What do you wish you knew before you headed off to college?
August 9, 2021 10:30 AM   Subscribe

My nephew is about to start college this month, and I'm super excited for him! He's asked me for my advice on all the things I wish I'd known when I was in his position, and I have plenty of thoughts, but I'd love to query the hive-mind to see what you wish you'd known before you started college. Thanks so much!
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell to Education (85 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

Literally the only regret I have from college, which was not an overwhelmingly fun experience for me but overall fine, is that I spent it dating someone who sucked.
posted by phunniemee at 10:33 AM on August 9 [48 favorites]

Seconding “don’t date anyone who makes you feel bad” and adding “don’t forgo experiences like studying abroad because of a boyfriend/girlfriend.”
posted by cakelite at 10:34 AM on August 9 [38 favorites]

It's fine and normal to not know what you want to do with your life. Take some classes just because you are curious.
posted by meinvt at 10:37 AM on August 9 [44 favorites]

ENJOY YOURSELF. College is a unique time in a person's life and while you want to get good grades and, of course, be a responsible person, there are also a lot of opportunities to have FUN and you should take them!

Also, if you're me, don't fool yourself into thinking you're going to show up for an 8am class. If he's a morning person, this is a moot point, but otherwise....start your day later if you can.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 10:37 AM on August 9 [8 favorites]

You have ~14 days during which every person around you is in a completely new environment and doesn't know anyone. During those two weeks, you can make friends with anyone. Literally anyone. Sit with strangers at the dining hall! Pop your head into events that look interesting & strike up a conversation! Talk to classmates after lectures end! They're all as bewildered and out of their comfort zone as you are, and most of them are interesting people.

Once those two weeks are up, you can still meet people, but that first two weeks before people group into clusters (and the upperclassmen come back) is really pretty magic, and is where I met some people who I'm still friends with, whose paths I never would have otherwise crossed.
posted by Mayor West at 10:39 AM on August 9 [36 favorites]

It's okay not to know things. Use your prof/tutor's office hours when you have questions (and before the day-before-it's-due.)

Also yah, don't date people who make you feel bad.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:40 AM on August 9 [12 favorites]

Internships / coops are as important as classes for landing a job after graduation.

Aka entry level jobs require experience nowadays.
posted by TheAdamist at 10:40 AM on August 9 [15 favorites]

You will not be spoon-fed by your professors and instructors like the case in most high-school education systems.

You may even have ones who spent their entire in-class lectures describing anecdotes from their time in private industry (or - stories from associates - or urban legends) - those lectures will have no real insight or bearing on assignments , quizes or exams.

So - it's up to you to keep your education moving along.
posted by rozcakj at 10:40 AM on August 9 [3 favorites]

Most likely, your institution sits in a town or area that has residents who aren't connected to the college. Respect them and their lives, and get to know the town beyond the campus.
posted by knile at 10:41 AM on August 9 [23 favorites]

Study a lot, develop good study habits, the library is a great resource.
Take courses in different disciplines; this may be your only chance to take anthropology or art courses or whatever, and it will enrich the rest of your life.
Make friends, be open to new people and new ideas, go to lectures, etc.
Understand that college is a unique experience, make the most of it.
posted by theora55 at 10:43 AM on August 9 [11 favorites]

A corollary to Mayor West's brilliant reply: Don't let yourself get stuck with people you don't really like very much during that first few weeks.

This happened to me, and it took months before I finally made different (better) friends.

Another bit of advice: Think carefully before you align your identity with something quirky during that first month or so. It's easy to become "The Unicycle Guy," and very difficult to stop being known as "The Unicycle Guy."
posted by yellowcandy at 10:43 AM on August 9 [23 favorites]

Academically: it's totally possible that you've been able to get through your academic career to this point without having to actually work hard. I coasted through high school without developing any study habits, then landed in an 200-level math class where I was in over my head. If that happens, don't panic, but do make sure to ask for help from either your advisor or a professor or a TA or something. Resources are there to help you, but they won't come looking for you until you fail the class and find yourself on academic probation. It's never too late to learn actual study habits, but if you haven't before college, you're probably at a point where you're not going to will yourself into developing entirely new strategies.
posted by Mayor West at 10:44 AM on August 9 [33 favorites]

Who you know will be at least as important as what you know. Develop friendships with people around you, they’ll pay off later when everyone is trying to find work and advance in the business world. This will be at least as important as anything you learn in class, but no one will ever explicitly tell you.
posted by Alterscape at 10:44 AM on August 9 [5 favorites]

Undergrad student advisor here:

-Don't buy your textbooks until you actually go to the first class. Often instructors will list "nice to have" books that you absolutely don't need. Save your $$$$$$$$$$$$

-Use all the benefits you get by being a student: the gym, the libraries, student supports like counselling and writing centres etc. you are literally paying for them, use them!!

-Get help early if you find you need it! It's so much easier to ask for help before it's an emergency/all the deadlines have passed

-the first term is BY FAR the hardest/worst term for most students. Things that can help: take a slightly reduced course-load if possible (ex. 4 courses instead of 5), it just gives you a little breathing room, especially if you have labs

-get involved, especially in program or faculty-specific opportunities. This will help you get to know your classmates, but also often the program instructors, who can give you supports and letters of reference down the road

-if your school has a reddit page, it can be a really helpful way to find answers to questions you feel are too silly to ask your advisor/instructors. This will vary school to school, but I am often blown away by how helpful students can be to each other in this venue.

-Practice asking even if it makes you uncomfortable. Ask for course substitutions, ask for waivers of programs or prerequisites requirements if there's class you're excited about, ask to do individual study projects with your favourite prof, ask for stretch experiences.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 10:46 AM on August 9 [27 favorites]

Try not to work two jobs, help run a volunteer-run organization, start a major romantic relationship (all at the same time) and then expect your grades not to suffer. Grad school is a thing that exists and it also requires good grades to get in.

Here's how you pick a major: If you're in college to learn interesting things, study whatever you want. If you're in college because it will help you get a job, start by pretending you've already graduated. Search the available jobs. Look at which majors the jobs you want want you to have studied.
posted by aniola at 10:49 AM on August 9 [8 favorites]

The #1 thing I wish I would have known is that there is an entire world of professions and things people do that no one will ever tell you about. I showed up at college thinking the range of available of jobs was the same range I heard about in kindergarten because that's all anyone ever told me. None of those interested me so I thought I was destined to just never do anything. That couldn't have been farther from the truth. Now is the time to find out what people are doing, and find out what things people are doing that you also want to be a part of. Don't just take the classes and fuck around, really find out what you want to do because the people are around and they won't be around anymore once you leave.
posted by bleep at 10:57 AM on August 9 [28 favorites]

Keep a journal.

Doesn't have to be long-winded but it's a good way to reflect on the experience so far and organize your thoughts going ahead. Making and keeping an effort to write every day also nudges you into a daily rhythm that will benefit in other areas.

