to party, but don’t let yourself forget the real reason you’re paying an insane amount of money to attend a given school. The temptation to go out on a school night (or multiple school nights) can be hard to resist, especially when your friends are going, but getting your work done, being prepared for class, and showing up ready to learn (read: not hungover and/or exhausted) is usually (90% of the time) the better option.
Internships. Internships, internships, internships. Everybody needs a resume and resumes with relevant experience look more well-rounded than resumes that only detail the summers you worked in your hometown’s ice cream parlor (I did this until the end of my junior year when I realized how nice it would be to put something more academic on my work history). Like studying abroad, having an internship while in school is a unique and invaluable experience. Often, internships can be taken for college credit and intern employers are usually very understanding about the irregularities of a college schedule and are willing to work around that. After you graduate, employers are going to be much less understanding when you randomly need to show up an hour late because you have an unexpected project to get done.
Senioritis is real, and it starts way before your senior year. It was true in high school and it becomes no less true in college—the closer you get to graduating, the less you feel like putting your nose in a book. In high school, I think I started getting antsy and unmotivated at the end of my junior year or the start of my senior year. In college, I was ready to throw my papers out the window about halfway through sophomore year—but you really can’t do that. Grades aren’t as important in college if you’re not gearing towards grad school, but they still matter and you still need to get your work done, no matter how much the outside world is calling.
Finding a job is hard. If you talk to your parents, chances are decent that they got a job right out of school. I’m sorry to say, but chances are less decent that you will—but that’s not the end of the world. It seems like now more than ever, college students are graduating just to move right back in with mom and dad. But don’t sweat it: the job market is tough. Don’t let it break you down if you don’t get your dream job right away (or if you don’t even know what your dream job is yet).
You’re not really the adultiest of adults yet. I know, that is hard to hear (it’s just as hard to say, er, type). There is so much that goes into being an adult and you don’t learn any of it in college. Sure, I now know how to calculate the speed of a rolling ball, but we never learned how to pay taxes or set up a 401K. This is where experienced adults come in. My freshman year, I didn’t want any help from my father—I was eighteen! A responsible, grown woman who could make her own choices. Now, as a twenty-one-year-old young woman who can make her own choices, I shoot my dad a text asking which off-brand cereal he would recommend to someone on a (very) tight budget.
Above all, just relax. The tests, they will be hard. The homework, there will be lots. The all-nighters, there will be some. But you will make it through all of that. You will spend hours sitting in uncomfortable chairs, learning things you never knew were important; you will write papers that you hate; you will write papers that you love. You may go through a period of stealing toilet paper from public restrooms because you had no time to shop. You may struggle to find a job; you may party too hard one night and sleep through a class (don’t do this, trust me). But you’ll come through these four or five years with a new lease on life. There’s no guarantee you’ll know how to be an adult, but there is the guarantee that you’ll figure it out. So sit back, relax, and get ready for a really whacky ride.