Dear Freshman, The Most Important Things You’ll Learn in College Won’t Be in the Classroom

I’m going to tell you a tiny secret about college that may be unpopular with whoever is footing your tuition bill.  College learning may end up to be 15% in the classroom and 85% everything else. Fifteen percent is going to class (possibly in pajamas), writing the papers, procrastinating on group projects, giving speeches and cramming for tests with only a Red Bull for company. The 85% is what is truly preparing you for the real world.

Living with strangers. Working with people who are not like you and use their time and talents differently. Setting a schedule.  Sticking to a budget. Making yourself exercise when you don’t feel like it. Putting yourself out there and meeting people, building and maintaining relationships.  Pushing through frustration. Resisting wearing your pajamas around the clock.

And trying…everything.

Two girls on a hike
Dear Freshman, college is made up of lots of “maybes” along the way. (@mari30_9 via Twenty20)

How Students Really Learn in College

Along the way someone in your sphere of influence will likely say to you, “You’re just going through a phase.”  That sentence angered me to my core at 18 and still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  Because…

Maybe you’ll go vegan. Maybe you’ll love it. Maybe it will make you wildly unpopular at Thanksgiving because your uncle owns a turkey farm.

Maybe you will play IM Volleyball and you have never been considered athletic in your life. Maybe you will become passionately political and attend a protest.  Maybe you will change your mind about the issue the very next year. Maybe you will lean far left or far right or far away from your parents’ point of view.  Maybe it will feel good.

Maybe you will buy a catamaran with your low interest college loan money. Maybe you will learn about compound interest and suddenly turn into a pragmatic saver.  Maybe you come from a long line of physicians yet decide to major in Puppet Arts. (Yes, that is a real major at University of Connecticut)

Maybe you will redefine what is considered a ‘bold’ act of courage for you. Maybe it’s sitting at a different lunch table in the dining hall.  Maybe it’s skydiving. Maybe it’s studying harder than ever before. Maybe it’s staying up way too late at a party and getting a B- the next day for the very first time. Maybe it’s shaving your head and not shaving your legs. Maybe it’s telling your BELOVED mother that you are indeed NOT coming home for the weekend.

We adults can get quite high and mighty about what constitutes a phase and about how long one should properly last.

We adults can be a wee bit condescending as kids explore life’s rich pageant. But here is another little secret. We have no clue what we are doing either.

Ask your parents if they ever tried something and then quit. A gym, a job, a relationship.  Ask your Dad if he ever drove a red Mustang convertible but then decided to sell it to pay for an engagement ring. (my husband) Ask your Mom if she ever plucked the CRAP out of her eyebrows at one time and then spent 18 months growing them back out. (me)

Ask your neighbor if he used to be a corporate bigwig but traded in that life to become an educator. Ask Grandma if she was engaged before she met Grandpa. Ask your Aunt if she used to be on a low fat diet but switched to low carb and then was keto but now is paleo. Ask her if it’s working. Ask your older brother why he transferred schools after two years and if it was a good choice in the end.

We are ALL in the never ending phase of growing up.  And you are on the earlier end of the journey. Some things will stick and others were just experimental.

We adults KNOW this but still nag nonetheless. And if the nagging persists, I have a suggestion. Put your phone in airplane mode on that campus and just get out there and live college, kid. And if anyone says dismissively that you are “just in a phase”.  No need to get defensive. No need to get a retaliatory forehead tattoo.  (please)

Just shrug and say, “Maybe.  Time will tell.”

You Might Also Like to Read: 

5 Tips To Help Your Teen Transition To College

Senior Year Feels Like An Hourglass Running Out of Sand

About Jen LarsenFortner

Jen Fortner lives in Minnesota with her husband, three children and the best dog on earth.  She has a MSW degree that never gets used other than to diagnose family members at holiday gatherings. She has a blog at where she tells stories about her family that they never read.

Read more posts by Jen

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