Don't buy a fancy book or dateplanner or anything. Just use a simple spiral-bound notebook and blend it in with your other things. Fill a book and then start another.
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:00 AM on August 9 [4 favorites]

This isn't "fun" advice, but it's the advice I gave when my college asked alumni what new students should know:

Don't rape anyone, don't protect rapists, and don't join or support organizations that protect rapists.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 11:13 AM on August 9 [32 favorites]

If this kid tends at all towards working too hard / perfectionism, I wish I'd known I really didn't need to attend every lecture / finish every homework assignment. Compared to high school, the grading system in certain classes is heavily weighted towards exams or final projects, so you don't have to kill yourself each week / pull all nighters to each assignment done. You also don't necessarily need a stellar GPA if you don't intend to go to grad school.

The above would have given me back hundreds of hours of sleep.

On the social side, make friends with people outside your major / department.
posted by internet of pillows at 11:17 AM on August 9 [7 favorites]

You also don't necessarily need a stellar GPA if you don't intend to go to grad school.

Exactly - 2-years after you leave school absolutely no employer will ever review your specific grades from your transcripts... (And even less so, if you manage to get a co-op work-term/paid-intern type placement - if you actually show working experience, you may never even be asked for a transcript)

So, unless you plan to go to grad-school, academia or possibly hard-hard-sciences, do not overdo it in your final year.
posted by rozcakj at 11:21 AM on August 9

ENJOY YOURSELF. College is a unique time in a person's life and while you want to get good grades and, of course, be a responsible person, there are also a lot of opportunities to have FUN and you should take them!

I'd like to counter that by saying - if you find you're not enjoying yourself, don't beat yourself up about it. Moving out for the first time can be hard, starting your whole social life from scratch can be hard (and a bit of a lottery), learning a new way of studying can be hard. And if you're finding it hard, there's nothing worse than the constant exhortation to ENJOY YOURSELF, and the pressure to believe that this has to be the time of your life or there's something wrong with you. Nobody enjoys themselves the entire time; a lot of people find their first year particularly tough. Everyone's life has times that are hard going for one reason or another, and it's perfectly possible for one of them to fall in your university years. If it does, that's OK.

I look back now and realise that pretty much everyone in first year was on edge a lot of the time, desperately trying to find their niche and their friends and living in identikit student accommodation with a bunch of strangers, and trying to hide from the rest of the world that they had no idea how to do this thing called adult life. If I'd realised, and lowered my expectations, things would have been a lot easier.
posted by penguin pie at 11:22 AM on August 9 [7 favorites]

Nobody else is going to be in charge of telling you to eat, to go to sleep, to do your homework, to go to class, really do anything. Many kids grew up their parents and authority figures telling them when to do these things. Suddenly having no accountability feels free and easy! Very soon, though, some kids start to think "if nobody cares, it doesn't matter". And then they procrastinate, and don't practice self-care, and their self-worth falls through the toilet.

I wish someone had told me about this before I went to college, and told me "It matters. It matters a whole lot. Because you need to start caring about yourself, you need to be the one to care. You need to get up on time and get to class and eat decent and do your work. Because even if nobody else cares, this is how you love yourself."
posted by Pacrand at 11:26 AM on August 9 [29 favorites]

Don't drink from someone else's water bottle at a Grateful Dead concert. Or, be prepared to spend the next 8 hours wondering what was in said water bottle. Also, it takes twice as long to hitchhike from Alpine Valley Wisc. to Charlottesville Va than you would take if you drove it. When you miss that hourly because of it, tell the teacher the truth. They may be a Deadhead too. I was given a makeup exam even though the teacher had said no makeups. That exam included a bonus question of listing the songs played in order.

I agree with the two posters above me about the grades. I graduated with a gpa that was less than 2.5 and got into a top MBA program in Evanston Illinois after working for two years. Also, don't look for a job, look for an opportunity.

Find a roommate who you get along with, but is not in your everyday social circle.
posted by AugustWest at 11:26 AM on August 9 [7 favorites]

* Go to office hours. They're meant for you! Even if the prof is famous! And if you end up needing recommendations for something, you're going to need a relationship with at least two to three profs. Just think of a couple of questions about the material beforehand.

* Credit cards aren't free money. Do not feel that you have to go along with friends who have more money in more expensive recreational activities.

* Roommate disputes should be conducted in person, not via note or email or text.

* Time to start cultivating a workout habit if you haven't already.

* If you think you might be going into government/civil service, I hate to say it, but: no weed (or heavier drugs) for you. It's stupid, but it's still a thing that's catching people doing security clearances.
posted by praemunire at 11:28 AM on August 9 [18 favorites]

I thought I had to pick my future directly from the course catalog. I took way too many 100-levels trying to find who I really was or what I was really interested in, or *gasp* what my fucking passion was... when I really needed to hear something along the lines of - pick something that aligns to both strengths and interests and get it done.

Also - (assuming hetero-normative which would be appropriate advice for me... ymmv) if a woman says any kind of version of no when you ask her out, just move on to the next person. Because if she says "no, because of xyz", only the "no" part is relevant to you.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 11:31 AM on August 9 [6 favorites]

I'd like to counter that by saying - if you find you're not enjoying yourself, don't beat yourself up about it.

Yeah, I would sooner repeat my high school years than my college ones, bleargh. There is so much discourse around college being THE BEST YEARS OF YOUR LIFE!!! Certainly not for me. I was so glad to graduate and get the hell out of there.

Relatedly, my university was a fine experience academically but I never found my social group in the four whole years there, and in retrospect it was too big of a school for me. Today I am confident I would have done SO much better at a much smaller one or, even better, a women's college but once the wheels were in motion, changing course and transferring elsewhere felt so overwhelming or like it would set me back somehow and I didn't have the faintest idea how to even start. I wish I'd known that nothing was as set in stone as it felt at the time. I should have known I could switch things up but I really didn't.

Other stuff: don't sign up for those credit cards that give you a free t-shirt, get a free student membership to YNAB to learn money management, practice good sleep hygiene to the best of your ability and for the love of god don't get into the habit of pulling regular all-nighters, sleep will boost your grades more than trying to stuff a bunch of last-minute facts into your brain at 3 am.
posted by anderjen at 11:31 AM on August 9 [9 favorites]

Here to scream "office hours" with everyone else.

Also, email your TA and/or professor! My partner is a college professor and the number of students who wait until their assignments are late to ask for extensions always amaze me. He grants extensions! But you have to ask!

If the student health center doctor gives you shit for asking for a morning after pill, that is not because you are dumb or a slut! Everyone makes mistakes, and while the doc has probably Seen Too Many, that's no reason for them to be shitty about it. You deserve to not be pregnant/get someone pregnant in college! You are there to do the right thing, it's not helpful to be judged for it.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 11:34 AM on August 9 [5 favorites]

Figure out a way to have fun and also work hard and accumulate experiences. You don't want to look back on college and think you missed out on all the hijinks and happy times, but you also don't want to look back on college and think. "If only I had done ABC and XYZ back when I was in an environment where this was possible."

