So awhile back, I posted a list of things I wish I knew in high school. However, there is also no shortage of things I wish I knew in college. Here are some of the things I would have told my freshman-self. For those of you who are college-bound, feel free to learn from my mistakes.
It is okay to go easy your first semester.
I piled my first semester schedule with higher-level calculus early in the morning, Chem 2, Chem 2 lab, Biology, and two other electives. I had to deal with these classes while still battling homesickness and adjusting to dorm life. On top of that, I wanted to explore a lot of other aspects of college life (extracurriculars and yes, partying) but didn’t really have time.
Looking back, I realize that it wouldn’t have hurt to fluff up my first semester schedule a little and allow myself to have some fun. In the grand scheme of things, your transcript from first semester weighs little compared to your last 2 years, and bad scores are actually forgivable if you make up for it later. So if you want to check out the party scene upon your arrival on-campus, your freshman year is the time to do it rather than later on, when you actually have to get serious.
I realize this advice is not for those serious students who want to graduate ASAP. Being a good student never hurts!
Go. To. Office Hours!
I caught onto this a little late in my junior year, unfortunately, but I cannot stress this enough. If you are having ANY trouble with your homework or class material, your professor’s/TA’s office hours should be the first place you go to for help. I knew too many people who spent bucks on outside tutoring services in lieu of going to any of their professors’ office hours (I didn’t do this. I was just lazy.) This makes no actual sense, because you don’t have to pay to go to office hours, and you will be assisted by the same people who write/grade your exams! So GO TO OFFICE HOURS. Professors like it when students attend them – it makes them feel that the 2 hours they set aside to sit in their office is actually worth it. (And go to outside tutoring services as a last resort.)
Do not be intimidated by your professors. Most of them are really cool, and they are also great for career advice.
Think about it. Your professors are a group of people who, instead of choosing a corporate/better-paying job, went to grad school for several more years to spend the rest of their life doing research on their favorite subject and teaching it to a bunch of crazy college kids. Talk about ULTRA-NERD! (Nerds are cool, btw.) They are also great to talk to. I entered college my freshman year still in my high school-mindset that teachers are forever judging me and my work-ethic with disapproving eyes. However, I discovered that most college profs are actually chill people, and genuinely like talking to their students.
Also, if you are interested in a certain subject (especially in the academic sense), your professors are great to discuss it with because they have been-there, done-that and are happy to discuss their experiences. If you end up getting along really well with a professor, you can tap them on the shoulder later on for a recommendation later that you will eventually need.
Never buy textbooks from the university bookstore.
They are too damn expensive. Always get used copies from Amazon or a used bookstore.
A B- in a hard class is better than an A in an easy course.
I admit that I took a lot of easy classes to bump up my GPA. However, only now do I realize that this doesn’t fool anyone. I got an A in Medieval Literature. Who the hell cares? If I had taken a course that taught hard skills, like programming or even Stats 2, it would have been more beneficial to me in the long run. Use your education to tech up.
Learn how to manage stress and utilize campus counseling services when necessary.
If you are going through a prolonged period of feeling stressed and burned out, find ways you can relax periodically. If you are going through any emotional problems – anything from loneliness to heartbreak – it’s okay to seek temporary counseling to overcome depression. I found this very helpful.
For goodness sake, GO TO CLASS.
You are paying effing tuition for it. I also skipped a lot of my stats classes during my second semester, which makes me wonder what the hell was I doing if not in class???
You know how in high school, you would study for a test the night before and still get an A? That does not work in college.
Trust me on this. All-nighters SUCK BALLS. Please get 8 hours of sleep during nighttime hours. Waking up at noon makes you very unproductive.
Think twice about study abroad.
I don’t regret my study abroad experience, but it is not as important as universities make it out to be. It is a good travel experience and might be less expensive than if you took a trip on your own. However, putting it on your resume won’t impress employers as much as universities advertise. You just have to determine whether this is a good investment for you. If your career is international in scope, or you are specializing in a foreign language, these experiences might be beneficial. However, most people know that study abroad is a way for college students to take their partying antics overseas (I mean… broaden their horizons.)
Begin job-hunting ASAP.
There is a huge misconception that “real life” begins after you graduate college. WRONG!! Real life begins IN COLLEGE. A good job is not going to fall on your lap the minute you receive your diploma. Job hunting is a lengthy and tedious process, and you have a much better chance of having a job lined up after college if you start looking now. I did not even begin drafting my CV until junior year. BIG MISTAKE. I had no clue what I was doing, and kept having to revise it until well after graduation.
If you can, try to get a job or internship the summer of your freshman year. Even a job as a waiter or cashier at McDonald’s is very valuable at this stage. The point is to start saving money and getting some sort of work experience to build on. If you are going to college, you are going to be behind those people who started working right after high school. Try to have a job/internship lined up for every summer, and working part-time during the semester is not a bad idea either. Some of my friends who were smarter than me ended up in well-earning positions (even at the exec level!) right after college because they got very valuable work experience beforehand. So start drafting that resume, get a LinkedIn account, and practice those cover letters!
