September 3, 2015

A Letter to College First-Years: Tips, Tricks, and the Best of Wishes from a Sophomore

Dear first-years,

How's college? 

Soon enough, this question will become all-too-familiar. It's often one of the first things I hear upon encountering connections from home--whether former teachers, teammates, acquaintances, friends. 

I wish I could describe to them, in a casual sentence, the challenge, the exhilaration, the pain, and the soul-searching that my college experience. Instead, I often reply with a vague and inadequate "It's really fun!" or "It's hard, but I love it." Sometimes the question even elicits a wry smile and a "I'm still alive."

So what is college really, then? It is both a place and experience. It is an adventure, an investment, a stimulating environment. Even these words, however, feel insufficient to me. 

As I see it, college is an ocean.

College links you to places, people, and happenings that you may otherwise never explore, encounter, experience. It hosts diverse life and boasts uncharted waters. 

Countless routes exist--there are those more efficient and those less so, but all lead to your final destination. It's also possible that you've embarked for the sake of discovery--perhaps that destination is undetermined, and that's okay too. After all, you cannot find without seeking. 

You may feel small. After all, who wouldn't, in a vast ocean with no shortage of other boats? You may envy the other adventurers--those equipped with a plethora of navigation skills or a pristine ship, those who know what they're doing, have planned exactly where they're going, and are moving at astounding speeds. Learn from them, but do not wallow about, feeling wistful and inadequate. Let them be your impetus to improve. Remember that regardless of your background or equipment, each of you will face challenges. 

Clear skies and ominous clouds, calm waters and stormy seas are all ahead. Some waves appear more intimidating than they really are. Others look tame but are actually treacherous.

You may become lost, shipwrecked, momentarily submerged. Backup provisions are likely necessary, as are detours. You may even alter your course entirely. 

Upon arrival, you may discover that the location doesn't suit you as well as you had hoped. You may stay for awhile, but ultimately pursue that yearning to sail again. Others settle in happily. Yet others choose to drop their anchors for a bit, then continue to voyage. 

Overwhelmed? I was too, and I still am. But as I've sputtered, cruised, and inched along, I've picked up a few tidbits that have eased the grueling trek:

College orientation at its finest
1. Embrace the unexpected.
About a month into college, I was already contemplating a different projected major. I had always expected to study strictly the humanities, but instead, my humanities-heavy load left me seeking solace in my sole quantitative course: multivariable calculus. After wrestling with abstract essay prompts and struggling to memorize Renaissance music, I found my straightforward problem sets comforting. In the spring, I ended up happily declaring a math and French major, a far cry from the Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought I'd intended to study.

Similarly, I noticed this fluidity in the friendship sphere. The mere nature of the semester system means that you'll be interacting with different people in new courses. Seemingly-strong links may weaken (I even witnessed some fall apart), but new connections will form. And just as I didn't expect to be a math and French major, I also didn't expect to become good friends with the people I'm closest to at college. First impressions can be deceiving, so keep an open mind as you search for those kindred spirits.

2. Explore beyond your established interests.
By all means keep doing what you love, but leave your options open. College should be anything but a continuation of high school--it's a chance to challenge, discover, and reinvent. For me, this meant continuing to run recreationally and to play the violin in orchestra, but to take a stab at something I'd always dreamed of doing: starting a street style blog. We learn the most about ourselves when we venture into the unfamiliar--I challenge you to try at least one new thing this semester and see what happens.

Similarly, refrain from limiting yourself to a single subject area. Like I mentioned before, I was surprised to struggle so much in my humanities classes given how well I had fared in high school. College academics can be really different. If you take a survey of classes in the beginning, you may also find that you already have some prerequisites down for the major you choose, or the preprofessional path you pursue. I regret not taking any sort of science my first year, because if I were to decide on any health-related path, I'd have to make major sacrifices to catch up.

3. Prioritize your health.
Please sleep, eat, and exercise well. I know it's a tall order with looming piles of work, but it's absolutely possible and so worth it. I felt so much more level-headed when I was well-rested, which is critical to taking care of that long agenda. If you're having trouble falling asleep because of noise, consider investing in earplugs or a white noise machine. For earplugs, I personally like Hearos--they were effective, but I could still hear my alarm. As for white noise machines, I actually use one meant for babies because it's way cheaper than the other options #classiccollegestudent.

While the food may not be ideal on-campus, do your best to power your body with wholesome foods. I eat meat and dairy very sparingly, and I'm still able to find something to eat in the dining hall. If you can't stomach the options, find out if your school has a stir-fry station or sandwich grill. Being able to cook my own veggies from the salad bar saved me from surrendering to many unappetizing dinners throughout the year. Keeping a small stash of healthy foods like fruit and oatmeal also was helpful for late-night cravings.

To top it off, take advantage of your gym! As I learned this summer, membership fees or day passes to rec centers can rack up an impressive bill. Even if it sounds counterintuitive, exercise can infuse you with energy. I found my workouts a nice break from the school grind, and often left invigorated and ready to tackle work. If you've got a midterm ahead or piles of readings, plopping down on an upright bike with your study materials on the bars can be an efficient way to multitask. 

Dining hall delicacies
4. Let go.
While it's disappointing to pare down, sometimes it's necessary--whether it's activities, classes, social events. If you're not sure you can give adequate attention to your load, reconsider. In my opinion, it's much more fulfilling to make a meaningful contribution to a few groups than to stretch yourself thin amongst many commitments. Keep in mind that you are paying to go to school, so consider letting go of an extracurricular before dropping a class. Take any academic withdrawals very seriously--there is a fine line between a challenging and an unmanageable load. Push yourself, but don't deplete yourself.