Some of this depends on the size and nature of the school but if you're fortunate to go to an undergraduate school that actually cares about teaching, it's valuable to understand that the faculty are there to serve you and not the other way around. If there's something educationally appropriate that you want, insist on getting it. You're spending (and/or borrowing) way too much money to not have that go your way.
posted by slkinsey at 11:35 AM on August 9 [2 favorites]

Cook for yourself as often as you can - if you don't know how to cook, learn. When money gets tight, and it will, you can get by a lot better if you know how to cook. Also - one small turkey can feed one person for a long time if you have a freezer.
posted by TimHare at 11:36 AM on August 9 [8 favorites]

Don't take notes on a laptop. Don't even bring a laptop to class unless you need it

When I was teaching undergrads (a few years ago), anecdotally at least the ones who used pen and paper were very very obviously more engaged.
posted by look upon my works progress administration at 11:36 AM on August 9 [7 favorites]

>You have ~14 days during which every person around you is in a completely new environment and doesn't know anyone. During those two weeks, you can make friends with anyone. Literally anyone. Sit with strangers at the dining hall! Pop your head into events that look interesting & strike up a conversation! Talk to classmates after lectures end! They're all as bewildered and out of their comfort zone as you are, and most of them are interesting people.

Once those two weeks are up, you can still meet people, but that first two weeks before people group into clusters (and the upperclassmen come back) is really pretty magic, and is where I met some people who I'm still friends with, whose paths I never would have otherwise crossed.

This, this, this! It's like for two weeks, you're absolved of any ramifications of socially awkward behavior. Forget what you were like in high school. Ask, "Can I sit here?" instead of eating alone. Study in the library or the dorm lounge instead of alone in your room (but make time for serious study by yourself if you're someone who focuses better alone). Even if you're not sure you want to join a club or activity, go to the first meeting to see what it's actually like. Don't write anything off because you're unsure or have never done it before. If you have ever had a fleeting interest in astronomy or sailing or debate, now is the time. You will never be this free to reinvent yourself ever again. Be open-minded. Many of the orientation activities are awful and lame (I recall a "Casino Night" at my own freshman orientation). You are not the only one who thinks so. Just go and find the people lurking around the edges if you're not ready to dive in.

Also: if you are an introvert, do not beat yourself up if you cannot find "your people" right away - or ever. For me, as a shy true introvert, the biggest epiphany I had at university was the realization that I hadn't found my group because all of the people like me were also hiding in their rooms with their noses in books, too timid to throw themselves into the mix. This may not have been true, but there was a ton of pressure to find your lifelong friends in the span of a one week forced orientation thing, and when I didn't do that, I felt totally doomed to lonely pariah status. It really made me a little gun-shy and after the orientation period, I really didn't want to try anything new because I felt that everyone had already found their friends. This was a total waste, and just led me to hunker down in my room even more.

For me, nothing came together friends-wise until senior year, when I accidentally befriended one of the most outgoing people in my entire graduating class. I'd actually watched her from afar and been super intimidated - how could anyone be so at ease socially, so well-liked by everyone, so completely unafraid? We had a statistics class together and somehow, she figured out that I was in need of a friend. Her extroversion was exactly what I needed to come out of my shell. Before I knew it, I sort of had friends! I was in a study group! I had people that I spoke to when I saw them on campus! By the second semester of our senior year, I'd gotten brave enough to invite her to be our native speaker consultant for a linguistics class. Now, I actually spoke to the other people in my major instead of just shrinking into my seat and running away as soon as class ended. That semester, I received a lot of, "I never heard you speak before!" type comments. At one point, Friend and I were studying and she looked over at me and mused, "You just never left the parallel play stage of development. That's okay."

I cannot describe what her kindness over the course of that year meant. I'm actually a bit verklempt just writing this. I don't even think she'd understand now what she did for me.

If your nephew is an introvert, he should look for the extroverts. If your nephew is an extrovert, it would be immensely kind of him to look for the people like me, who might need a little coaxing but would likely remember him fondly forever.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 11:46 AM on August 9 [19 favorites]

1. Put down your phone and earbuds. When I walk through current college campuses (my kids' and my work), I see nothing but kids walking around with their phones with earbuds in, kids sitting on benches texting on their phones, kids sitting in cafes texting/reading/watching their phones, kids at events on their phones. Walk and chat with someone, sit on a bench and say hi to someone, let someone join you at your cafe table, and participate/watch events. Never again in your life will you be surrounded by so many people your age with something in common so soak it all in be a part of it.

2. Go to class. Assuming classes are back to in-person, show up, every single day, even if it is not part of your grade. You will get more out of it, even if it is a lousy professor (yes, they exist). So many of my friends in my classes would cut class here and there and never seemed to be able to get a great grade. They could pass okay, but I actually had to spend less time when it came to exams and got better grades. Professors also tend to notice (unless a huge class), and if you do struggle, they are more willing to help. If your grade is borderline, more likely to go higher. Maybe not all, but some and it is worth it.

3. Learn how to advocate for yourself without whining and blaming everything on something or someone besides yourself for your mess-ups.
posted by maxg94 at 11:46 AM on August 9 [3 favorites]

If your courseload allows for it, try taking some courses "just because" - just because they sound interesting, weird, or cool, or because you're idly curious about them. Even better if they are outside your field of study.

The worst case scenario is that you will learn that you ultimately don't like the whatever-it-is that you signed up for, and that is valuable information in and of itself. But the best case scenario is that that's how you discover that there's a whole thing that you are just freakishly and weirdly good at, and which you love, and that could take your life in a whole new direction you never could have predicted. (Exhibit A: my friend who idly signed up for a stage combat class and discovered he was a weird sort of prodigy, and ended up as a professional combat choreographer, performer, and teacher with appearances on stage, on TV, in operas, and on a weird thing in Japan.)

Or you could inadvertently learn about something that affects your own personal life in a positive and lasting way. (Exhibit B: the course I took on human sexuality singlehandedly un-did the previous twelve years of "I was raised Catholic" hangups.)

Or you could discover a field of study you want to pursue longer-term past college, and it can come back to help you at any point through your life. (Exhibit C: the Irish literature course I took that connected me to my first post-college job, the "history in performance" course I took which directly affected my work as a dramaturg.)