Learn about ALL of your career options.
If I had known what the hell Environmental Engineering was at the beginning of college, I wouldn’t have to go to grad school for three more years. Biology was the best major for me because it is the most interdisciplinary in the sciences (meaning you take all courses ranging from chemistry to life sciences to physics.) However, the Biology program at my school was mainly designed for pre-med students, and I was hard-pressed to find information related to other science career paths like academic science or industrial/pharmaceutical research.
I think the smartest thing I did in college was opt to take Physics with Calculus, even though Bio majors aren’t required to take the Calculus option. That is 2 prereq’s saved from my master’s degree. Now I know it is not possible to have everything figured out at the beginning of college, but doing more thorough research beforehand would have done me some good.
Do utilize the Career Center. It is good for resume/cover letter critiques, career fairs, and information about grad schools and certain companies. However, Career Counselors suck at helping you choose a career path if you happen to be having trouble in that area.
At least in my experience. This is something you just have to figure out on your own. I also learned that Career Advisers are actually not allowed to give direct recommendations on major choices. Go figure! But it’s also okay if you do not have everything figured out in college (because you don’t.)
Be wary of unpaid internships.
I entered a program in the summer of my junior year and got a scholarship to intern for a nonprofit health organization in their D.C. headquarters. Several college students compete every year to intern for a prestigious institution in D.C., whether it be Capitol Hill, the White House, or a well-known organization. I can’t speak for everyone, but I realized my so-called prestigious internship was just being an unpaid secretary for a fancy organization in the nation’s capital. I shadowed a supervisor and did entry-level work for no pay…while living in a very expensive city. Now don’t get me wrong – it was an interesting experience and I did learn stuff, but it wasn’t that instrumental in advancing my career. I felt that I had made a frivolous decision to spend an entire summer in D.C. doing an unpaid internship, even while supported by a scholarship. I also had to delay my graduation by a whole semester because I lost time in completing my undergraduate thesis.
Basically, the moral of this exciting story is to also think through the value of doing an unpaid internship. Here are some warnings: Most don’t really guarantee you a job or even marketable job experience. Since you are not a paid employee, many employers will limit the amount of substantial duties you have. Internships are also temporary, and won’t give you very extensive job experience. A lot of students value D.C. internships because they look prestigious on resumes. But employers are smarter than that – they really look for what you actually accomplished while on the job. In addition, unpaid internships are for the government and nonprofit organizations. Never take an unpaid internship offered by a private company – this is just exploitation.
On the other hand, if you don’t have a paying job, an unpaid internship/volunteer work is probably better than doing nothing. Students doing internships do receive college credit, although this means paying tuition. I have generally found the system of college internships to be kind of sketchy – it is a way organizations have found to hire entry-level positions for free and take advantage of inexperienced college students. Proceed with caution.
Don’t over-identify with your major/career choice. It will take out a lot of stress.
I will be honest: no job you do will be fun 100% of the time and will get monotonous after awhile. When I was in college, I – and a lot of other students like myself – over-analyzed our career decisions. What if I end up in a job I don’t like?? Am I sealing my fate?
The answer is no. In the end of the day, your work is your work and doesn’t have to be your whole life. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter so much whether you love your job, but that you don’t hate it. Loving your job is ideal, but isn’t always possible. You don’t want to waste your life away obsessing too much over your career and not enjoying the other dimensions of your life: friends, family, travel, hobbies, etc.
You do not have to be super special to accomplish what you want.
Being a genius, Ivy League grad, or the heir to a kingdom is always nice, but in the end of the day, it is hard work and dedication that gets you through. I have been blessed with many opportunities in my life, but it wasn’t until the end of college when I realized how much people can progress. I recently caught up some of my old high school friends. A girl I knew who used to live with a single mother on welfare recently graduated with a nursing degree. One of the biggest slackers I knew actually got it together and got into medical school! It turned out he was smarter than he thought.
Just remember that you are not any more or less special than anyone else, and are equally deserving of the success you want. Don’t be afraid of your dreams.
Good luck and kick ass in college!
I will clarify here that I am NOT a certified career adviser/counselor of any type, and I don’t have a PhD in anything. I am just giving this advice based on my own experiences and personal regrets/reflections.
Feel free to check out other people’s perspectives on this topic. Here are some articles I really liked.
7 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Graduated I want to point out that a person in this article says that study abroad is a lot cheaper than travelling on your own, whereas I wasn’t sure. Study abroad is a lot of fun so if this is true for you, go for it!
Another controversial topic I noted in my post is that of internships. A lot of these types of lists have a positive stance on internships – paid or unpaid – to get experience. Like I mentioned, I don’t condemn them, but I strongly recommend that you make sure your unpaid internship is worthwhile. I also found an interesting WordPress article on unpaid internships.