Recent College Grad Learned These Five Lessons the Hard Way

College is a time of learning and growth. While you can read, discuss, and prepare all you want, you’re going to run into unexpected challenges and roadblocks in university. Take it from a recent grad: these mistakes are critical because they’re opportunities for growth. Sometimes, the hard way is the only way to learn an important lesson.

College is a time of learning and growth. (Photo credit: Kayla Simon)

Five lessons I learned the hard way during my four years of college

1. The first friends you make may not be your forever friends

Freshman orientation and the first couple weeks of your time in college will feel like summer camp: parents are gone, independence is abundant, and everyone is feeling a little homesick, a little excited, and desperate for new connections. Many college freshmen will latch onto their roommate, their friend from home, the person they sit next to in Psych 101, or the first person they speak to at orientation — and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

A new, unfamiliar setting can be incredibly daunting, and making a connection with someone who is going through the same thing can be invaluable. Friendships are forged quickly as freshman year kicks off.

While these instant friendships are great, they may not be sustainable long-term. The guy across the hall who made a great companion when looking for a dining hall, your random roommate from a different state, or the girl you happen to be paired up with for lab might not be forever friends. Think about it — the odds that the very first people you meet at college will be in your wedding party one day are slim.

Take these friendships for what they are and don’t sweat it if they don’t last the first semester. You may end up BFFs with the first person you meet at college. Or, you may end up being Instagram mutuals forever but never hanging out again.

The exciting thing about college is there are endless opportunities to meet new people and forge new connections. So whether your orientation friend group fell apart, or you haven’t connected with anyone yet, don’t worry. When you’re on a college campus, a new friend is always just around the corner.

2. Be open to new experiences, but learn to say no

One of the only things about my college experience that felt true to the movies was the involvement fair. As I strolled down my campus’s main walkway, different clubs and activities lining the green on either side, I truly felt like I was living in a college brochure — or in that one scene from Pitch Perfect.

The involvement fair is a physical representation of just how many different organizations and extracurriculars exist at a college. There really is something for everyone, whether that’s the school newspaper, a cultural center, a club sport, an art club, or even a moon watching club (yes, this was a real thing on my campus).

It can be tempting to sign up for everything. With the world at your fingertips and everyone and their mother advising you to “Get involved!” you might feel the urge to sign up for a couple — or maybe a dozen — clubs and activities. I certainly did my freshman year.

Before I knew it, I was getting emails from a film club, an animal advocacy club, a campus magazine, a yoga club, a volleyball team, and more. What was at first exciting became overwhelming very quickly. I tried to go to every club’s meeting and started to get them all mixed up. You know things are bad when you show up to knitting club with your yoga mat.

What I soon learned was that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to extracurricular activities. No one is going to find it impressive that you’re part of 20 clubs if you hardly attend meetings for any of them.

More importantly, you’re not going to derive value from any of those activities if you’re not dedicating any effort or enthusiasm to them. Once I found 2 or 3 clubs that I was really passionate about, I was able to invest most of my energy into those select activities, and they became the best part of my college experience.

You only get out of a club what you put into it. Challenge yourself to try something new, but don’t be afraid to set a boundary and say no every now and then. Your time is valuable, and with the endless opportunities with which college presents you, it’s time to learn to manage and prioritize the activities that matter to you.

3. Expect the unexpected

I’ve always relied on my planning skills. For many people, including myself, planning can be a way to control a chaotic and overwhelming world, and this is especially true when entering a new phase of life like college. Unfortunately for planners like me, the world we live in can’t always be controlled.

My entire college experience was rocked by a worldwide pandemic. There’s no way to know what lies ahead. There’s a saying that life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. In college, it’s important to maintain a level of preparation, but expect the unexpected, and try your best to roll with the punches when things don’t go the way you anticipated.

Did I expect to miss out on my entire sophomore year (and some of my freshman and junior years, too)? No. But I took the opportunity to take on extra credits, spend time with my family and dogs, and be grateful that I stayed healthy. It’s all about perspective.

4. Not every one comes into college with the same background

It’s expected that you’ll encounter a diverse array of classmates in college — it’s one of the appeals of going to university. Broadening your horizons, gaining new perspectives, and learning about new cultures can be incredibly exciting.

What you’ll also quickly learn is that with diverse backgrounds comes diverse senses of etiquette, financial standings, and family situations. It can be hard not to compare oneself to classmates, roommates, or sorority sisters.

I remember a time when a classmate revealed to me that they were graduating with no loans and their parents were funding their entire tuition and rent. It was hard not to compare my own family and financial situation to this person.

I began to feel frustrated and even resentful of my peers. So many of them came from what I perceived as “better” backgrounds financially. What I soon realized, though, is that to many of my classmates, came from a “better” background. I have a tight-knit family who I talk to regularly and I was able to attend college without completely going into debt.

Once again, perspective matters. In college, some people may be completely on their own with no contact with family, while others are still living with and fully funded by their parents. The important thing is to avoid judgment and resentment, and appreciate where you come from.

5. When someone tells you, “College will be the best four years of your life,” don’t believe them

I can’t tell you how many times I was told, “College will be the best four years of your life” leading up to my freshman year. I heard it from family members — many of whom met their significant others and best friends in college — and I heard it in the media.

My favorite TV shows, movies, and magazines advertised college as a romantic, non-stop fun, exploratory experience where you figure out the rest of your life. This could not be further from the truth, and it promotes harmful preconceptions and expectations that simply can never be met. While my college experience was great, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed when it wasn’t the fairytale I’d been promised.

College will be one of the most formative times of your life. You’ll experience incredibly high highs and dangerously low lows. You might meet lifelong friends who you will cherish — and you may meet some people who will teach you lessons that you’ll carry with you forever. You may or may not have the time of your life, but you’ll also learn important things about yourself. When I was handed my college diploma, I was a completely different person than the 18-year-old girl who signed up for classes freshman year. And I was glad to be.

Perpetuating the mythology that college will be the best time of your life is actually quite a downer. When a young adult graduates college, are they to expect that it’s only downhill from there? That’s no way to live.

College is great, but it is not the best four years of your life. Life is a long journey to happiness and joy, and hopefully college is only the beginning.

More Great Reading:

Top 12 College Freshman Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

About Molly McGuigan

Molly McGuigan is a freelance writer passionate about storytelling and obsessed with the intersection of pop culture and social issues. Molly is a film buff, dog lover, feminist, and bookworm, and she loves writing about all things entertainment. Find her here.

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