Or you could just end up with some really cool stories. (Exhibit D: the course on "Modern Soviet Foreign Policy" I took which by sheer coincidence coordinated itself with the unfolding of Glasnost, to the point that the professor literally said "I have no idea what's going on over there any more" about 3 weeks before the end of the course; he chucked the syllabus, declared it a pass-fail course and turned our sessions into a current events discussion group.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:49 AM on August 9 [9 favorites]

If you're there for a well rounded liberal arts education, you're probably going to have to take a hand in figuring out what classes you ought to take to get it rather than trusting in advisers or just going by what classes are general-education requirements.
posted by Fukiyama at 11:52 AM on August 9 [2 favorites]

join 2 or 3 clubs, groups, organizations and try to stay with them for a long time. lifelong friendships take time to develop.

train yourself to take 20-minute naps

learn how to study - schedule time for it - do it with TAs and professors when possible

be a contributing member of something bigger than yourself

experiment with flirting

certainly take time to relax and have fun, but put a limit on it - schedule or set a timer for when you go down internet rabbit holes or play video games or hang out socially. be thoughtful about having time alone, with others, and with the work
posted by jander03 at 11:57 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]

I wish I had chosen more courses for the professor instead of choosing based on the syllabus. Anyone can write an interesting list of books/readings, but not everyone can teach one. I wish I'd asked around for the professors with a reputation for teaching and taken their classes.
posted by that's candlepin at 11:58 AM on August 9 [14 favorites]

Also, the #2 thing I wish I had known is that companies recruit college students, the ones who are prepared & ready to be recruited. It seems now that everyone knows this but no one told me this so I'm passing it along. I graduated college and drove back home to do temp jobs having no idea that college recruitment was a thing.
posted by bleep at 11:58 AM on August 9 [4 favorites]

Nthing office hours!!! Also do not be afraid to ask for help at any point. Most people will be thrilled to help. If he encounters someone who isn't , find someone else to help.

Not to obsess over his grades, and not to go argue with professors about them (unless it is very obviously a grade calculation error on an exam). Whether you got an 84 or 86 on one essay in one class DOES NOT MATTER, like at all. The learning or enthusiasm that you take from a class matters way more than the specific grade, broadly speaking.

Not to get discouraged if he does poorly in first term, first year, or a specific class. Instead try and learn from his mistakes, and figure out what he can do differently next time.

Get involved in a student society, club, lab- whatever he's interested in! It's a great way to meet like-minded people and feel more of a connection to the institution.

Take advantage of free food when it is offered.

Go to class. The correlation between students who don't attend and those who fail/do poorly is.... VERY high, at least for the majority of classes. But don't go to class and play on your phone or laptop the whole time, because you might as well not have come learning-wise and it's irritating af to the people around you.

Be mindful that college is a stage of life; it might be good, it might be bad, probably it will be a little of both. But in x amount of years he'll be on to a new stage.
posted by DTMFA at 11:59 AM on August 9 [6 favorites]

Oh one more thing- he should be kind to himself and protect his mental health, in whatever form self-care looks like for him. And if he's having mental health struggles at any point, he should know that it is so, SO common in the college/uni population, and he shouldn't be afraid or reluctant to reach out for help early on. If he isn't sure how to do that, he can even reach out to a prof to ask for guidance; trust me, they've heard it before and can guide students to folks who can help them.
posted by DTMFA at 12:10 PM on August 9 [7 favorites]

If your courseload allows for it, try taking some courses "just because" - just because they sound interesting, weird, or cool, or because you're idly curious about them. Even better if they are outside your field of study.

I agree with this, and would add: If your school allows it, sign up for more elective classes than you can handle, and drop the ones you aren't excited about before the drop deadline. This will double your opportunities to stumble on something that fascinates you.
posted by aws17576 at 12:12 PM on August 9 [2 favorites]

Read. The. Syllabus. For every course, even if you've had that instructor before. Read it all, read it at least twice, put it somewhere you can refer back to it. Don't understand something on it? Ask the teacher or TA. Do not fuck up your otherwise hard work in a class because you made an assumption about attendance, grading, exam schedules, submission format, extra credit, or recommended resources. You can improve your entire life just by taking the 10 minutes to read and understand the operating instructions you are given for each course.

Most teachers do actually want you to succeed and will help if you ask, so ask early and often. You can end up with some really rewarding academic relationships by doing so, as well. When you have an especially great instructor, find a reason to go to office hours at least once or twice to talk about the class or the work, especially if you think you might pursue additional education or employment in that area. That's what they're there for.

Agreed to the suggestion above to live with people who aren't your buddies, boos, bonefriends, etc. It should be a priority to have a home that is low-drama and a roommate situation that is more friendly-businesslike than a friendship. You will have friends who live in party houses, and you can go party there (always kick in for food/drinks), and then you can go home and sleep/study in quiet and calm and not as a sideshow barker for messy relationships, addictions, and flameouts.

Additional to above: just decide to be a clean person. It will make your life and every single one of your relationships - including with teachers - so much better. Fifteen minutes every day, most of that in 5-minute sessions three times a day, is about all it takes to be a relatively tidy and organized person. Laundry is the only thing that may be a somewhat inconvenient time suck if you have to use facilities or go to a laundromat, but 90 minutes once a week is a great time to study, or meet up with a friend, and then it's never a giant mountain of laundry that needs to be hauled around. Also, please wash your sheets. Have two sets, change them weekly, do the dirty ones in that week's laundromat run.

And nobody wants to hear/believe this, but the chances that your college personfriend is your future spouse/long-haul partner are very, very low, and even if they are you will have plenty of time after you graduate to focus on that relationship. It's not that you shouldn't have relationships, but if you rank the list of things that are taking up your time and they're in the top three, you are undermining your education and the long-term benefits of having gone to college. Don't move in with them, don't combine finances with them, and don't date someone who isn't also seriously prioritizing their education.

If you have access to counseling through your school, use it to learn good tools to have in your toolbox for when you need them, because everyone needs them eventually. College is maybe the most concentrated mental health powderkeg you'll ever exist in, and you will have stress and growing pains and troubles and so will your friends. I lost a lot of valuable time and opportunities to my own shit, and getting sucked into other people's shit, and not knowing how to make and manage good boundaries and good habits.

College is where you get to reinvent yourself with maybe more flexibility and freedom than pretty much any other time in your life, and you can just assume you're going to make some cringe selections in your aesthetic identity and maybe your personality, but it's worth stopping for a minute just before you go and figure out what your core values are or what you want them to be. A lot of people go through some edgy iterations, but I think back to the best people I knew in college who also seemed to be getting a lot out of the experience and they were kind, open-minded, interested in others, helpful, and tended to start from a place of general positivity but also seemed to have smart boundaries and were pretty serious about getting the most out of their education as well as the broad social exposure that college brings. Some of them were definitely extroverts but others were not necessarily but were willing to put some energy into not retreating into the kind of shyness that means being afraid to try new things or get involved in stuff.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:12 PM on August 9 [7 favorites]

In high school, you were the smartest person in the room, and could just coast.

In college, you are not and cannot.

The sooner you learn humility and learn to actually apply yourself, the better off you'll be.

(Obviously, this advice doesn't apply to everyone entering college. But it sure does apply to my younger self.)
posted by sourcequench at 12:19 PM on August 9 [9 favorites]

Non-academically, less vital than "don't date anyone that makes you feel bad," but also really useful for me, would have been, "ask people out if you want to date them." The magic words, "would you like to go on a date with me," solve many problems that I found challenging as a teenager.

