What I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before College

Freelance Writer

Before Rosemary Cochrane’s younger brother left for college, she decided to put together a manifesto of her learned experiences to help him on his way. Here are those nuggets of sisterly advice, good for any student embroiled in the college search or already moved into the dorms (except, you know, minus the references to Mom and Dad and such!).

Be unapologetically yourself

“You will never influence the world by trying to be like it.”

I wish someone had reminded me of this more often. You are you and you couldn’t find someone who was made up of the same wonderful characteristics as you are even if you looked forever. Be proud of that. Care about yourself, love yourself, be yourself.

Going into college, especially going away to college, you suddenly find yourself (literally) in an entirely new world made up of entirely new people. It is an exciting time, a new adventure, and it can be a wonderful test of your personal independence and growth. But it can also be a test of your recognizing that you are who you are for many reasons. You do not have to be who other people want (or expect) you to be. And you do not have to feel pressured from other people around you. You never have to do what other people are doing or join something you know is not a good idea.

Your actions, too, bring these values to life every day. Sometimes in our generation, people seem to accept that things are the way they are and that they have no power to change them. That is a lie. Every day is a chance to change and make things right, a chance to take action steps toward the person who you want to be and know you can become. Never underestimate your ability to keep the best pieces of you and to change anything that does not serve you or others.  

Be the source of what you hope to attract to your life

“Be the source. Whatever you want to experience in yourself, be the source of it in the lives of others. This is the great secret. This is sacred wisdom. Do unto others as you would have it done unto you.” — Neale Donald Walsch

The Golden Rule. The commandment that is more important than any of the others. The common denominator in almost every religion that exists. This lesson seems (and sounds) simple and obvious, yet no one ever framed it to me in this way. Set the precedent in yourself, in your life, and your actions toward others. Set the bar high. Do not settle because it seems people around you are not acting in the same way. If you do this, it will not only gratify those around you, but it will make you feel like a stronger, kinder, and more loving person.

Be safe, be smart

“Remember what Bilbo used to say. It is a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — JRR Tolkien

Make good decisions. If something doesn’t seem right or safe, don’t do it. If someone has been drinking and wants to drive you anywhere, refuse to get in the car even if he says he is fine to drive. Furthermore, take those keys away from him or her. It’s never okay. Not once. Not just for a short time. Never. Think before you act and never be afraid to ask for help—even if that means calling someone at 3:00 a.m.

Also remember that there are a lot of police patrolling your college town solely looking for young people who may be up to no good. It’s not worth it to let them catch you making a mistake. Be smart.

Go to class, study, and work hard

“Opportunity is missed by people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” — Thomas Edison

Understand that this time is precious, and you have such a source of vast knowledge literally at your fingertips. Going to class will ensure that you are getting the information you need (not to mention that’s what you will be paying for). Know you are capable of working incredibly hard. Never let anyone convince you otherwise. Take advantage of the opportunities living on a college campus affords you, even if it’s just learning from another student who’s better at something than you are or vice versa. Go to the tutoring centers if you need help. That is what they are there for, and you’re paying for it anyway. Put in the time, work really hard, be humble but confident, and you will achieve success. Also remember to appreciate how lucky you are right now to have been born in a place and time that allows you to simply have the opportunity to gain an education.

Go to the career center your first month on campus

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” — Steve Jobs

Okay, maybe within the first two months. I’m not even kidding! This is something I wish someone forced me to do (or advised me to do) early on as an undergraduate. During high school, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I “grew up,” which is okay, in and of itself. But no one questioned me. Or offered me advice. Or asked me what I saw myself doing long-term. Or painted a picture for the types of jobs that I could pursue. Or told me about all of the other majors that are out there.

Do the research now. Trust me. I know it feels like you have a long four years to figure it out, but I wish someone had pushed me early on. The time goes by very fast and creating the future that you want requires devising a plan to get there.

Career centers have databases of hundreds of resources, like internship or mentorship programs, not to mention a trained, dedicated staff there to help you. Oh, and remember, it is not all about the money. Find a passion, pursue it, and money will come.

Stay active

“The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” — Mark Twain

And I mean staying active in more ways than one. First of all, don’t be a bystander. Don’t let things pass you by while you are there to experience them. Try a new fitness regime, join a club, find new ways to meet people, play pickup soccer or basketball or intramural team sports. There are so many groups and organizations, and it’s worth it to do some digging and join a few that make you happy.

The second piece of “staying active” has to do with execution—there is a difference between wanting something and doing it. There is a difference between saying you are going to do something and actually carrying it out. Mean what you say and say what you mean. Honor commitments. Be loyal. Seize opportunities when you can. Don’t wait for someone to tell you to do something if you know it is the right thing to do. Begin. 

Be confident

“Am I something? And the answer comes, already am, always was, and I still have time to be.” — Anis Mojgai

You live your life in a small town in a small community at a small school and your eyes have seen only a small piece of the world. Then, all of the sudden, you are thrown into a large community at a large school, where there are thousands upon thousands of young, insecure, mostly terrified and definitely confused freshmen. They are all trying to fit in, but if everybody is trying to be someone they are not, no one can see them for who they really are.

Don’t feel the need to conform to anyone else’s idea of what you should be as a college freshman. This goes along with being true to yourself, but there is a tremendous amount of peace and freedom that comes from being confident in who you are. You have beliefs and values and people who love you exactly as you are right now—and you can be that person.

But also be humble

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” –CS Lewis

Being confident does not equate with being cocky. Strong people know how to be themselves and carry themselves with an air of confidence while respecting those around them and what they have to offer the world. Learn from every single person you come into contact with (really, you can). Set aside your differences, your pride, your opinions. Learn and move on, and teach what lessons you have to share as well. 

