Things Nobody Tells You About College
If someone in my family had gone to college and given me the advice below, my life might be completely different now. I am a 29 year old PhD entomologist who made a lot of great choices during her undergraduate career and a few terrible ones too. I hope that I can help you learn frommy mistakes and set you up for success, starting with your freshman year!
I attended a small, liberal arts school in Lexington, Kentucky. Tuition was approximately $39,000.00 per year which I covered with financial aid, scholarships, and student loans. I joined a sorority, had a job off and on campus, played two varsity sports, majored in Biology, and lived off campus two of four years. I also taught Microbiology at a public University during graduate school, so I am familiar with some of the issues at larger state schools too. If you want to chat more, please reach out to me. You can DM me on Instagram @secraw2, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
1. Get a Credit Card, but Make a Budget
For many of you, this will be the first time you are in charge of your own finances. The things you do with your money now can impact you for the rest of your life. It is tempting to view your freshman year as the “I’m young; I can do whatever I want!” year, but please, in regards to your finances, don’t take this approach.
Once you leave college you will want to do things like buy a house, get married, etc. To do any of these things, you need to have a solid credit score. To get a solid credit score, you have to do a few things. The most important of these is to pay your bills on time.
Second-most important is to have low credit utilization. This essentially means, don’t use credit just because you have it. The catch-22 is that to show that you can utilize credit responsibly; you have to have credit to utilize! One of the easiest ways to do this is to get a credit card.
This advice comes with a couple big caveats. Credit cards are not ‘free money’. Treat your credit card like a debit card. If you worry that you will not be able to resist using your credit card excessively, leave it in your dorm when you go out. Whatever you need to do, do it, but don’t let a fear of bills keep you from building your credit. Only open one to two credit cards during your undergraduate career. A small part of your credit score comes from recent inquiries, otherwise known as the amount of times you have requestednew credit. You do not want to request credit too many times, or your credit score will drop. If you can, do some research with your parents on this topic and have them help you out!
2. Studying is Different
I don’t know about you, but I was a high achiever in high school. I am from a small town where it was easy to excel. Homework came easy to me, I rarely studied, and had no trouble passing my courses. If this resonates with you, I want to warn you that college will not be equivalent to your high school experience. I’ll never forget nodding along in Chemistry I, “studying” for the test by flipping through the book a few times and solving some practice problems, and earning my very first F—53% to be exact.
Unless you’re very bright and atypical, the methods that you used to study in high school won’t work for you in college. You are in charge of the amount of time you spend studying, and making sure you understand the material. It will be easy to trick yourself into thinking that you know what’s going on during class. Unfortunately, you will find that once you leave a lecture, you can no longer recall or understand the information.
Everyone learns differently, so I am not here to tell you EXACTLY how to study, but I am here to tell you that studying is important. Personally, I benefitted immensely by i) going to the Professor’s office hours and ii) forming small study groups with classmates. Make flash cards, explain the material to your mom, take thorough notes with pretty pens and 10 highlighters, it doesn’t matter the approach, just make sure you learn the stuff.
3. You Are in Charge of Your Health
One night during my sophomore year I had terrible pain in my left side. I had just finished my first cross-country practice of the year and figured I simply strained a muscle. The pain became so unbearable that my cousin who lived close by and insisted I go to the hospital. I refused, and refused, until the pain was so bad I could not breathe. My mom rushed to campus and accompanied us to the ER where I promptly vomited all over the floor and collapsed.
You are responsible for staying healthy, making doctor’s appointments, and not letting symptoms get so severe that you pass out and vomit on the floor. Day to day you are the only person making healthy choices on your behalf. The “freshman 15” is very real.
Alcohol, fatty foods, late-night pizza are all fun and games until you can’t zip your pants anymore. I cannot stress this enough, take care of your body. All-nighters will happen, drinking alcohol will happen, joining too many clubs and doing too many things will happen. Don’t be hard on yourself when these unhealthy events occur, but you must help your body recover from these stressors so you can do what is most important—get that degree!!
By the way, I had kidney stones. Drinking water is part of staying healthy!
4. Student Loans Are Not Free Money
Alright, back to another financial topic. Let me start this one by saying that if I knew I’d be saddled with $120,000.00 in student loan debt after obtaining my bachelor’s and PhD, and that I would make much less than my projected salary, I would have done things MUCH differently. When you are in school and your loans are deferred, you almost forget that they exist.
I had no one to help me sign or read my student loan paperwork. Honestly, no 17-19 year old should be doing this on their own. Before you sign, have someone who has been through it before guide you. The true gravity of loans does not hit you until you owe thousands more than what you borrowed. If you do decide to take out a student loan, that’s fine, just don’t ignore it.
