One of the strangest things about going off to college at eighteen years old is how you’re simultaneously expected to be an adult and a child. Part of that phenomenon has to do with the shifting role that college has played in the lives of young people over the past 150 years.
College administrations used to operate under the policy of “in loco parentis,” which meant that professors and college house advisors saw their jobs as being interim parents. They were meant to make rules and offer advice to students. More recently, however, college has become more of a finishing school for students, or in some cases, vocational training. The new view of college is to treat students like mini adults: They can do whatever they want, and their mistakes will be their responsibility.
College really is a weird purgatory between high school, where many of us were at the mercy of their parents’ whims, and the real world, where we will be mercy to the whims of bosses, the demands of a real job, and the responsibility of conducting ourselves appropriately.
There are all kinds of books and articles filled with tips and tricks for hacking your first year of college. People will tell you to leave your door open when you’re studying in your room so other kids will think you’re friendly, or to avoid having ice cream at every meal just because you can. And sure, that’s all prudent advice, but it depends on who you are. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to nailing freshman year.
When I left for college I was terrified. I spent my last night before moving into my dorm sobbing, trying to convince my parents that college probably wasn’t for me after all, and that I was sorry we flew all the way to Pennsylvania but I was going to need a return flight to Los Angeles immediately. I had spent years collecting tidbits of advice (“don’t sleep with people who live in your building” and “wear flip flops in the shower”), but somehow what I really needed in that moment was for someone to reassure me that it was okay to be scared.
Here are the 6 things I wish someone had told me about college that night:
No one is totally happy freshman year
Freshman year was the biggest roller-coaster ride of emotions. I must have spent as many nights crying about how I had no friends or how much I missed my (then) boyfriend as I did at parties or slam poetry shows thinking that I had never been happier. Some days I thought about transferring and some days I wondered how on Earth I had managed to find a place that fit my academic and social needs like a glove. And you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who finished her freshman year who can honestly say she was happy the entire time. For many of us, going off to college is the biggest transition of our lives up to that point. It’s not perfect for anyone.
Clubs are hard to get into
This was something that I learned the hard way: in college, you don’t just join activities and magically have friends. Everything requires an application or an audition, and many groups (especially performing arts ones) are highly competitive. I thought I could just show up at college and join an A Capella group or a swing dancing company (those are both real things I actually auditioned for), and by sheer force of will and desire to join things I would get in. Of course, I ultimately found my people by applying to be an editor of an arts and culture magazine. Pursuing things you’re already good at will give you the best shot at getting in to clubs or groups.
Cool isn't worth the effort
I went to a fairly large university from a tiny, all-girls high school, and I was afraid that I had missed the boat in high school on learning to be cool. The friends I made at the beginning of freshman year while I was trying to be cool by drinking more than I was used to or trying to prove something are definitely not the people I’m still friends with today. College is too short to be someone you’re not. And when you finally make friends who love punk rock or John Stewart as much as you do, you’ll wonder why you ever pretended you liked going to clubs anyway. Of course, if that really is your thing, that’s great too.
People don't go to office hours
I know, this sounds like blasphemy since literally every one of your mother’s friends probably told you to make friends with your professors by going to their office hours. And that’s awesome if you’re not too intimidated to do that, but I learned quickly that face-time with an illustrious, Kant expert is a bit scary. So I started going to my TA’s office hours instead, which is much less intimidating (and frequently just as helpful).
Wear whatever you want
Some people go to class in pajamas, and some people show up in suits (I mean, that might just be a thing because my school has a serious business school filled with maybe the most intense people on the planet), and either is fine. For the first and last time in your life, no one is going to tell you that what you’re wearing isn’t appropriate. Embrace it, because that’s awesome.
Don’t be embarrassed
Everyone in college is incredibly embarrassing. We all send drunk texts to boys we think are cute (we don’t all do it as often as I do, but that’s just a me thing), we all get called out in class for not having done the reading, and we definitely all make innumerable mistakes that have us wondering how we’re even allowed to be people the next morning. Don’t sweat any of it: being in college gives you the cushion to do stupid stuff and not have people remember the details of it. Everyone has bad nights, and it’s not worth being embarrassed about.