[Note: I wrote the following in Sept. 2013 (as a sophomore) and published it on an old and short-lived blog. I will add a brief follow-up at the end.]
“I thought college was supposed to be perfect. It would start when I opened the mailbox to find a thick envelope containing an acceptance letter from an Ivy League school. It would end with the most inspirational commencement address in all of history, the offer of a dream job, and the promise of a lifetime of success. The time in between would include brilliant discoveries and fascinating lectures, hours of peaceful studying on sunlit lawns, meaningful self-discovery, dramatic student protests against all the world’s injustices, a chance encounter leading to true love, numerous scenes of slow motion laughter with the best of friends, and perhaps some musical numbers.
Here’s something people don’t tell you about college: there is a good chance you will be miserable for some period of time – maybe a few days, maybe an entire year. You will become disillusioned; you will realize you have been working your entire life for four years that are special and important, but not perfect, and maybe not remarkably better than any other four years. You will fail an assignment, or you will fail to be challenged and inspired. You will have no idea how to make friends without recess and play dates and snack-trading at the lunch table. You will be rejected by a student organization, a sorority, or an internship. You will sleep too little. You will be a freshman again. You will feel like the only one not having the time of your life – but you will be completely wrong.
You are normal, in this way at least. It does not matter if you are mature, confident, and well-prepared. No matter how much research you have done, no matter how many schools you’ve visited, your freshman year will be nothing like you imagined – for better or for worse. The factors you weighed most heavily in your decision to attend a school might become insignificant; factors you considered trivial could make or break your experience.
My freshman year both exceeded and failed to meet expectations. I did not expect the joy of wandering around a city or the thrill of celebrating an election victory at the White House. I also did not expect to cry during winter break when I realized how much I missed high school. I did not expect to fill out another application and choose to be a new student for a second year in a row. But I did, and I was not alone. So many students don’t get it right the first time, and transfers are not the only ones with disappointing freshmen experiences. Sometimes it seems like everyone says “I hated my school at first” or “I thought about transferring until…” If you dig a little deeper, you will find that the exciting statuses and cheerful photos filling your newsfeed are only part of the story.
Don’t worry; things get better with a little effort. What I learned in my first year helped me chose a new school and is helping me make the most of my second year. I probably will become one of those older people who give young people unrealistic expectations for college. When these adults look back, they have trouble finding the negative memories in the pile of positives.
You might wonder how they got to this point. Maybe I will be able to tell you in three years, but probably not. Don’t believe anyone who tells you exactly what to look for in a school or how to spend your time there. All I can give is vague advice for those of you who recently started freshman year or who are starting the process of choosing a college. You are the only one who can discover what makes you happy. Do a lot of reflection, take an educated guess, and then make the most of your experience. Do not try to have anyone else’s “successful” college career, or even the one you imagined for yourself. Know that every experience is unique and no experience is perfect. Be flexible. Change what does not make you happy, and recognize what does. Try new things, and don’t give up until you find something that makes you think differently or gives you a story you want to tell again and again. When you forget to look for perfection, you might find the perfect way to make your experience yours. ”
[Follow up: Despite the cheesy ending, I agree with most of what my younger self had to say, though Georgetown did not turn me into “one of those older people who give young people unrealistic expectations for college.” I had some absolutely amazing experiences, some not-so-great ones, and mostly ones somewhere in between. I’d do it over, but I also hope my next four years are better than the last.
I do have 3 important pieces of cliche advice to add, which you’ve probably already heard and will certainly hear many more times: 1. study abroad if at all possible, 2. go to office hours even if you don’t have questions, and 3. take at least one class every semester that you are really excited about, even if it means putting off requirements (within reason).]