10 Things I Want to Tell the Incoming College Student

There are hundreds of books and treasuries of wisdom for the first-year college student. Some are full of nostalgia and platitudes, written by people who attended university over a quarter of a century ago, when there was only one phone per hall and it was attached to a wall by a cord. Then there are other more concise accounts of college life that may guide incoming students, but sometimes these accounts are generalized or foment ideas about college life that are somewhat mythical.

I have spent a fair amount of time on a college campus: as a student at a small four-year liberal arts college on a hill in western Pennsylvania; as an intern-student on a large private university in Washington, DC; as a part-time evening graduate student on a large private university in Massachusetts; as an adjunct lecturer at a small community college in Massachusetts; as a full-time professor at a small Christian university in Tennessee.

I don’t purport to be an expert in higher education or the first year transition, or even to have conducted any research in this area. I simply believe in the importance of higher education, particularly in helping to form an educated person and for directing one’s career path. For this reason, I have dedicated a good part of my life to living and/or working in the university setting.

All of these experiences have sharpened my perspective on the transition many young people make to higher learning. I offer these 10 Things I Want to Tell the Incoming College Student not as a distant pundit but as someone who has been up-close in many arenas. This list presumes the incoming student will have graduated high school and matriculated at a college or university within the same year. These are by no means a “final word” on the experience but perhaps a different word than other college viewbooks may offer.

1. Your first semester is a terrible time to enter into a signficant othership.
You are lonely and living in a cellblock with someone who is, for all intents and purposes, a stranger, even though you’ve Facebook messaged a couple of times. You have a lot to adjust to, including eating off a tray for all of your meals and reading more for one class than you may have read in all of high school. Entering into an exclusive dating relationship can be really limiting and can compound the other ways you are trying to adjust. Bear in mind, that person will still (likely) be date-able later in college, but you won’t get your first semester back.

Romantisk par, ca. 1917

2. You get to decide who you are in college.

So what if you were the emo-thespian of high school. You aren’t bound by that persona for the next four years. Ditch it if you don’t want it. Everyone is looking to brand each other during your first semester. Who is really a nice guy? Who is so smart but never has to work for it? Who is promiscuous? Who never showers? You get to make choices around how others perceive you, and much of that is determined by how you perceive yourself.

3. I’m not going to tell you to call your mom.
I don’t pretend to know what your relationship with your mother is like, or if you have a mother, or if you have several. God knows my relationship with my own mom was dicey in college when I was sure she could not possibly understand the complexity of being 19 years-old. (I was wrong.) I will say, though, that it’s a really good thing to call Someone when you need to in college. Sending a text or a tweet or a snapchat is not the same. Hearing a human voice and sharing something joyful or fearful is a staggering thing, even across phonelines. It’s a connection that you shouldn’t deprive yourself of in college. Call your someone. Do it once a week or once a month. Call. You’ll feel better you did.

March 30, 1961

4. Not going to class is a huge liability to yourself.
I know students who tabulate their grades based on how few classes they can attend. I hear students talk about “just getting the notes online.” I have been asked dozens of times for a recommendation for students whose grades were fine but whose attendance and general enthusiasm for the course material were spotty. When I go to write these recommendations for internships, jobs, grad programs, I tell the truth. I tell future employers that I cannot be completely positive about certain students’ abilities to arrive to work on-time or at all, given their lackluster attendance/punctuality for my class(es). I can also almost guarantee that future employers, like professors, do not consider a headache (be it caused by a hangover or otherwise) to be a legitimate medical excuse from showing up for class/work.

Goshen College Coffman Hall men

5.You are responsible for whatever you miss when you are not in class.

(see also: An open letter to the student who wonders if he/she missed something)

6. I have never met someone who wasn’t a little bit over Greek life by their final year of school.
Take this with a grain of salt as I never rushed Greek. I attended an all-girls high school and felt like I’d already had 800 sorority sisters for 4 years. It has been my view that Greek life affords students a robust social network, great career connections, community service ops, and oftentimes housing. But I think it bears mentioning that most people I have met are tired of paying dues and buying swag bags and stuffing mailboxes with puff-painted paraphernalia by their final year of school. So by all means, talk to the Rho Chis and friends in Greek life, but don’t discount the seniors whose stripes have been earned over several years in Delta Tau Delta and Gamma Beta Phi.

Barnard College, 1913  (LOC)

7. Be nice to your RA, and if you can’t be nice, at least be tolerant.
If you are living in a dorm, you will most likely have an RA who is either overly enthusiastic about hall programming or totally checked out and you can’t figure out why he/she was assigned to the Wellness Floor when he/she chainsmokes and subsists off Papa John’s. As someone who was an RA for 2.5 years in undergrad: we are trying to pay for school and not have loans until we are on Medicare. We don’t want to live with freshmen. We don’t mean to be a Nazi about propped doors and there are plenty of other things we’d rather be doing than writing belligerent freshman up for noise violations. It’s just we chose this para-professional job because it offered the best financial means along with a dorm room to ourselves. Plus, we are one more person that will eat with you in the dining hall; after all, it’s our job.

Ohio State Normal College domestic science class in cooking classroom 1913

8. You cannot outsource learning.
You can pay people to do a lot of things for you: get coffee, write your paper, book your spring break trip. You cannot, however, pay someone to learn something for you. You have to do the hard work yourself. Let me be very forthright about this: avoiding classes because they sound hard or because you’ve heard the professor is difficult? Is total moron territory. College is a time to stretch yourself because you can, to step outside of your comfort zone and dream big dreams and question things you’ve never questioned before. You will never get a chance to take classes among your peers or to ask the questions of yourself and others such as you will in undergrad. Do not spend $150k+ of your or someone else’s money on an experience that does not challenge you. Save it for a downpayment on a house in a safe neighborhood, and put aside some extra for a fence and alarm system so you will never feel threatened.

9. Consider studying abroad.
If you think you might want to study abroad, you should start planning for it now, financially and credit-wise. You don’t get to backpack through Europe on a student visa, sleeping in hostels and eating at Indian buffets when you are 38 with 3 kids. Trust.

10. Try to stick it out.
If you are considering a transfer to another school during or after your first semester because the college you chose is not what you thought it would be, remember this: if you leave, you’re still leaving with yourself. Take a long look at whether the things causing you dissatisfaction are things within your control or beyond your control. Are the things you expect to be better elsewhere things that you hope for or things that you know will be different? Believe it or not, there are an awful lot of good people rooting for you to succeed at this school where you’ve landed, whose very jobs are designed to help you succeed. Transferring is not a sign of weakness or indiscretion, but so much of life depends on our own choices, big and small, and our every day choices (e.g. to ask for help, to try something new) shape our lives more than any singular class, roommate, advisor, sports team, long winter, or flight home can and do.

Best wishes to the Class of 2018.

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  • Sarah

    “When I go to write these recommendations for internships, jobs, grad programs, I tell the truth. I tell future employers that I cannot be completely positive about certain students’ abilities to arrive to work on-time or at all, given their lackluster attendance/punctuality for my class(es).”

    This honestly seems like a pretty crappy thing to do. Students ask for letters of recommendation with the understanding that a letter, even if not overly glowing, will be solid enough. If you can’t write a good letter of recommendation for a student, say that to the student so he/she can get a better letter from someone else. It’s not your opportunity for expressing brutal honesty behind a student’s back.

    • I agree with you — and I am sorry if it was conveyed that this would ever be done in a back-stabbing way. I am very forthcoming with my students about what they can expect. The conversation usually goes like this: “I’m happy to provide a letter and focus on your superb writing abilities. You should know though, that if they ask about your attendance, I’ll have to be honest.”