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What I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Started College

By Olivia Rawley, AmeriCorps Career Pathway Coach

I can still remember how it felt when I first started college, even though it was almost seven years ago (that’s crazy!). Surprisingly, I don’t remember being all that nervous. If anything, I remember experiencing a relaxed confidence. I was a good student – almost neurotically so – in high school. I didn’t think I had anything to worry about going into college. I thought the classes would be at least somewhat similar to high school classes, but with even more freedom! I told myself that my high school teachers were exaggerating when they said college would be a “rude awakening.”

All I can say is that this confidence was, probably, ill-founded. I had the foundational skills I needed to succeed, but that was only the beginning – and that is only pertaining to academic work! Academics is not the only significant part of college; it’s an opportunity to grow emotionally and socially.

I have to admit, this was something that I wasn’t prepared for. When it came to building a social life, I assumed it would just “happen,” even for an introvert like me who struggled with social anxiety in high school. But it doesn’t just happen like it would in high school, when you are surrounded with the same people, day after day, for years. I failed in this regard, and I struggled my first semester, and my first year in general, to build a solid group of friends. And that was rough, to say the least.

I wish someone would have sat me down and told me all I needed to know to succeed, both academically and socially, in college. But no one did, really. Like I said, we only received abstract threats from our high school teachers.

So, I guess it is up to me to tell you now what I wish I knew then.

DON’T WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE.

If you hear about the people who write papers the night before they’re due—that was me! Hello, hi, I’m Olivia and I’m a recovering procrastinator (it’s an ongoing process). It worked for me for a short while in college, but I’ll never forget when I was forced to change my ways.

I was standing in the hallway waiting for my class to start, talking to a friend. I had turned in my first paper for this class and received a rather lackluster grade. I was extremely disappointed. I don’t get bad grades! I told myself. I’m also a recovering perfectionist, by the way. (Again, it’s an ongoing process.)

So, anyway, I was talking to my friend about this paper, and we were discussing our paper-writing methods. I was telling her that my write-the-night-before method is the only method I use. Clearly, it was working out well for me. A woman standing nearby, obviously overhearing our conversation, chimed in: “Yeah, that simply doesn’t work.” I was taken aback by this curt, perfunctory criticism. Doesn’t work?! It worked for me in the past, so it must work now! I was adamantly against changing my ways; I am stubborn, after all.

But this woman went on to explain her own experience as an English graduate student, and the importance of editing. Your first draft is essentially word vomit, and you can’t turn that in without a good edit. But, if you’re doing it the night before, there is no way to edit! You simply don’t have time.

It’s important to start your paper days, or even weeks, before it’s due. It takes the pressure off completely. You can feel confident when you start that what you’re putting on your page right now does not have to be perfect, because you’ll be going back to make edits anyway! I recommend writing a paragraph to a page per day, and then dedicating at least a couple of days for your edits, depending on how long your paper is. It’s all about taking it chunk by chunk and piece by piece.

This also applies to studying in general. If you’re studying for an exam the night before, you’re binging on the material. Yeah, maybe it will be “fresh” in your mind the next day, but you’ll forget all the information shortly thereafter. You’re not in college just to study for exams.

So, thank you to the woman who I met in the hallway that day. You taught me the importance of editing, and to give your writing the proper time it needs.

BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WITH YOUR PROFESSORS.

I talked about this a bit in a previous blog post, but I’m going to reiterate it here because it is so important.

I guarantee you are more likely to succeed in a class if you are on friendly terms with your professor. You need to go to their office hours. It doesn’t mean you need to be there every week, but I recommend at least twice over the semester. Definitely go within the first couple of weeks of classes to introduce yourself and ask how you can best succeed in their class.

It also doesn’t only have to be in office hours where you build a relationship with a professor. Stay after class for a couple of minutes and discuss the lecture. Say what you liked about it/didn’t like about it. Ask clarifying questions. These are bonding moments, I’m telling you. And you’ll earn mad brownie points.

GO TO CLASS.

This is a given, but I had to include it.

Even if your professor doesn’t take attendance, just do it. You never know when you’re going to miss something important. Don’t think you can cheat the system. You’re not that slick!

JOIN AN ORGANIZATION.

Just do it—that’s all I need to say.

Just kidding! But seriously, this is how you build friendships with like-minded people. I understand that it might be easy just to start hanging out with people that live on the floor of your dorm (that is, if you live in a dorm), but don’t hang out with people just to hang out with people. Does this make sense? You want people who share the same values and interests as you do. And maybe you don’t even know what your values or interests are yet! Which is fine, of course, but that’s why you need to join an organization to figure it out.

Eventually, you may find something you are passionate about. As a result, you’ll find people you’re passionate about, as well.

Overall, try to steer clear of the superficial friendships when you start college. I know you may be lonely and out of your element, but these friendships can be draining. They won’t get you any closer to “discovering” yourself.

EXERCISE.

Do what you can to maintain your health; it is so important. Many of us were active in high school, playing sports, so we didn’t even have to think about exercise. But it’s something we have to actively work toward for the rest of our lives.

It doesn’t even have to be “formal” exercise, like lifting weights or getting on the elliptical. It can simply be playing pick-up basketball with friends, taking a walk, riding a bike, etc.

OVERALL, GET UNCOMFORTABLE.

This applies to all of the things listed above. You’re going to have to get uncomfortable to put yourself out there. Show up to a meeting where you know no one; introduce yourself to someone in class; ask if you can join a group of people who are having a study group in the library.

You’ll feel anxious, and that’s okay. It’s scary to show up to a meeting for a club where you know absolutely no one. Not everyone can walk into a room and be charming and charismatic. You think to yourself: I’ll make a fool of myself; I’ll look dumb; people will think I’m weird, and on and on it goes. Accept the anxiety and don’t shy away from it. Act despite it. You’ll become a stronger and more resilient person. And remember, everyone has been in the same position you are in now and has had these same fears.

And if you make a fool of yourself (which is inevitable, so accept it), then okay. But the great thing is that no one will remember you! Seriously. We are all so busy navel-gazing, worrying about our own mess-ups, that we hardly remember anyone else’s.

Honestly, this was something I struggled with all throughout college. It probably diminished my experience as a result. It wasn’t until I started traveling internationally that I learned this skill. At the moment, it was an absolute necessity.

Don’t be pushed to that breaking point. Choose to actively engage. That’s all I can say.

Best,
Olivia