Academically, the equivalent may be, "it's okay to ask faculty for things." If a three day deadline extension will make your life easier, ask for it. If you just don't get something, ask for by-appointment office hours with your TA or professor. If you don't meet the pre-recs, ask for an exception. (I say this as someone who personally suffers when students do too much of this. But, a lot of students never even realize it's an option and it hurts them.)

In both cases, "ask once and then back off and never bring it up again if the answer is, 'no.'"

Also, in quantitative classes, studying means solving problems. Reading books, reviewing notes, attending lectures, and talking to peers are all important and good things. They are not studying. They won't help you pass exams. Solve practice problems. Take old exams. Ask for suggestions for practice problems.

Finally, though many would disagree, I suggest taking the most specific classes possible that satisfy a requirement. You get more interested peers, a more passionate lecturer, and far more interesting reading if you take a class on "The Pre-Conquest Maya in the Yucatan" rather than "Introduction to Anthropology." (Asking permission to make exceptions for pre-recs applies here.) I learned this far too late in college.
posted by eotvos at 12:27 PM on August 9 [6 favorites]

The professors & TAs are teachers and not fail-ers: they want you to get the material and succeed! But you have to do your part.

Do the reading: conversations are more fun when you're not bull-shitting or hiding, and tests & papers are easier and less scarier when you know the stuff.

Go to class: when your prof/TA knows you, they are waaay more flexible and helpful about finding solutions to problems -- academic or personal.

Go to office hours: even if you don't have any questions, most profs & TAs are pretty cool They can also recommend you for programs and trips and scholarships and talks and other cool things.

Last, get involved in something -- ANYTHING. Just don't stay in your room/lounge/frat! College is an amazing time to try new things and new selfs.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:29 PM on August 9 [5 favorites]

I did not read all the responses, so apologies if this is duplicative, but:


You do not have to be automatically pigeon holed into the same place you were in high school. It's a very, very different social landscape, try not to apply the same "rules" to the people you meet. If you weren't popular in HS, whatever, there are a billion people at your new school. Try on different identities, be who you want to be. Goth it up. Whatever. Some group of people there will be your tribe.

Second, if you are Very Smart, it's likely you do not know how to study. It's worth learning. If you hit a wall where everything seems hard and you can't figure out why you can't do well, there is a huge chance it's lack of study skills. It's ok, smart kids often do not learn these and are not taught them, either, but you DO have to learn it in college to keep up with anything challenging.
posted by Medieval Maven at 12:30 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]

Find out who are the best teachers (not most famous professors but best teachers) and take as many of your classes as you can from them even if the topic is not your first choice.
posted by metahawk at 12:32 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]

In high school, you were the smartest person in the room [...] In college, you are not
And the inverse of this is also true - just because you didn't get on with a subject at school doesn't mean you can't do well at it in a different environment, with different teachers and strategies, when you're being assessed on different criteria. Maybe this time you are the smartest person in the room.
posted by offog at 12:43 PM on August 9 [9 favorites]

Don't try to cram a semester's worth of work into one weekend.
The long-distance thing won't work, in the long run.
Go on the road trip. Go to the club meetings. Be a joiner.
posted by emelenjr at 12:47 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]

Perhaps this is too obvious, but Pay Attention to Drop Dates! If you are struggling in a class and the drop date is approaching, take a hard, honest look at whether you should drop. Overcoming a bad grade (or having to re-take a required course) is far more detrimental to your GPA and your morale than dropping and trying something else (or trying again if the course is required).

If you are in a situation where you will need to leave the school altogether, please withdraw from the University rather than allow a semester of Fs to go on your record. If you decide to go back to school in the future, that will be a major obstacle.

Finally, don't be afraid to change your major, but also be wary of changing more than once or twice. If you find that you just aren't into your coursework, you may very well not want to have a career in that field. On the other hand, you will have a hard time making progress if you are always having to satisfy pre-requisites for a new major and find that you have already taken a lot of courses that won't fit into your new degree plan.

I've been out of college for too long for any more practical advice, but I think these things are pretty much timeless.
posted by statusquoante at 12:56 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]

If you can, spend a semester or a year abroad. You're probably never going to have the chance again to spend six months to a year in another country. Lots of schools have programs, and you have to learn how to work them.
posted by gladly at 12:57 PM on August 9 [7 favorites]

In my star-crossed turn at being a college prof, students who came to my office hours definitely got more attention and did better (the link is not necessarily causal). When you have 3 sections of 40 students every semester you can't get to know them all, and unless you're a big weirdo it helps to get to know the profs.

Everything else depends on what they want out of college. If they're going somewhere prestigious and don't care about grad/law school, there's no need to pull As in every course and run themselves ragged studying. Hell, I went somewhere only about 5 people have heard of, and I was valedictorian, and sometimes I regret it. The friendships I built in college turned out a lot more important to my life than my GPA and I sometimes think I could have spent more time working on those than I was on integrals and Plotinus. That being said, if you want to get into a fancy medical or law school you need to figure that out fast and get your GPA up by the third semester.

There are all kinds of people at college and a thousand chances to be someone new. We don't know who we are until we become who we are. Be all those people and find out who you are.
posted by dis_integration at 1:21 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]

Goddamn, I came in here expecting every single answer to be “don’t borrow a cent more than you absolutely have to” and I haven’t read every word of every answer but I haven’t seen a single reply along those lines! So I’m here to say it: pursue everything scholarship, take your full 15 credits every semester, live frugally, consider starting at a cheaper school and transferring to the name school, whatever it takes! Because once you get out, if you can start investing money rather than paying loans, that money is what is going to give you choices down the road. This is so, so important. Early money is key.
posted by HotToddy at 1:57 PM on August 9 [16 favorites]

If you don't know the Cornell Notetaking System, watch this one-minute video in the link. It's so easy to see the logic of it. Once you do, you can use the system for the rest of your life.
posted by Elsie at 2:00 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]

This might not be broadly applicable, but my parents didn't tell me much practical stuff. Like, I didn't know that, in retrospect, I most likely had some form of health insurance or was covered by my parents' policy. But I didn't know anything about it, so I didn't really have medical care for those years, including when I injured my foot in a fall and limped around for weeks. I still have "weird feet," as I call it, 30 years later. Luckily I did find out about the local health department so I was able to get contraception. Later, when my folks let me take a car with me, nobody told me about routine maintenance, so there wasn't an oil change for a few years. So, maybe take a minute to think about what things you've completely taken care of that it would help your kid know about. (again, my folks were kind of weird, so this might be unnecessary advice.)

My school also didn't have much at all in the way of career counseling or job search help or anything. I feel like a session or two of advice could have helped me have some direction and probably more than minimum wage when starting out. Part of this is that my high school counselors didn't really do anything, so I'd never met with them either, so I went into college as a first-generation college student without knowing anything about anything. I think my life has had some difficulties it might not have otherwise had, as a result.

