At some point during your college career, you will realize you are not as knowledgeable about the world as you think you are. If you’re lucky, this “aha” moment won’t hit you in the middle of a midterm you didn’t study for or in a questionable Waffle House at an unpleasant hour of the morning. For me, it came in Walmart. As I stood in the meat aisle, it occurred to me that although I had been cooking and grocery shopping for years, I had never bought my own hamburger meat before, and I had no idea what I was doing.
Since then, I’ve found other areas where I had once considered myself skilled but now realize I still have learning to do. The entire college atmosphere is unlike any other arena of life, so it is important to realize that even the simplest things will be different too. There are others, but here are five basic things I thought I knew how to handle yet found to be different than I remembered from my pre-college days. Don’t kid yourself; you too may think you have this stuff down, but I guarantee you aren’t as much of an expert as you think.
One of the biggest perks of moving out of the dorms and into an apartment was the chance to have my own kitchen. What nobody told me (though I’m pretty sure it’s all over Pinterest) was that cooking in college is hard. First of all, a college apartment isn’t your mama’s kitchen. You have to stock the shelves yourself, and I’m not just talking about keeping a box of Pizza Rolls in the freezer. Ziploc baggies, salt and pepper, ketchup, coffee creamer, syrup for your midnight pancakes—you have to buy it all. Of course, this means you have to find time to go to the store, which isn’t easy unless you like to grocery shop between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. Make time for it anyway.
The second issue with cooking in college is the trouble of cooking for one. I’ve found that very little food is packaged and sold in an amount suitable for just one or two helpings. Making spaghetti for four people is super easy; you need one box of noodles and one jar of sauce. If you cook that same meal for yourself, you’re going to be eating Italian for days. The best way to avoid eating the same meal day after day is to pay attention to serving sizes and cut recipes when at all possible. For the times when it’s easier to cook in bulk—that will happen—utilize your freezer. Stick your leftovers in a baggie and save them for finals week when you don’t have time to cook and those cheap tacos from Jack in the Box just aren’t cutting it anymore.
You check Instagram every 10 minutes, and you never really close Snapchat. Since you’re capable of doing this, I know you’re also capable of keeping up with school-related sites and e-mails. My college uses an online system called Blackboard, and it is the lifeblood of my education. Blackboard is where I can look at my grades, submit papers, and, most importantly I think, it is where my profs can post updates about assignments, due dates, reading lists, and sometimes class meeting times. If I skip a day without taking eight minutes to check my messages and announcements, I’m guaranteed to miss something relevant to life. I can think of few things as depressing as reading 100 pages of a textbook only to learn later in class that your quiz is over a different 100 pages. Check your school’s online education site at least once a day and avoid missing out on essential information. If your e-mail isn’t attached to the education site, be sure and check that too. You never know when you’ll get a heads up about on-campus road construction, student events, scholarship opportunities, or my favorite—free food. It’s easy. You just actually have to do it.
Never again will books just be about plot, setting, and character development. In high school I read books with the intention of memorizing facts at face value. I took note of the names of important people and places, tried to follow the basic storyline, and paid attention to the bold words in textbooks. In college I discovered that my professors couldn’t care less about such things. Collegiate work is all about critical thinking, which means you have to read deep into a text if you want your study time to be worth anything at all.
Don’t stop at a surface-level understanding. Look for symbolism and thematic schools of thought in English literature. Ask “how” and “why” questions of your science textbooks. Relate the material in a history article to current world events. Evaluate the ideas in your business book and look for real-life applications. These are the kind of things professors will grade you on, because they are the kind of things your future employers will pay you to know. If that idea sounds atrocious, remember to engage yourself personally into the reading as well. If your philosophy textbook starts to sound a bit like Yoda, write a Star Wars reference on the side. If the guy in your chemistry book looks like Mike Trout, mark it and draw him a baseball. This stuff won’t be on your final, but it will keep your brain interested in finding the things that will be.
In high school, calendars were for marking movie releases and spring break. Nothing else. Everything I had to do and everywhere I had to be was updated daily in my head. College, my friends, does not work that way. Professors use a resource called a syllabus. You may have encountered these before, but if you’re like me, your teachers never actually followed them. Instructors at the collegiate level don’t just follow syllabi; they live and breathe by them. Suppose on the first day of school, a professor announces that a 12-page research paper is due in exactly two months. There is no guarantee that he or she will ever mention that paper again, until it needs to be turned in. But if it’s written on the holy syllabus, you better believe it’s due. Don’t get caught off guard. Write down due dates on a calendar or planner as soon as you get them.
High school also provided a daily, uniform schedule. If I had math at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, I had math at 9:00 a.m. every day of the week. College is not so predictable. Classes may meet three days a week, one night a week, or every other Saturday morning. Assuming you want to show up for your lectures (and you really should), write down class times on a calendar. Be sure to take note of ambiguities in the schedule as well. Professors are human, and they like to skip class on occasion too. Sometimes they mark the days they will be out ahead of time on the syllabus. If you mark your free classes in a calendar, you’ll get to sleep in when the prof is gone instead of showing up to class by yourself.
College is the perfect time to ruin the sleep schedule you’ve been working on for the first 18 years of life. The freedom to choose you own classes and the flexibility of a part-time job are a deadly combination for a healthy sleep routine. However, it is not okay to sleep from 4:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you aren’t naturally a morning person, it will be difficult to resist the urge to sleep until noon on a daily basis. Considering all the nightlife that comes with college, it is unrealistic to assume that you can go to bed at 10:00 every night, but don’t be deceived; in the real world, most people work 8:00 to 5:00. Sure, there are those lucky individuals who work from home or set their own schedules, but most of us will not have such a privilege. Make a habit now of getting to sleep at a reasonable hour and getting up before the sun is already in the west. Your body will thank you, your GPA will thank you, and when you aren’t so cranky on Mondays, your friends will thank you too.