Never let anyone hold you back

“Who the hell said you no longer had it in you?” — Charles Bukowski

You are going to meet so many people. Good people, really good people, who will (hopefully) inspire you, drive you, lead you, and give of themselves to help you in your education and in your life. 

You are also going to meet people who make you question their motives. The worst kind of people, however, can make you question yourself. Never let another person diminish your worth or passion. If someone criticizes you or otherwise makes you feel less than you are, pay them no mind. Of course, that is much easier said than done, but do your best to brush it off your shoulder, keep your head up, and remind yourself that you have what it takes to get where you want to go.

Don’t let obstacles hold you back either

“Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.” — “The Dark Knight”

There may be times when one instance—one mistake, one disappointment—can feel so overwhelming and all-consuming that it seems like things won’t get better or can’t turn around. Don’t let a setback pull you down too low. Take it for what it is, create a plan to move forward, and begin to execute that plan.

Be kinder than necessary

“Only the weak are cruel. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong.” — Leo Buscaglia

This is so important: just be kind. Hold the door for strangers, smile at someone in the hallway, pick things up when someone drops them in a rush to class. Little things make all the difference to people, and these actions slowly but surely knit us into who we become. So do good, be good, and remember that kindness is a two-part gift: your kindness is a gift to that other person but it is also a gift to yourself as well. Even when it feels too hard to be kind, be kind anyway. 

Remember your roots

“A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.” — George Moore

Call home. Call your mom or dad or grandfather or grandmother or whoever it was who took care of you before you left home. Check in with these people. Tell them how you are doing even if things are crazy busy and even if nothing is wrong. They want to know.

Let relationships be what they will be

“If they don’t need you, it’s okay. You do not live for other people.” — Kyo

You weren’t meant to get along with or hang out with everybody. And that’s okay. There are generally thousands of people on a college campus. Some of them you will get along with, some of them you will grow very close with, some of them . . . not so much. If someone treats you poorly, do not put up with it. You deserve to be treated right and to spend time with people who make you feel strong, worthy, happy, cared for, and confident. If anyone is making you feel anything less, let him or her go. Surround yourself only with people who want to lift you higher. In turn, your job is to lift them higher and care for them genuinely as well.  

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t branch out in your friendships

“We’ve learned to fly the air like birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven’t learned to walk the earth as brothers and sisters.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.

Going to small, private grade schools and growing up in a smaller community can often mean that the majority of the people who you know are “kind of like you.” This can be true no matter what kind of environment you grow up in. (Of course, everyone is different so there will be exceptions, but you know what I mean.) Never underestimate the power of learning from and growing with people incredibly different than you. You will be astonished to hear their stories and to learn the lessons life has taught them, to see the world through the lens of another human being. Expand your social circle. Spend time with different types of people. Be open, kind, honest, and thirsty for knowledge.

You don’t need a significant other to feel complete

“To whom it may concern: good love will find you someday. But if you keep on looking for it, it’ll only keep you waiting. To whom it may concern: good love will find you someday. Until then, live well. Live happy. Live free.”

You are whole on your own. It can be difficult sometimes if it feels like everyone you know or all of your friends are in relationships, but it doesn’t reflect anything about you. It just means it isn’t the right time yet. And when it is the right time, you will understand why it took so long because it will be so right and make you so happy. 

It’s never too late—but time is still moving fast

“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” — George Eliot

When I was first starting in college, people used to say, “Oh, you have plenty of time.” And, really, there is time. It is good to keep that in mind, to take it easy, to enjoy college, to spend time outside, to make friends, to have good meals, and to do new things.

But, again, those college years also go by so quickly. So treasure the days and set out to accomplish the things you want to accomplish. And know that if you change your mind about something, it’s okay too. It will lead you down a different but possibly a better path.

It’s more than a game

To be a part of a crowd that is passionately cheering, applauding, defending something they love is a magnificent thing. Football in a college football town has the potential and the ability to bring people together for a common, positive, maybe even life-altering cause. Even if sports aren’t really your thing, give it a shot!

It’s your time, but it is also your time to help others

“I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson

As much as college is a time to “find” yourself (or as I prefer to say, to create yourself), it’s also about gaining perspective and recognizing your gifts as ways to help those around you. Seek out volunteer and community service experiences; there are so many and the personal rewards are tenfold. People need you. Believe that, and do not forget it.

Know—really know—how you feel about Greek life

Do not get involved in fraternities and sororities for the wrong reasons. Do you really want to join, or do you feel like you should? There are a lot of fraternities and sororities out there, and plenty are worth joining for friendship, growth, and service. But they can also harbor outdated, dangerous, and even misogynistic ideals and people. Think about why you want to get involved with Greek life and if the brothers and sisters you’ve met so far meet your expectations, if their practices sit right with you. Trust your gut. Be smart, be yourself, and do not let anyone make you feel you need to do something or be a part of something if it is not in line with your values.

Find your niche

It really is possible to find your niche and a tight-knit community within a larger university that at first glance seems overwhelming. Spend time with your roommates, join clubs, play sports, meet friends, and create a community (or multiple communities!) of people who you feel safe, happy, and yourself with. Suddenly the big campus of thousands of people won’t feel so big anymore. One day, you will realize it feels like a second home.

Don’t worry (too much)

“Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?” — L.M. Montgomery

I know I’ve said a lot about how time is precious and how important it is to find a good major, choose a career, stay active, participate in clubs, do more, be more, be yourself . . . taken as a whole, it can all seem so overwhelming.

It’s human to be afraid. Don’t worry if that is how you are feeling. You are off to a new adventure. Being afraid means you are challenging yourself, trying something new. Be excited and proud that you are rising to the challenge and believe in yourself.

That is why I say don’t worry too much. Life has a way of falling into place if you work hard, try new things, be kind, and ask for help. Everything will be okay.

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