That said: One thing I really treasure about my college memories is that it felt like I had a lot of spare time. Instead of being "at school" for six or eight hours a day, classes only took up a few hours. As a result I had so much time to fart around and also to read. The college library had a huge fiction section and I took full advantage!
posted by Occula at 2:03 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]

Also! Beware of credit card debt! Accumulate as little of it as possible. It takes far, far longer to pay off than you think.
posted by Occula at 2:06 PM on August 9 [6 favorites]

Only 40% of college students in the US graduate in four years.

Take care of yourself and try to alert your dean or advisor of issues early on, but please know that if you find yourself struggling or need time off, that doesn’t mean you have failed. It means you are perfectly normal.

It is okay to hit bumps in the road. The road is still there and so are you. Things might feel really intense in that moment, but it gets better.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 2:21 PM on August 9 [6 favorites]

Advisors are good, but they are no substitute for knowing what your major expects. I knew I was majoring in math right out of the gate, but we didn't declare majors until sometime sophomore year; for a year or two I was getting advice on classes to take (in the math dept) from a Dickens scholar. "Number Theory sounds like math, of course you have to take that!" (Neither of us thought to check the handbook for things like "necessary pre-reqs that every other math major is taking this semester." If I had literally asked anybody in the math building, I'd've been right-as-right-angles.)
posted by adekllny at 2:32 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]

If you're interested giving him a book, this book genuinely informed a lot of my approach to college. It has a lot of good information on how to learn effectively, build relationships, and get the most out of the limited time you get. I strongly, strongly recommend it.
posted by mosst at 2:52 PM on August 9

Things that I didn't do, but would have been sensible are going to office hours, and trying out some more clubs and societies in my first year. Things that I did, included being generally friendly and interacting with all the new people over the first few weeks (I am an introvert, this does not come naturally); going to parties; forming study groups and reading the syllabus. To the best extent you can, get in, have a blast and get out with what you came for.
posted by plonkee at 2:57 PM on August 9 [2 favorites]

>Exhibit A: my friend who idly signed up for a stage combat class and discovered he was a weird sort of prodigy, and ended up as a professional combat choreographer, performer, and teacher with appearances on stage, on TV, in operas, and on a weird thing in Japan.

This is basically how my friend became a professional Baroque bassoonist.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 3:17 PM on August 9 [9 favorites]

Don't turn down invites, particularly during those first couple of weeks. Being the massive awkward introvert I am, I did not take advantage of all the socializing opportunities in college and still kind of regret it. I had a hard time recovering social-wise from that and never really did find my niche, did not make for a fun experience. It's not all about grades and coursework, and no one is going to care about your GPA five years after graduation.
posted by photo guy at 3:19 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]

Not so much me, but what I wish I'd known before my oldest child went off to college...

While the on-campus clinics are equipped to handle simple things, like bouts of standard homesickness-style depression, or strep throat, or maybe even mono, they are absolutely NOT capable of handling sudden, unexpected, out-of-character severe anxiety, nor are they good about correctly diagnosing (or referring) anything that initially presents as something like strep or mono but is much more life-threatening.

We encountered the first, in a previously VERY mentally stable, reliable, level-headed 20-year-old. He was not a new college student, either. It may have been a breakup that triggered it; even he isn't entirely sure, and once he stabilized, it's never come close to recurring. It was so severe he was dissociating even while driving, and would lose hours.

The following year, he came down sick during move-in week. It was misdiagnosed as a nasty cold, then mono, then maybe strep, then mono again, then when he kept getting sicker and sicker, his roommate and best friend took him into the ER himself. Sent back to the dorm again, only to land back in the ER again, where someone finally tested (10 days later!!!) for Lemierre's Syndrome. Delayed diagnosis is often fatal, so we were fortunate in that for him, he merely spent weeks in the hospital, and months with antibiotic infusions, and lost a couple terms of school. But he lived.

IMO, it's one of those things that it's critical to know exists. It's rare, but it should at least be mentioned at a possibility... if you have a sore throat and just keep getting sicker and sicker, make someone test for this. Incidence is on the upswing since a sore throat is rarely immediately treated with antibiotics these days.

I guess my advice is, don't rely on the school clinic. Make sure plans are in place in case of more serious illness, and don't hesitate to suggest they get a second opinion, because it might save their life.

And yes, that kid finally finished his bachelor's degree. And didn't even get graduation last year due to Covid. Of course, by then, the ceremony would have been for me; he was just relieved to finally be done.
posted by stormyteal at 3:19 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]

Go. To the. Gotdang. LIBRARY. (The online one as well as its realspace counterpart.) And learn to use it. It's both easier (because there will be resources you can search that are specific to what you're looking for, rather than being the Giant Ball of Mud that is the web) and harder (because those resources typically don't work like Google).

Plus, librarians are frickin' AWESOME and what you learn from them will serve you for a lifetime, no matter where your life or work take you.
posted by humbug at 3:20 PM on August 9 [9 favorites]

Don’t spend all your Saturdays hungover. I went to school somewhere people travel from all over the world to visit and I barely left the square mile around where I lived. I had a great time partying with my friends, but not getting out and seeing the sites is one of my few regrets.
posted by lovableiago at 3:23 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]

This will only be useful advice to a certain type of person but here it is anyway:

Don't stress if you don't find friends immediately. Your real friends might not materialize until you've been in college for a while.
posted by wittgenstein at 3:23 PM on August 9 [5 favorites]

Don't be afraid to be a squeaky wheel. When I was in my last year of college, there was a cognition class offered in the psych department (I was a psych major). They canceled it right before the beginning of the quarter because of low interest. I wrote a letter to the dean saying how disappointed I was and not being able to take the class may delay my graduation a year because I was going to grad school for infant perceptual and cognitive development. Not having a cognition class would put me behind my peers. Damn, don't you know, it worked. The dean reinstated the class. The four of us who signed up for it had a blast.

Also, don't do what I did. I graduated with a double major in 3 years by going year round and taking insane amounts of classes.* By the winter of my 3rd year, I was out of my mind with depression and anxiety. Prozac didn't help matters by giving me insomnia so bad I ended up suicidal and in the hospital.

Having a good relationship with a professor can open up doors for you. My grad school application to one particular school was enhanced because the lab I was interested in was run by a guy who was friendly with my advisor.

If you are interested in going into a research related field, try to get experience while an undergrad. I was lucky enough to be able to do my own research as well as working with my advisor.

And, don't take your final humanities elective credit/no credit while taking a ton of other classes and doing research. I got a D (history of rock, not even sure why I signed up for it other than it fit in my schedule). In the C/NC credit scheme that D was NC. I was able to walk with my graduating class (making friends with the dean (see above) helped) but I had to do a summer class to finish since I was slated to start grad school in the fall.

