There’s a lot of talk about getting into college on this blog. That is a good thing, given the name. But, many of you are going to check out of this space shortly because, well, you’ve already applied to college, and I’d be damned if I didn’t try to unload my personal brand of nonsense on Y’all one last time. If this post violates this blog’s rules for not being explicitly about applying, then I sincerely apologize for all the trouble I’ve caused.
Here is my “unusually practical guide for college.” It is arranged in no order at all and was completely improvised this evening. I’ve been carrying all of this around in my head and wanted to give real, concrete advice, rather than airy, head-space advice (like “be open-minded!”) We’re getting nitty-gritty here.
Keep in mind that I’ve only been to one college. I tried to generalize this, but not everything will apply to every school, and I’m afraid a lot of it is writing-centric. I hope that some other former (or even current) college students can add to this, especially ones with stronger STEM backgrounds.
· While coffee is delicious, tea is better when consumed in mass quantities. If you’re studying for finals, your body will feel much better on three cups of tea than it will on three cups of coffee. On that note, learn to eat fruits and vegetables if you don’t right now. Your body will thank you. If you have access to unlimited food in the cafeteria, this is your time to try new things.
· Get to know your faculty advisor quickly. Your school may assign one to you or you may get to pick, but whatever the system is, get on their radar as soon as you can. If they see an opportunity that needs students (research project, internship, whatever) they’re more likely to send it to you if they know your name. They will also be better able to advise you if they know more about you.
· When working on group projects, if you’re not using Google Drive, you’re doing it wrong. Keep everything in there, even things that individual group members are working on and will share with the group later. You never know what can happen and so it’s best to keep everything in a common space.
· Get organized. Somehow. I put every assignment and appointment in a Google Calendar and set daily “to-dos.” Every Friday (or Thursday, because sometimes my weekends started on Thursdays, which was incredible) I created a list of everything I needed to do that weekend, and I stuck to it. Related:
· Use your weekends to your advantage. Things really slow down, so it’s a perfect opportunity to jump-start a paper or a reading.
· You don’t have to read every word. Learn to skim. Skim the optional reading too — it’ll come in handy.
· If you can, take notes on paper, not the computer. When you do this, you mentally siphon out the less important information in favor of the more important information because you can’t write as quickly as you can type. This will make your notes more valuable later on.
· Take notes on what you read. Even short summaries like “Skowronek considers presidencies as part of long historical periods marked by prevailing ideologies established by certain presidents” will make your life easier when working on final papers. (Also, y ‘all should check out Stephen Skowronek’s theory of presidential leadership in political time — it’s fascinating.)
· Use the works cited the page of books to your advantage. If you’re struggling to find more information on a topic, that’s your first port of call.
· Learn how to write papers in ways that work for you. I always wrote whatever I wanted for the assigned length of the paper. Then I wrote a schematic of what had I puked onto the page, re-organized that schematic into a structure that actually made sense, and fleshed out key details and holes. Some people write a full outline and then start. Some people organize by a scholar, case study, source text, or school of thought. Whatever you do, come up with something that works for you.
· Ask for help. Your professor’s office hours, a tutor, the writing center, the counseling center, your classmates. Nobody will think less of you. (Pro-tip: asking classmates for help means talking to the smartest people in your class, which also usually means the most interesting people. Talking to interesting people, I would argue, is the whole point of college.)
· “It’s hard” is a TERRIBLE reason to not take a class. The best classes I’ve taken have also been the hardest classes. “It’s Hard” is also the name of a pretty bad album by The Who.
· If you’re in a program that lets you be undecided for a year or two, take advantage of that. If you see something that you don’t know much about, don’t write it off as uninteresting.
· If you’re working on a paper, don’t stop your writing session at the end of a paragraph. Start the next paragraph and then stop. This way, when you sit back down to keep going, you don’t have to putter about thinking “how should I start?” You will already have a beginning.
· Find a pen you like. Mine is the Bic Grip Roller. I used to go with the Pilot Precise V5 Extra Fine, but they leak sometimes.
