Going away to college was one of the most significant transitions I’d ever had to make. I sat in my dorm room that first day with a huge smile, but inside, I felt a mixture of petrifying fear and excitement. You’re thrown advice in graduation cards left and right…
“These friends will last a lifetime!”
But none of those quick sentences prepare you for what it will really be like.
Here are 7 things I wish I had known before freshman year
1. Set realistic goals — college isn’t perfect immediately!
I went into college with my wildest dreams spilling out of every pore. My mom told me she felt like I was going to “set the world on fire,” and that was the only thing I would expect from myself. Especially with tuition in mind, I wanted to do it all — make great friends, have good relationships with professors, get good grades, join all the clubs, etc. I walked into college sporting the deepest shade of rose-colored glasses.
I got pneumonia during my second week of classes; one of my professors nearly flat-out refused to help me catch up until I went to his assistant. I didn’t figure out how to perfectly use our online homework system until around week three. I got my first low grade on a paper I had worked super hard on (not bad, but not meeting my straight-A standards from high school).
This isn’t to say it was all bad. I did well in the class I thought I’d have to drop. I got an A- in the class where I did iffy on the midterm paper. Eventually, I made some great friends, but it wasn’t the instant best-friend connection. We built upon our connection and made a strong one by the end of my first year — the first night of college, I cried from homesickness; the last before summer, I cried from not wanting to leave my roommate.
In my second semester, I understood more about what to do. I set smaller goals, like working hard in one of my major classes. Once you set a few pinpoints to work on, it gets easier to make strides toward the big picture.
That college experience will happen for you, but it might not be this instant perfect fit. It’s an adjustment, a big transition toward independence. Take it one day at a time, and sooner or later, you can set the biggest goals — one you couldn’t have even thought possible on your first day of class.
2. Make your dorm feel like a home.
Many freshmen overpack for college but then realize what they left behind is actually what they wanted — having a dorm room that felt like a miniature haven has been so crucial to my college experience.
A good mattress topper can make your bed feel better than at home. Tons of pictures, lights, and fluffy pillows can make the space feel less like a closet and more like somewhere, you’re excited to cuddle up at the end of the day.
My friends all made fun of me for taking so much to school. I had tons of prints, fairy lights, rugs, etc. I even bought those scented pine cones for the window to eliminate the dreaded dorm smell. They laughed when I moved in, but then they were in my room every night.
Make your room somewhere you’re excited to visit at the end of the day — not just a temporary space.
3. Professors aren’t scary; they’ll talk to you (they want to).
I was terrified on my first day of classes, and I had been to community college classes during my senior year of high school. This was different. I had my first class in my major bright and early at 8, and I was determined to impress. Inwardly, though, I was shaking in my boots.
My first time walking to office hours, I blasted one of my favorite songs on high to give myself the confidence to converse well with my professor. I thought he’d see me as immature, look right through me, and see the girl who didn’t know what she was doing.
It wasn’t like that at all.
He respected me. I sat down to ask about the exam and make up a quiz (from that formerly mentioned week of pneumonia), and he offered me a mint and a drink. We had a conversation about our favorite shows. He asked me some basic questions, and I could see he truly cared about me and my college path. He didn’t look down upon me for being a nervous freshman; he treated me like an adult — a feeling I never had in high school. We have a connection to this day, and I try to take any class he offers.
That being said — make connections with your professors and do it early. Most don’t want you to be crying the night before their exam. If you’re struggling, tell them, and ask for help! They won’t hand it to you as high school may have, but they’ll give you the guidance you need to succeed and the motivation to do it, too. If you’re lucky, you’ll make a long-standing relationship and maybe even feel like you have a friend along the way.
4. Don’t be afraid if you have no idea what you’re doing, and ask for help.
While you may fall in love with your major, many incoming first years aren’t. In the 2014 —2015 year, the U.S. Department of Education reported that around 30% of college students in the country changed their major at least once (and many more than that). Beyond that, other sources think the number is more likely to be more than half. That being said, confusion is normal. College is all about exploration. Take some different classes, breathe, and see what sticks with you.
I was unsure of my major, but the second I sat in the control room with an encouraging professor, I was in love. When you find what’s right, you’ll know!
The confusion comes in different forms, too, beyond picking a major. Every student has had that one class — the class that makes you doubt everything. Even one lousy exam, paper, or day can convince you you’re failing your college life.
The Hollywood expectations of going to a university don’t prepare you for having a bad day, but take it in stride. Everyone has a rough point, usually a few times a semester. Not every day is a beautiful experience where you’re doing what you love — some days may even test if you love it anymore.
