While in college, during what seemed like eons ago, if I’d earned a dollar every time I heard the phrase, “It’s the best four years!” I could have funded my own university. Yet I fear despite that optimistic outlook, I failed to optimize my college years. To the nearly 20 million students expected to attend college this fall, here are some things I wish I’d done differently that might give you a leg up.
1. Quit Caring About Everyone Else
I went to a small, private, liberal-arts college in the middle of nowhere. Still, it felt daunting compared to the much smaller private school I’d attended during my K-12 years. A natural introvert, I stepped onto campus feeling reserved and hesitant, inferior to the students who seemed to have it all together. You know the ones: better dressed, more outgoing, an air of confidence both in their studies and in social circles.
I spent my freshman and probably sophomore year consumed with what people thought of me, allowing myself to wallow in qualities that seemed inferior to my peers and generally uncomfortable with who I was, especially my natural shyness.
Grant it, some of this is part of being young—natural growing pains—but still, I wish I’d had the foresight to gather my nerves, take a deep breath, be proud of who I was, and ignore what I thought others were thinking of me. Truth be told, they were probably feeling as insecure as me and were better at the façade, or could not have cared less one way or the other.
My dad gave me several valuable pieces of advice before I went away to college, but one that made the biggest impression was the simplest, and one he wished he’d done when he was in school. “Just be nice and say ‘hi’ to everyone you meet.” Sometimes I followed his advice, especially towards my senior year, but at the beginning? No way. As Dr. Seuss said, “Sometimes the questions are complicated, but the answers are simple.” This is never more true than in college.
2. Care More About Everyone Else
Maybe because of my insecurities, I focused a lot on myself and finding friends with whom I clicked. Of course, I was drawn to people like me, and when I found them, I rarely ventured outside of my comfortable posse. I wouldn’t trade those friends for the world. Since college, we have attended each other’s weddings, met each other’s babies, mourned each other’s losses. But while I was in school and had the opportunity to meet people of different backgrounds, viewpoints, and personalities, I failed to do so.
I didn’t know how to, nor did I have the desire. I missed out on learning experiences. I know because I’ve done that more by default as I ventured into adulthood, and I’ve found it to be interesting and rewarding. Plus, it might help someone else: The second leading cause of death among the 10 to 24 age group is suicide. Reaching out to others, especially those who are different, might help someone who could really use a friend.
3. Study Wisely
I graduated high school with nearly a 4.0. I wasn’t the smartest kid in the class, by any means, but I had a brain and tended to be more analytical rather than lackadaisical toward my studies. As a classic firstborn, no one had to motivate me to do well in school: A “B” stung, just because I knew I could do better.
That said, when I went to college, I took this trait too far. I spent a lot of time in the library. I studied many weekends. When other kids were doing extracurricular activities or going out with their friends, I was always inside writing a paper.
As an English major with a political science minor, it’s not that my studies were all that difficult, but I hadn’t quite mastered the skill of note-taking the way I should have by that time. During a lecture, I struggled to determine what I should take away from class. Often, this transferred to studying the wrong material and doing worse on a test than I should have.
According to this survey, I wasn’t alone in that failing: “Statistics show that a large percentage of [high schoolers] do not have the academic preparation to do the work.” I wish I’d taken the time to figure out how to be a more proficient student. It would have saved me time and allowed me to do this next item.
After college, I planned on attending law school. My friends and professors were aware of this. So I felt I had to live up to that reputation and study constantly. The problem was, I missed out on a lot of social activities.
I know so many people, especially your parents, will encourage you to hit the books “every now and then.” But I’m going to say: There truly is only one period of your life where you have few responsibilities, especially ones that relate solely to your own well-being. Not to sound like an old know-it-all, but now that I have four kids and must pay a mortgage, college looks like one big party.
The reason everyone says “It’s the best four years!” is, well, when else can you hang out with friends all night, pay hardly any bills, and only take care of you? That might not reflect every college student’s perspective, but once you graduate, you won’t get to live so freely. So enjoy it while you can—responsibly, of course.
5. Broaden Your Horizons
Either because of my circumstances or personality, I remained throughout college a student with tunnel vision. I had the opportunity to study abroad, at Oxford University, yet I opted out. As I’ve still never been to England or seen Shakespeare’s grave, I remain a grief-ridden writer with a B.A. in English longing to sentimentalize and memorialize my life’s discipline in person. If you have the chance to travel abroad, don’t hesitate. Just go.
Finally, one of the things I did do in college was handle money well. Partly, this is because I was blessed to have parents who had worked hard and sacrificed to pay for my entire private college education, so I was relieved of that financial burden. (I appreciate that more now than I did then. Thanks, mom and dad!) Yet I failed to take it a step further and invest the money I had.
The Frugal Farmer says you should invest while in college for three reasons: 1. Fewer financial responsibilities mean more freedom to invest in stocks you like. 2. Money invested is a good source for emergency funds. 3. Investing in something forces you to save.
Of course, this isn’t a foolproof syllabus of things you might miss in college, and it isn’t for everyone. But if you go, you’ll still make your own “mistakes.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If I hadn’t made these mistakes, I wouldn’t be who I am today, nor would I have tried to right them as an adult.
A recent Harvard University study showed the “U.S. has the highest college dropout rate among industrialized nations. Among four year colleges, just 56% of students graduate within six years.” Barring extenuating circumstances, be confident, aim to finish, and enjoy some of the best four years you’ll ever have.