· Balance out your courses. If you have the opportunity to decide which classes you’ll take which semesters, plan ahead and avoid loading a lot of hard classes into one semester.
· If you have a class that only meets once or twice a week, find another time that week that you can treat like that class to do homework only for that class. For example, the year I did a thesis, I dedicated 9-12 every Friday morning to work for that thesis. I did a lot of other work for it throughout the week, but having a dedicated time to work on it really focused me.
· You can revise your work much more effectively if you put 24 hours between the last time you worked on it and the time you started revising it.
· Go to campus conversations and events about topics that are outside your subject area. Just because you’re not studying it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn about it. This is the one time in your life where you will have the benefit of professors lecturing for free right outside your door. (Also, these events tend to have free food.)
· Keep a novel going to read for fun. I would start all of my library sessions just by reading a little bit for my own enjoyment. The idea was to get my brain going with a warm-up before I jumped into the work I would get graded on. Crosswords, Sudoku, and Chess are good alternatives to this if you’re not much of a reader.
· Find a hobby. It’s really important to be able to do something that is productive but not academic. You won’t feel bad about working on this thing, because it’s productive, but you simply can’t spend all of your time on your studies. I played a lot of music, but I know people who tried woodworking, knitting, yoga, improv comedy, and one guy with a unicycle.
· Purchase a copy of . Read it once at the beginning of each semester. If you carry it with you everywhere, you’re not over-doing it.
· Learn to make one large, shareable dish like a dip, lasagna, cake, or bowl of chili. There are a lot of potlucks in college, and you will be well-prepared if you have a dish like this on standby. PM me for a bean dip recipe that people actually request of me when I go to stuff at their houses.
· Go to parties with people you know. Make sure that you keep track of them and they keep track of you (and that you keep track of them) throughout the night. Walk each other home.
· When considering campus opportunities, it easier to say yes and then say no than it is to say no and then yes. You can always try something once (a sport, a club, whatever) and then say “you know, this isn’t for me” if it isn’t for you. It’s much harder to jump on things once they’ve started.
· If you’re at a party, never leave a drink unattended. Ever.
· Set aside structured time to see the friends who mean the most to you. This can be an orientation group, people from your floor, whatever. College gets busy, and so ritualizing friendship makes it A) more frequent and B) more special, somehow. I know people who had “family dinner” with their closest friends every Sunday, and nothing got in the way.
· You are not bound to your friends, especially the ones you make early on. I ditched my first-semester friends in January of my freshman year and it was one of the best choices I’ve ever made. They weren’t bad people; we just had nothing in common. Don’t be afraid to branch out.
· Branching out is scary and that’s okay.
· Do not judge anyone’s character or personality (unless they do something very heinous) during their first semester. Everyone in the first semester is very desperate to be liked, and people tend not to do their best when they’re under that kind of pressure. Let people (and yourself) mellow out a little bit before you start deciding who you like. This advice goes double for sophomores, juniors, and seniors who are passing judgment on incoming first-year students.
· Find someone who you’re close to who does not go to your school who you can call if you just need to vent.
· Don’t get that upset when most of your high school friendships collapse. It just happens.
· Give people room to change and become better people. The college has a way of knocking people down a peg. If you meet someone who looks like they need that, check back on them in a year or two.
· Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously. Otherwise, you’ll end up like one of the people in the above tip.
· Being a campus celebrity is not that fun. It’s better to just know a lot of people so you have a lot of friendly faces on campus that you can say hi to than it is to just be “known.” It’s also okay to just have a small group of people who you like.
· Meet older students. It doesn’t matter if you do it through clubs or sports teams or communities, but these people have all the key info on your school, like which classes and professors are good, where to go for really good Vietnamese food, and which improv groups to see. They will also invite you to the cooler parties.
· If you’re unhappy, make a change. Cut or change an extracurricular, start hanging out with different people, break up with that person. Just don’t make changes indiscriminately — try to find the root of your dissatisfaction and fix that.
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