Everything else

Year One

More advice for the soon-to-matriculate.

Illustration by Leanna

For some of you, these are the last days of your childhood. High school is over. In less than a month, you’re going to say goodbye to your parents, your dog, your best friend, everyone, and start on a brand-new phase of your life.

Starting college is exciting and TERRIFYING. I, for one, couldn’t wait. I spent all my time on my university’s website, reading about residence life and study-abroad opportunities. I connected with future classmates on Facebook. I even checked the menu at our dining hall, and imagined myself eating there, every day (note: this was only exciting in my imagination). In short, I was obsessed with college.

But then one day it just hit me: I was going to have to leave my dog, Paris, behind. No more walks or slobbery tug-of-war or big furry hugs until Thanksgiving. No more conversations with my Amazon parrot, Kiwi. No more sitting outside watching the chickens dig in the garden.

My mom and I were best friends. I would no longer be living with her, no longer be able to able to drop in to visit my grandparents. I’d never been away from home for longer than a week. Thanksgiving seemed like a lifetime away.

Even if it hasn’t really hit you yet, you know on some level that your life is never going to be the same again. That’s not a bad thing—it’s just a weird thing, especially if you’ve never moved or switched schools before now.

So, how do you deal with this? Here is my unofficial guide for making the transition from home to college.

Before you leave:

Embrace your last few weeks at home. Get together with all your friends and have a party. Or go to the park. Or hang out at Taco Bell. Just do whatever you do for fun, because it’s going to be a while before you see one another again. Persuade your family to have a goodbye meal at your favorite restaurant—depending on the dining-hall options at your university of choice, it may well be your last taste of real food for a while.

When you’re packing for your dorm room, don’t discount the sentimental stuff. Having actual, printed-out photographs is a good thing. I brought one of my family, a few of my friends, and a couple more of my pets. And bring a few mementos from home for your desk. When you’re feeling homesick, those little reminders will be a lifesaver.

Be aware, this can backfire. I brought my Avenging Unicorn Playset, a gift from a dear friend that never failed to make me laugh, and was horrified when my new roommate unironically hung a Little Unicorn calendar on the wall. Somehow we got along despite her enduring love for all things cute, but that was a tense moment.

But anyway, back to packing. As I said, a few room decorations will make a huge difference into turning a bland dorm room into “home.” I hung a string of light-up butterflies over my window, which I subsequently NEVER turned on, but the butterflies made me happy (and probably helped my roommate recover from the mime-killing unicorn on my desk).

I also brought a few books from home, but I made the wrong choices. I was so excited about college that all I was reading were books about college or boarding school (Light Years by Tammar Stein, Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, Chicken Soup for the College Soul…). After a few weeks at school, though, the excitement had worn off and I wished I had some of my older, familiar books to lose myself in. New and exciting things are good to have, but make sure you bring a few favorite books, DVDs, music playlists, etc., for when homesickness hits.

So you’re all packed, you’ve said your goodbyes… now what?

When you get there:

Your #1 mission is to start connecting with people and making friends. Actually, your first mission will be to get to your dorm before the number of freshmen carrying refrigerators hits critical mass and to choose the best bed before your roommate gets there. But once you’ve got all your crap inside the dorm room, your next mission is to socialize.

Most likely you’ve already started. You’ve probably been to orientation and traded email addresses with a few people. No doubt you’ve joined Facebook groups for upcoming freshmen. I did all this and more, and out of everyone I tracked down online, I found exactly one person whom I actually ended up socializing with IRL. But my next-door dorm neighbors met each other online, requested each other as roommates, and remained friends for the rest of forever. So it’s certainly worth a try! If you’re trying to make friends online, look for people in your major or dorm, because you’ll want to see a familiar face when you get there, and you’re more likely to actually stay in touch after those Facebook groups become dormant. And, of course, if you have contact info for your future roommate, use it! Not just to organize things like who is bringing the microwave, but also to get to know each other. It’ll make things less weird when you get there.

My freshman roommate, Katy, is the friendliest person on Earth. I was super lucky to have landed with her—there’s no room for awkwardness when Katy is around. She was immediately ready with board games and conversation whenever things in the dorm got quiet. If you want to make friends, be like Katy. But if you’re shy like me, find the people like Katy. People will be hanging out in the common room or leaving their doors open for people to come in and hang out. You’ll never find so many people so desperate for friends again. Just talk to everyone, and accept every invitation.

Katy wasn’t around for my first meal on campus after my parents left. I hugged them goodbye and then held back tears as I stood in line for food. Once I stopped looking like I was about to sob, the girl behind me struck up a conversation (she told me she waited because if I started crying, she’d cry too). I had a lunch buddy! We didn’t end up becoming friends—might be none of the people you meet those few first days will be friends. But don’t be picky—just learn the names and faces and majors of EVERYONE. Some of these people will become friends, some classmates, and some of them will end up working in the same far-away city as you years down the road, possibly determining whether or not you get your dream job.