Also, your student loans may ‘overpay’ and a check will be cut to you personally. This happened to me a number of times. Sometimes it is a mistake, and sometimes it is not. When it is a mistake—if you spend the money, you are responsible for paying that back to the University before the semester ends. Check with your financial aid office to ensure that the overpayment was not an error. If it was not an error, do not be tempted to keep the money and use it as ‘extra’ income. It comes with strings and interest, and it is not worth the short-term gain.
5. You Can Say No
I know when you’re meeting new people and trying to fit in it can be tempting to say ‘yes’ to everything. “Yes” to parties, “yes” to dinners out, “yes” to drinking, “yes” to spring break trips—STOP. Your friend groups will ebb and flow during college. It may take one year or four to finally find that group of friends you can rely on for the rest college, and your life. However, your first group of friends may not end up being that final, life-long friend group. My point is that it is ok to stay true to what you want.
For instance, I went with a group of three girls to a local Fossil where one of the more wealthy girls bought a very expensive purse and wallet. She commented on the decrepit tate of my purse, and questioned why I hadn’t bought a new one. The other girls were contemplating wallet purchases as well; I felt left out and isolated. I purchased a bag I had no business purchasing. It’s 2019, and I don’t speak to even one of the girls from that outing. True friends will like you for you and they will respect your boundaries. Don’t be afraid to say no, even if it seems like in the moment it will cast you out to the fringes.
6. Ask For Help
The thing I miss most about college campuses is the constant access to free resources! Physical therapists, psychologists, personal trainers, dieticians, counselors—you have so many people right at your fingertips! When it feels like you’re drowning, do not feel embarrassed or shy about asking for help. People want to help you. When I was a teaching assistant, I loved it when students came to me for advice of any kind. One student even asked me how to deal with their bed bug problem (granted, I’m a bed bug expert), but seriously—your problem will not be too weird or big to handle.
Take advantage of all the services available to you, and get to know your college resource network so that you can get help when you need it. I would recommend especially seeking guidance on finances, time management, and mental health. Those things can spiral out of control before you even realize you have a problem.
7. Get to Know Your Professors
This is something I realized was beneficial far too late. In high school, your teachers seem so segregated from you, your life, and your experiences. College Professors are often much more accessible and can be more relatable.
If you’re in a smaller school, you will have direct and frequent access to your Professors and you will get to know them well over the course of your major. If you’re in a larger school and have a TA, it can be a little more difficult to meet one on one with the course instructor. Try to schedule meetings with them when you can and get to know your TA as well! These people are your network coming out of college. They will write recommendation letters for you, advocate for you, refer you for jobs, internships, or graduate schools and it is imperative you have a good relationship with them.
8. Pursue Activities Off Campus
College towns often have a lot to offer culturally. Don’t forget to venture off campus and get to know your city! I do not necessarily recommend getting a job while you are in school, but I do think jobs or internships relevant to your career goals are absolutely worthwhile and you may need to go into the city to find them.
Many students get immersed in the “bubble” of their college campus, but there are other sites to see in many college towns. Go see a local play, volunteer at a local animal shelter, go to an art museum—leave your dorm on occasion. Some of my most productive writing occurred at coffee shops off-campus. The library is great, and college activities are fun, but sometimes a breath of fresh air and a new perspective can be necessary for your efficiency and well-being!
9. Learn to Write
This may be easier for those of you attending a small, private school. Writing is much more frequent and encouraged (in my experience) at smaller schools versus large state schools. However, the importance of writing well cannot be understated. If you decide to pursue an additional degree, it is likely that you will be submitting multiple essays in your application packet. At that stage, you are competing with a slew of other college graduates and it is important that your writing reads well.
Effective writing will, of course, be crucial for you to receive exemplary grades during your undergraduate career as well. Five to twenty page research papers will become your new normal. Instead of griping about how much you hate writing, just learn to do it. Many campuses have small writing workshops you can attend. This may feel incredibly lame at the time, but you won’t be sorry.
10. You Cannot Do Everything
It will be tempting when you get to campus to join every club, audition for every play, be involved with every cause, take your classes, and still try to make every social event possible. You cannot do this. I was so active during my first two years of college that my advisor threatened to drop me from mentorship if I did not give up at least one extracurricular project. At the time, I was entitled and thought “I’ll show him I can do it all!” I was wrong, and ended up with recurrent kidney stones and mononucleosis that knocked me off my game for weeks.
If you do not slow yourself down, your body will do it for you. Get involved, but know your limits. If you start feeling abnormally tired, you can’t sleep; you lack focus, lose your appetite, become anxious or depressed, and are more irritable than usual—stop, reassess your calendar and adjust your commitments as necessary.