All of that aside, it gets better. As a high schooler, you were probably told this before, but it’s true. Take the bad days to think about what went wrong and what you can take from the failure and turn it into something better. Even the people you think are perfect probably don’t know what they’re doing.
If one of those bad days is too bad, ask for help! I’ve had so many moments where I’ve hidden away and been upset or stressed beyond belief when the situation was easily resolvable. Talk it out with a roommate. Talk to your RA. Go to an advisor. Take a break. Call your parents or your best friend. Someone will have gone through what you have or something similar, and they’ll be more than happy to help you.
And if all that fails…fake it ‘till you make it.
5. Take care of yourself even more than you do others.
This one might make me sound like a jerk at first glance or a raging narcissist. But I promise you — it’s true.
College is tiring. Sure, you’re not in class all day like in high school, but the classes you attend require dedicated hours of outside work to do well. No one is holding your hand. It’s easy to drown and not sure where to turn. I’ve seen it, and been through it, too many times, giving 150% to everything and everyone, leaving no time even to have a meal some days.
If you’ve ever heard of spoon theory, it’s one to live by in college. While the theory originated for those with chronic illness, it’s an easy way to weigh if you’re spreading yourself too thin. Spoon theory states that you start the day with a certain amount of spoons (which can vary based on mood, physical illness, fatigue, stress, etc.) and then must decide where to divvy them up from there.
In college, it’s so important to divide up your time in a way that consciously remembers your care. It sounds silly, but everyone wants your time in school, and sometimes it’s hard to remember to take a break to eat, to breathe. Each club, class, or job will want your full attention — but that’s simply irrational.
Remember to prioritize. If your friend is having a hard day, help them, of course, but if it’s starting to drain you, you must be honest and seek extra help or step back. If you feel completely worn out from a class, put more spoons toward it that day.
In short, remember to help yourself. Take breaks. Sleep. Drink a lot of water (like, more than you’re thinking right now). Make sure you eat regular meals. Leave time for a dance session or a movie night. Do whatever you have to avoid the dreaded college burnout.
6. Take that unique class! Try that thing! Don’t spend all your time cramming.
It was drilled into my brain before I left that I’d have to spend all my time in school with my nose in a $300 textbook (don’t get me started on the price of books). I didn’t realize how many other experiences there were that may even teach you more than any overpriced book will.
Colleges offer a bunch of unique classes, and most have a myriad of clubs to choose from. Some of the courses might be something you’d never even heard of. Put yourself out there. Try something new!
One day, one of my best friends and I cried over registration. We decided to sign up for a one credit class called Thai Chi. We laughed through tears but then had a pretty good time whipping the sticks around and hitting each other (we weren’t very good). Sometimes, I even found myself calmer at the end. It was a terrific introduction to something we hadn’t otherwise heard of.
Try that class that interests you, even if it isn’t for your major. College is what you make of it. The more diverse of a skillset you get, the better.
On top of that, don’t spend all your time studying. This ties into taking time for yourself. A Stanford study showed that the stress of cramming makes studying ineffective. Pace yourself. Take breaks to have a drink, even to walk around the library. Find out what environment works for you, and stick to it! Try study groups, tutors, teaching it to a friend, etc.
Through all of that, remember that sleeping the night before a test and varying how you study can be far more helpful than staying up until four in the textbook.
7. Friend groups will evolve. People will come and go. It’s all natural.
One of the things I was told for years before college was that I would make the best friends I’d ever had. I was suspicious, especially since I was in a tight-knit friend group in high school. That being said, I held my expectations high.
Never do that.
I pressured myself. I thought every person I met on campus could be my next best friend. I cried when I thought they couldn’t compare to my friends at home, that they didn’t like me, that no one would stick around. I cried, thinking I wasn’t good enough for them and would never find those friends.
The second you force a relationship, it’s almost always wrong. These things will come, but they’ll come on their terms. They’ll come on the roommate who drops her socks in the toilet.
They’ll come through ordering food at weird hours. They’ll come from fitting your entire body into the dryer.
They might not all stick around, either. You never genuinely know who your people will be until you get that feeling — that little ping of home that makes you want never to leave.
You’ll get homesick, sure. At weird times, too. You’ll miss what you used to have, the old friends who are now scattered. But eventually, you’ll find yourself missing college too and missing all those friends who you cried laughing with at 2 in the morning.
These are just a few things I wish I knew as a freshman at Ithaca College, and my experiences won’t be cookie-cutter to yours. Everyone’s college life is different, and don’t pressure yourself for it to be perfect immediately.
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