Lucky for me, the people who would become my best friends in college lived in my dorm. We were all in the honors program, which helped—if you’re lucky enough to get in a dorm with people who are all part of your major, program, band, or sport, you probably have readymade friends. But if the people you live with don’t share any interests with you, you might have to widen your search. Fortunately, residential colleges make it really easy to meet people.

Your school will have a bunch of orientation and welcome events. You should attend them all. My school had two big memorable events for freshman. One was called the Welcome Fair, where every club and group set up a table to recruit freshmen. I signed up for everything I or my new friends were vaguely interested in, and picked up tons of free stuff. Later on I chose which of those groups I actually wanted to attend: I never did end up at a yearbook meeting, but the tae kwon do class my friend Rachel persuaded me to take with her ended up being AWESOME. Even if your school doesn’t have an event like that, figure out how to sign up for clubs and join everything. Clubs are one of the best ways to meet people, because they’re generally small groups of people with similar interests. And they are also a really good way to segue into getting an internship or job later on.

Welcome Fair was useful, but my school also had a mandatory orientation event called Playfair. It was an entire evening of incredibly stupid “get to know you” exercises, with every single member of the freshman class participating, crushed in this huge mass of people in the indoor track. It was totally bizarre, and I don’t think anyone managed to remember a single face after it was over, but it was so surreal that it sort of bonded everyone together anyway, in our shared confusion. Six years later I met up with a fellow alumna whom I hadn’t even known freshman year, and we ended up laughing over Playfair.

Before you know it, all the stupid orientation stuff will be over and classes will start. You’ll still be able to make friends—and you’ll keep making them for the next four years. But take advantage of that limbo period between graduating high school and starting your first college class. It’s one of the weirdest, freest times of your life, when you’re a kid and an adult at the same time, getting the chance to completely start over in life along with hundreds of other 18-year-olds doing the EXACT SAME THING. (It’s hard to feel much self-pity about major life changes when literally everyone you know is going through the same experience.) And then you’ll graduate college and start this process all over again, except you might be the only person at work orientation, and everyone keeps their office and apartment doors closed. ♦

29 Comments

  • Bridget August 9th, 2012 11:24 PM

    I am going to college on the 14th of this month, and this article got me really jazzed about it. I was really nervous, and super anxious, and, but now I am excited nervous!

  • krissyt August 9th, 2012 11:45 PM

    pretty illustration!

  • azultardis August 10th, 2012 12:17 AM

    I love all this advice,but what about us?the ones who couldn’t afford a college away from home,and didn’t move out?

    • lyss August 10th, 2012 12:32 AM

      my sister attends a university a little over 30 minutes away from where we live and what she does is spend loads of time on campus, whether it’s just hanging out in the student union or working at her on campus job! the only difference between you and the people living on campus is that at the end of the day you get to go home to a comfy, familiar bedroom instead of a cramped dorm room and a vinyl mattress. ;)

      • azultardis August 10th, 2012 9:09 PM

        I do the same,I take all my clases from 8 to 2pm,and then I have lab service,and this year I’m taking and additional english course, and yeah I think thats the difference,but I’m thinking about getting an intership in another town…I want to know what it’s like to live by myself and everything.

  • Adrienne August 10th, 2012 12:53 AM

    You guys should do an article on College Survival 101 (balancing everything, studying, food, laundry, money, friends… hehe)!

    Yeah I still have two more years to go before college, which seems like a completely different planet.

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • victoria August 10th, 2012 1:13 AM

    one more year… cue nail biting.

  • Jessica W August 10th, 2012 1:20 AM

    I’m so glad I’m staying with my parents next year (our school year ends at Christmas).
    I’ll either be going to the uni next door or having a gap year in the fashion industry.
    Free food… water… wi-fi… :)

    But to the people being cast off like baby birds or lion cubs (naw!), no worries. My brother just started uni and he settled in super quickly. It’s seriously no big deal!
    The Lovelorn

  • Pollyana August 10th, 2012 2:11 AM

    Hey ummm, I dont know if you guys have the rest of the month planned on but can you try to fit in something about starting senior year? I find senior year of high school more nerve wracking than starting college ( you’re already in, whats there to worry about?)

    I think there would be tons of people who appreciate it. Thanks! :)

    • kirsten August 10th, 2012 6:22 PM

      I definitely would! Class of 2013 ferdaaaayz. College apps….too scary.

  • streaked lights August 10th, 2012 4:00 AM

    The best advice my sister ever gave me: Everyone is new and as freaked out as you. Talk to everyone and get everyone’s names and phone numbers during orientation.

    I am terrible at making friends, and I made sure to talk to EVERYONE on my first few days. While I didn’t end up making too many friends, I did manage to find a new BFF. And she happened to bring a lot of her high school friends with her so, just like that, I ended up with a bunch of new friends via her.

    http://www.anooshadraws.blogspot.com

  • Spotty August 10th, 2012 6:14 AM

    Ready for my sophomore year, especially since I just declared my major (don’t let anybody pressure you into declaring a major, if you aren’t jazzzzed about it).