*This was partially because I started in a 6-7 year BS/MD program and during my second year was questioning whether I wanted to keep going. I added in my psych stats/research design classes along with electives and my pre-med classes.
posted by kathrynm at 3:41 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]

If he is taking any courses that involve conceptual skills instead of rote memorization, take notes on paper. Taking notes by hand forces you to listen for the key points and automatically summarize, whereas laptop notes are just too easy to do verbatim -- which is great for "These are the steps of photosynthesis" but less great for "How did the colonial enterprise affect Shakespeare's plays."

Also, it's ok to be homesick! I was desperately homesick my first semester which was compounded by feeling like such a loser because college was supposed to be a great experience, but I really missed my mom's cooking and didn't really get along with my roommate. (She was fine, we just weren't BFF the way the media portrays it.) I think colleges are better at mental health resources than they were in my day, but I basically dealt with this by not eating well and lost about 30 lbs my first semester. I do not recommend this approach.

Take at least one course outside your major every semester.

Go to the gym. Never again will you have such extensive access to such great equipment for "free." (There's probably an athletic/facilities fee; you can't get out of paying it so you might as well use it.)
posted by basalganglia at 4:21 PM on August 9 [5 favorites]

Sit in on interesting-sounding classes during add/drop! You'll find a handful that sounded fascinating on paper are miserable (they're at 8AM, or taught by someone who could make the most magical subject into a bore, or the class is forty students crammed into a room meant for 25, etc), and others that sound vaguely interesting and turn out to be fucking phenomenal (thanks to excellent profs, inventive assignments, a small class size, etc). Don't be afraid to sign up for a dozen classes, drop most of them, then end up in the handful of classes that fit you best.

Same goes for remote and asynchronous classes: a prof who's great at classroom teaching may be lousy at asynch (I'm probably talking about myself here), or basically computer illiterate and not great at running a larger class via Zoom. Make the classes you take the best for the situation you're actually in.

If you're not someone who's ever successfully woken up at 8AM for class, stop telling yourself that this will be the semester you'll start. It won't probably be, and you'll probably do poorly, and future-you will scornfully say I told you so.

If you're going to a public university, especially a big state school, you're probably not going to find individualized mentorship unless you seek it out repeatedly by asking for help, advice, and general demystification strategies. The thing everyone else has said about office hours being essential really is true. (Plus, the students who show up for my office hours and engage with the material in class tend to get a bit more leeway, even if they're slackers, as long as they're trying their best and not bullshitting me. Many of your professors know what it's like to struggle with procrastination and focus issues, or to juggle multiple responsibilities, or just to have a social life. Most of us sympathize, and often empathize.)

Similarly, don't lie to your professors about why you haven't done the work. It's fine to say "I'm just overwhelmed and can't keep up right now" rather than inventing a grandmother's death (plus your profs will respect you so much more if they don't suspect you're trying to trick them into something). Drop them a note to ask for an extension before the assignment is late.

If there's something a little beyond your reach that you wish you were better prepared to aim for, like a Fulbright Fellowship or summer research funds, go chat with people who've applied for them what their approach was. Ask profs for advice. Let them know you think it's above your head, or that you're trying to figure out whether it is or not. Give them opportunities to demystify things so you're not self-gatekeeping.

Similarly, if you find yourself in a gatekeeping position as the leader of a student group or in a governance role, make sure you're generous with information to everyone. People who are well-positioned to ask for help (because they're confident, or entitled, or have plenty of experience advocating for themselves already, or whatever) aren't going to be the ones who need that help the most. Do specific outreach to people who don't have experience with self-advocacy (this may include first-gen college students, or low-income students, or international students who just don't know the system at your school or in the US more broadly).

If you're paying your own tuition, it may be far cheaper to go part-time and pay per-credit while working than to knuckle down and try to get it all over with sooner. Plus it'll be better for your spirit and mental health.
posted by knucklebones at 4:27 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]

Learn to conduct yourself as an adult with your professors. Correspondence doesn’t need to be anything terribly formal, and indeed, overly-formal emails can belie a lack of experience, but learn to use a salutation other than “hey” when communicating with the people teaching your classes. And while you don’t have to continue with classes or teachers that you don’t feel are a good fit, maybe don’t kick off the first day of class by demanding to know the instructor’s qualifications. It doesn’t make you look smart or important, it just makes you look like an ass.

Know that someone might be an expert in their field but that does not mean that they are necessarily good at the teaching part of their job. If a class doesn’t work out but you still learned something, that’s still a benefit to you.
posted by corey flood at 5:03 PM on August 9 [2 favorites]

Everyone is different. Here's what I would tell 18-year-old me:

*Drop anyone who makes you feel like shit.
*I know you've never had a job and are completely shocked by the cost of textbooks, but find a way to get them. Inter-library loan them, or borrow from friends, or see if they have reserve copies at the university library.
*I know you want to be like Jack Kerouac (who, incidentally, sucks) and not go to your classes, but apparently Kerouac's school didn't have an attendance policy. Yours does. Go to class.
*If you begin to feel depressed, there are people at school who will help you. Visit the guidance center. Therapy later in life can be expensive--it's free here!
*You don't actually need to smoke all the weed. Just a weekend thing is fine. It's not a finite resource.
posted by sugarbomb at 6:26 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]

Definitely try out some student activities. Try to stick with one for a while, and step up when leadership opportunities present themselves. The best thing I did at college was join the radio station. I made friends with the GM, ended up joining exec staff when I was still a Freshman, and was GM my senior year. It gave me leadership experience that I could talk about in job interviews early in my career. I also discovered that I loved being on mic and was good at it, and parlayed that into a PR/spokesperson job right out of college, where everyone was impressed about how comfortable I was on radio and TV interviews. Also aside from my career, the radio station was a huge part of my social life and I still consider a lot of those people very close friends (I even was married to one for a while!).

Nthing suggestions to hand write notes. When I went to business school and laptops were required, I started out taking notes on my computer, but quickly realized that I was not absorbing the info as well as I had been in undergrad, and switched back to paper notes.
posted by radioamy at 7:29 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]

If you know you’ll want letters of rec in a given area, see the prof in office hours at the start of term and tell them about your plans and that you’re likely to want a letter from them. They can make a bit more of a note of how you participate in class and may have advice. Also: draft a suggested letter for them to edit when it’s time, to assist in actually getting it submitted in a timely way.

Also: learn the difference between adjuncts and the ranks of professors. Try to ask tenured or tenure track folks for recs
posted by momus_window at 9:11 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]

(Not at all a negative statement about adjuncts. Adjuncts just don’t get paid enough to deal with rec letters and are less likely to be around if you need another letter a few years out.)
posted by momus_window at 9:20 PM on August 9

I would read this:
‘Teach Yourself to Learn’ by McGuire and McGuire

Also, also actually listen to your professors when they tell you "X is challenging for many in the class, please take X seriously."
posted by lab.beetle at 11:23 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]

If you really don't like it remember you can quit.