Letting go is also as relevant in the new home/school dichotomy. If you go far away for school as I did, you may find it quite unsettling when you return for the first time. I detailed this more in a post-Thanksgiving break reflection, but basically, expect there to be changes in your relationship with the home you knew in high school. 

5. Maximize your resources.
This means any, or all, of the following:
  • office hours
  • tutoring center
  • writing center
  • counseling center
  • friends

Office hours: If you think your questions aren't significant enough to warrant going to office hours, think again. Even if you only have homework questions, it's worth it to stop by regularly--you'll get to know your prof better, and your prof will get to know you too. This is most beneficial in two ways: course-wise, it makes it easier for profs to make specific suggestions on improving your performance. They're more invested in your learning process, so they'll want to see you succeed more than they already do. Beyond the course, regularly attending office hours can build rapport, which may lead to a valuable mentor-advisee relationship and access to opportunities in your prof's field. 

Tutoring center: If office hours don't work with your schedule, first ask if any other times work, and if not, seek the help of student tutors. I found the math help center at my school especially useful when my spring semester prof was out for interviews.

Writing center: For academic papers, you may find that guidelines and standards are different from what you're familiar with. If your school offers writing specialists, it's often useful to seek their advice. As outsiders to your class, they offer a different perspective and often catch claims that need clarification. Ask around as to who's the most helpful advisor, and make an appointment at least a few days in advance of your paper's due date (schedule it a couple weeks out)--I often used this as extra motivation to complete my early drafts.

Counseling center: College can be emotionally, mentally, and physically draining. My lowest points include sobbing in front of my freshman seminar professor and feeling so stressed by a course that I felt physically ill. At one point, I sought the advice of the counseling center because I was concerned about the well-being of a couple friends, but once their situations looked up, I began making regular appointments for myself. You don't have to have major problems to schedule meetings with counselors. Seeking their help doesn't mean that you're weak, or that you have more problems than everyone else--going to the counseling center is just one of the many respectable ways to cope with the burdens of college. Simply discussing your worries with someone trained to help you feel better can be so cathartic. 

Friends: This means on-campus and at home. At school, form study groups to go over problem sets or review for exams--this can save you several points because other pairs of eyes might catch something you missed. It's easier than you think to skip an entire problem or do the wrong number. If you've got the material down, it's also an opportunity to solidify your grasp by teaching others. For humanities classes, swap papers with a friend for proofreading--whether they're in your class or not. Sometimes, I consulted with friends at home so that I'd have insight from a different source. Explaining my essay ideas to friends over Skype led to major breakthroughs, and going over a calc problem with a friend during Thanksgiving break saved me on my final.

6. Plan accordingly for special circumstances.
If you dream of studying abroad or pursuing a professional degree, keep a close eye on prerequisites--for your major and grad school. Some majors may not accept courses taken abroad or may only offer certain courses certain semesters, so you'll have to readjust your home campus plans. Likewise, some premed tracks prefer that you take required courses on-campus. It is very possible to spend some time at another institution (tends to be trickier for premed students), but it does require planning. For example, if I were to spend a semester abroad, I'd have to double up on math courses two semesters. If I were to jet off for a year, I'd have to double up three semesters, or take an approved math course abroad. 

Same goes for your summer plans--think ahead to what opportunities you'd like to pursue. At my liberal arts college, there's pressure to land an internship as early as freshman year. For many opportunities, you must apply months in advance. Whenever you catch a break, spend some time researching and bookmarking potential openings. Then, really hunker down on applications over winter break so that you have less to worry about come spring. If they're not live yet, update your resume, or read up on interviews and cover letters.

Favorite campus view
7. Seek advice thoroughly.
If one source tells you something, don't stop there. For example, your pre-major advisors are likely profs that specialize in their specific field--they may not know what it's like to take a science class if they teach the humanities. If they suggest a course, consult multiple upperclassmen and do your research on, or any review site your school may offer. If you still have concerns, contact the professors--they'll be able to give you a good idea of whether courses fit you or not. (A note on I've generally found the reviews to be pretty accurate, but if I disagree with them at all, it's usually because they're more positive than I'm experiencing. People tend to view things more positively in retrospect, so keep that in mind as you're researching. If your profs have taught at multiple schools, I also recommend reading reviews by students at their previous institutions for a more comprehensive picture of their teaching).

Same goes for any writing suggestions you may receive--it's possible that a writing center staff member may love your essay, but your professor may find several flaws in it (or vice versa). Send your papers through many reviews of people from different backgrounds, whether they're familiar or unfamiliar with your course, or they're other students or established academics. 

Finally, this also means my advice! The culture and protocols vary greatly by school, and experiences may also be incredibly different within schools. I speak from the perspective of a math and French major at Amherst College, a liberal arts school in Massachusetts with an enrollment of 1800. This is what I wish I had known last year, exactly where you are now. There's so much more knowledge out there, and many more stories from other students. I encourage you to seek them out.

Sail strong, friends.
Other posts that may be useful: 
Sombre--OOTD and post-Thanksgiving break reflections
Transitions--OOTD and what I learned from my first semester of college
For high school seniors:
College Admissions: Advice from a College-bound Freshman

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