  • August 10th, 2012 7:50 AM

    Thanks. I have friends who are leaving for college and this will be forwarded to them :)

  • Nishat August 10th, 2012 8:52 AM

    So, I really thought “segue” was spelled ‘segway’ my whole life. Probably because of those weird two-wheeled motor vehicles for one.

    Awkward.

  • HollinsCollins August 10th, 2012 9:43 AM

    I’m only 13 but I’ll be starting as a duel enrollment student when I’m 16…oh joy!
    I won’t live on campus, because my dad works at the college I’m going to, so I’ll just go in with him.
    I can’t decide if I like all this or not. I’d kind of rather go to NYU or something and have my own life (old-soul alert) but I guess I’ll just have to wait to move out :s

  • Carlita August 10th, 2012 1:10 PM

    One thing that can really help is going to a “camp” or summer school held at a college, if you can afford it. I went to one this summer, and living for a month in dorms with a hundred people you don’t know is good practice, if it can be called that. :)

  • necroticbird August 10th, 2012 2:46 PM

    You said it right, that period of time between high school and college is the freest time you will ever know. Have fun! I’ll be graduating college tomorrow morning, and I long for that same freedom I had four years ago.

    Another word of advice: study abroad! I went to Sweden in my final semester and I mean it when I say it: it will change your life. Go, go, go!

  • Kathryn August 10th, 2012 8:24 PM

    This is making me psyched for college, but I’m also freaking out because I’m about to be a junior and I have NO IDEA what I wanna do or where I wanna go. Any advice for making these decisions?

    • Johann7 August 11th, 2012 1:12 PM

      Look for colleges that have well-respected degree programs in a few different areas in which you might be interested. I did computer science and math for two years before getting completely burned out on the really abstracted technical stuff and switching to English and Women’s Studies (which I actually find more difficult in terms of class work but also much more rewarding). Ages 18-22 tend to be big transitional periods for a lot of people (I think there are some sort of brain changes that usually happen during this period), so it can help to go somewhere where you have options if your preferences or academic goals change.

      Also, do not underestimate the importance of geography and population. Try to figure out if you like big cities or small towns – this can help you gauge whether you might like larger or smaller schools and also whether you should be looking at schools in larger or smaller cities/towns. A given school might have the best program in [your main area of interest], but if you don’t like the environment, you’re probably not going to be able to do your best work. Along these same lines, visit your top choices, if you are able to do so. If money is a barrier, try to find out if there are other people in your school/town/city who are interested in the same school with whom you might be able to share travel costs.

      Finally remember that this is your life and your decision. I was under a lot of pressure from other people about what THEY wanted for me, and that didn’t work out well for anyone. It’s okay to make mistakes and it’s okay to change your mind.

  • tinklebot5000 August 10th, 2012 9:47 PM

    Thank you! I start college in a week!!!! AAAHHHH EXCITEMENT

  • lelelikeukulele August 11th, 2012 2:29 AM

    I started college last year, and I was honestly not prepared for how overwhelming it is to be around people all the time. As someone who likes to have a LOT of “me time” to just chill and relax, the first few weeks were exhausting (especially when my two roommates resented the fact that I liked to hole up in our room and watch How I Met Your Mother on my computer a lot).

    One related piece of advice: Do your relaxing and “me time” in public! If your school has a cozy place like a cafe or a lounge in your dorm, go chill there. You’ll meet random people who walk by and if you wear a t-shirt of your favorite band, conspicuously read your favorite book, and sport a Rookie flower crown, people will notice and you’ll meet friends with similar interests! Or people who are just wondering what’s up with the flower crown.

    • ViolentDreams August 11th, 2012 6:12 PM

      mmmhmhm i dig the flower crown idea~

  • kem247 August 11th, 2012 11:06 AM

    What about transfer students?

  • Hannnah August 11th, 2012 12:38 PM

    Thanks so much for this! I’m going to university in the UK so at the mo I don’t know until next week if I’m ACTUALLY going to uni or not, or where… :s But I’m sure all these tips apply wherever I am! All the rookie articles about starting college have imbued me with confidence, actually!

  • ViolentDreams August 11th, 2012 6:07 PM

    this waas helpful………one week from today ill be living the college experience….nervous/stoked……so far this has been the most legit article ive read about the start of college_good article thankx

  • Marsipan August 12th, 2012 10:14 PM

    Hi, start university the second week of September…there’s no residence in my uni [as it used to be a college until recently] But I liked your first advice a lot!!! None of my friends are going to the same university as me and who knows when I’ll see them again. I will however always see my fam-jam as I commute from home x)

  • drcyblack August 24th, 2012 11:09 PM

    thank you!!! I’m going to a university in a couple days and I’m really really crazy nervous but this article made me feel a bit better~

  • Hannnah August 26th, 2012 6:46 PM

    BTW I’ve already started subconsciously memorising some of these tips and have adopted the article as a sort of bible

  • fashionforteens June 16th, 2013 9:22 PM

    Thank you, thank you! I’m going to college this fall and the “emotional roller coaster” has already begun as we’ve done our last senior class activities. Everything from signing yearbooks to having our class trip threatens to bring on the waterworks. I’m so excited for college though and this helped to ease my fears.