Dropping out of college isn't a fun experience as such but whether staying in college is worse is a decision you are entirely capable of making for yourself.
A lifetime is a very long time and there's always a different path that can be taken.
posted by fullerine at 1:24 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]

My sister and I were asked to have this talk with our youngest cousin and apparently the most practical, useful thing we said was "No more than one shot an hour."
posted by carolr at 5:52 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]

A little bit of respect/deference toward your professors goes a long way. Every email should begin "Dear Dr. XXX" unless you are 10000% sure that that person does not have a PhD (and in that case, call them Professor anyway). This seems like such a tiny nitpicky thing, but it really does open doors, especially if you're asking them for something.

Going to pile on and say GO TO OFFICE HOURS. I never did, and I got way less out of school than I should have. This time around (I've been taking undergraduate prereqs for a graduate program) I went to the gosh darn office hours, and wouldn't you know, I learned a lot more, developed relationships with those profs, got letters of recommendation from those profs, and got to help on a research project.

Pay attention when your profs tell you how much work is expected outside of class. It's so easy to fall into the mindset of, "Oh, I have so much free time!" because you only have a couple classes a day. For a 3-credit course, you should be spending at least twice that number of hours on coursework/reading/studying/projects per week. That said, find one or two extracurriculars and carve out time for them.

If you were not an athletic person in high school, find an intramural sport or fitness class and try it out! I never did anything athletic until college, when I joined my dorm's flag football team and took some dance classes. Turns out being physically active does wonders for my mental health.
posted by coppermoss at 6:25 AM on August 10 [3 favorites]

Specifically from my own experience:


If you're a smart kid with the opportunity to enter an elite university, this can be very hard. Please, stick to your guns, and go where you would feel happy and comfortable, not where other people - no matter who they are - would have dreamed of going if only they'd been as smart as you are.

If you really don't like it remember you can quit.

If you're already there, and unhappy, then exactly this. And again, the more elite the college, the harder this is likely to be. Don't listen to anybody who says any of the following :-

1. 'People would kill for the opportunity you're about to throw away.' (So easy to say. I could say I would kill for the opportunity to play football for England, because that's never going to happen either.)
2. 'Oh, it's just imposter syndrome.' (No, it isn't. Imposter syndrome is when you feel you're not good enough. It's not when you know you don't belong.)
3. 'Oh, it's because you've gone to being a small fish in a big pond.' (This entirely misses the point. It's not about the fish. It's about the pond.)

Dropping out of college isn't a fun experience as such but whether staying in college is worse is a decision you are entirely capable of making for yourself.
A lifetime is a very long time and there's always a different path that can be taken.

A zillion times this. It's your life and your dream, not someone else's.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 6:49 AM on August 10

College provides so many opportunities and it is easy to just drift from one to another without purpose or direction. I would encourage this kid to really think about his priorities for this time, make a list of the top three, and post that list where he can see it everyday.

When making the list, it might be useful to think about why he chose the school he chose so that there is some correlation between the priorities and environment. For instance, if the kid chose a school because of its academic prestige but educational objectives do not appear in the list of priorities consider changing schools or reevaluating the priorities.

This isn't to say that the kid's priorities can't change, but encouraging the kid to think about what he wants to get out of this experience will go a long way toward making sure that he doesn't have any regrets about this time. It will also give him a framework for making choices when faced with infinite possibilities for spending time, money, and other resources: When a friend invites him to a party and he has an important exam, what should he do? Well, what are his priorities?
posted by ASlackerPestersMums at 7:13 AM on August 10 [1 favorite]

Seconding coppermoss's advice -- do not start an email Dear Mrs. Dashy ...

More broadly than going to office hours, take every opportunity for closer contact with faculty.

This means asking to meet help when needed -- yes. If you're in my class this semester, you are my primary focus, you'll get a lot out of me if you ask! I have lots to say!

This means showing up early to class or staying later, being there when casual conversations happen.

This means going to meet with your academic advisor even if you've figured out a plan -- things change, new faculty arrive, some are leaving soon and you won't know until your advisor mentions "take this class NOW", special classes get offered as a one-off, there are unique ways around requirements -- so many different things and ways to get more out of your experience that aren't in the book. The experience can be so much richer and tailored.

This means asking faculty what they research, and if you're at all interested, ask about opportunities in the lab.

Faculty, who've each been carefully chosen for what they bring, are what you're spending the big money to access. Use it!
posted by Dashy at 1:12 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]

Also: if there’s a maximum number of credits you’re allowed to take in a semester it is there for a reason. You may be tempted to exceed it—after all, there are a million different interesting things that you could learn about!—but for almost everyone, enrolling or auditing additional classes really is a recipe for disaster.

Try to live on or near campus if you can. It’s a lot easier to spend time socializing, going to office hours, and joining things if you aren’t commuting. In the end, your extracurricular activities and the relationships you build with friends and future colleagues may be even more valuable than your degree.

And learn to turn in work that is simply good enough. College is, to an extent, an exercise in learning to give people only what they are looking for so that you can move on to the next thing.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 5:33 PM on August 10

And if you are at all interested in STEM, take introductory classes now, especially if a lab is involved. It is infinitely easier to casually audit a class on Jane Austen or international politics or Leibniz after graduation than it is to try to take an intro-level chemistry class.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 5:38 PM on August 10

Having learned how to study effectively would have changed everything about my undergrad and I might be a rocket scientist today.

Go to every office hour you can, join study groups, don't be afraid to ask questions - this is a skill that will serve you well for your entire career.

The more you participate and join events the more visible you'll be to your professors which puts you at an advantage.
posted by bendy at 8:53 PM on August 10

Most of the advice above about how hard to study, and getting high grades or not, seem aimed at people doing “academic” rather than something like art and design. I did design and illustration (in the UK), and what I’d say to myself is…

It doesn’t really matter what grade you get at the end. But the work you do for your final show/portfolio will be what demonstrates to potential employers/clients/buyers after college what you can do.

So it’s possible to coast a bit and do some OK work and get an OK grade.

But if you work harder in those final months, you can discard your worst work (because you have more to choose from) and you’ll greatly improve your skills. You’ll work out more what kind of work and techniques interest you.

Those years are one of the few times where you can experiment and keep producing work without having to worry about whether it’s exactly what a client or gallery or whatever is looking for. So experiment, try many things, develop your craft, take advantage of all the free facilities (workshops, printing presses, great computers, whatever).
posted by fabius at 6:09 AM on August 11 [2 favorites]

There was a lot of good advice above from people who were in the trenches and professionals still in the trench work. I will suggest something a bit unusual and tell you to give in to any impulse you have to be kind. All that stupid baggage from high school or whatever does not mean a thing now that you are in university. You don't have to be guarded and closed in or be categorized. I look back on my years of education and career and regret not being kinder to people. Life is better by being kind and clever, not cruel.
posted by jadepearl at 10:18 PM on August 13 [1 favorite]

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