Before I start giving you my totally unsolicited advice on the College Experience, let me just assure you that this is NOT a piece about WHY YOU SHOULD GO TO COLLEGE. I went to college, so that’s what I know well enough to write about—but a four-year institution is not for everyone, and there are plenty of people who benefit from picking an alternative route. This article is for those of you who have decided that you definitely do want to go to college. You’re about to sacrifice a lot of time—and, in most countries, money—for a higher education, so let’s make sure you get that education.
You’re not going to find anything here about the optimal dorm-room setup or why you shouldn’t be friends with Kelsey M. or how to act at parties or whatever. That’s personal stuff you’ll figure out along the way. (See tip #9 below.) But as far as the academic stuff goes, if you’re in the market for them, here are some things you should know, no matter what college you’re headed to.
1. You’re the customer.
Never forget that.
Even if you have a full scholarship, or you’re lucky enough to live in a place that doesn’t charge tuition (hey Norway, what up?) you’re still spending time—that you could be using to make money— studying at an institution. (That wage money you lose is called your “opportunity cost,” by the way, and if you take any class that strays close to the field of economics, they’ll probably teach you all about it.)
The education you get in college will probably impact your life in a thousand tiny, intangible ways. It’ll teach you lines of inquiry and ways of reading and learning you’ve never encountered before. You’ll be exposed to new topics and people and debates and scenes. But at its heart, college is a service that you are paying for in one way or another, and you should treat it as such.
Think of it this way: If you asked your hairstylist for a trim and they shaved your whole head, you wouldn’t hand over 40 bucks or whatever and chalk it up to “I guess that’s how they do things here,” would you? No. When you pay for a service, you expect to receive that specific service. Likewise, when you enroll in college, you should expect absolutely dynamite instruction from a dedicated and attentive staff, and if you’re not getting that, you have the right to complain.
2. Choose carefully.
Never enroll in a course you haven’t investigated thoroughly. Spend as much time reading up on potential classes and teachers as you would looking into the details of a used car you might want to buy. You’ll avoid unpleasant surprises that way.
So, how do you choose your first-year classes? Four to five courses per semester is a reasonable amount. Make sure they’re spread out over the week so you’ll have time between classes to do all your coursework and still live a life that doesn’t involve you sucking down coffee at all hours of the day and night.
Your education should focus on whatever you want it to at the outset, but give yourself room to maneuver. If you already have a major in mind, that’s great, but make sure, when you’re mapping out your freshman schedule, that you’re not screwing yourself over if you decide to switch majors sophomore year. That means you should…
3. Get the requirements out of the way early.
Not all schools have core requirements—survey courses that give you an introduction to a variety of subjects—but if yours does, try to take them during your first two years.
If you’re laser-focused on studying a specific subject, or you’re looking to design your own bespoke curriculum, you might turn your nose up at “boring” required classes like European History 101, Introduction to Microeconomics, etc. But I found them really useful. They’ll give you a glimpse into the dominant style(s) of teaching at your new school, and offer a sampling of various fields of study. Plus—and I know I said I wouldn’t offer any personal advice, but what the heck—you’ll get to meet students who travel outside your own academic lane, which you might find harder to do as you move toward upperclassmanship.
Finally, required classes are usually solid, straight-down-the-middle courses that have been taken and reviewed by so many kids that there are unlikely to be any unpleasant surprises. No wild-card professors, no chance of a vague syllabus. You’ll know why you got the grade you got.
The drawbacks, and they’re pretty big ones, are that (1) survey courses are always the biggest ones, attendance-wise; (2) they’re usually full of kids who don’t want to be there; and (3) depending on the subject and the teacher, you might be one of those kids. The first two things you just gotta deal with (it won’t be the first time, nor the last, that you have to be around people who don’t care about something as much as you do); but if you’re bored to death in a required class, don’t just sit there, struggling to stay awake. One thing that rules about college is that, unlike in high school, if you really, truly hate a class, you can switch to a comparable but different one, or the same class taught by a different teacher. How do you do that? You talk to your adviser. Speaking of which:
4. Visit your adviser.
Most colleges will assign you an academic adviser before classes start. If yours does this, try to meet with (or at least talk to) this person before registration, so they can help you figure out which classes to take. They’ll know more about how your specific college’s system works and can answer any questions you might have. If you hate your adviser, you can ask for a new one (not guaranteeing it’ll work), but if you don’t, be nice to them—they can do all kinds of nice things for you, like help you switch classes later on, be your advocate when you’re having problems that affect your coursework, and direct you to other resources when you need them.
5. Plan ahead.
Once you’ve done your research and met with your adviser, register for classes at the earliest possible moment. Not only will you be more likely to get the classes you want, you’ll also end up in them with other kids like you, who were smart enough to find the classes they wanted and sign up for them early, so you know they really want to be there. (College classes are a lot less fun when they’re filled with people—students and teachers alike—who don’t care.) (And no matter how early you queue up for registration, have a list of backup classes ready just in case.)
6. Petition for stuff you want.
Most students don’t know about this, which is unfortunate, because it’s a pretty awesome thing. If you can’t bear the thought of spending hours of your precious liberal-arts education sitting in a theater-style lecture hall with 400 other students for that required Introduction to Sociology course, for example, you can almost definitely petition the administration to fulfill your sociology requirement elsewhere—like in that nine-student transgender-politics class taught by your favorite writer. Just make an appointment with the dean or your adviser. If your claim has merit, and you’re respectful and levelheaded in presenting it, you stand a good chance of getting what you want.
Appeal for almost everything you want academically. If you’re dedicated enough, you’ll probably get it. If the course you want to take is for grad students only, email the professor and see if they’ll make an exception. If it’s full, visit your dean. Another nice little secret is that, while professors put a cap on class sizes, actual classroom capacities are usually larger than that, and your dean might be able to drop you into a class that the registration system has told you is full. (This is a solid reason to try to stay on the dean’s good side.)
Also, this probably merits a longer piece, but if you’re learning disabled and you need extra time on exams or some other academic accommodation, don’t be afraid to petition the administration for that. Go to your school’s learning center, or your adviser, and let them know what you need. You’ll need to provide an official diagnosis (or get tested by the school), and there will be some paperwork to fill out. (That paperwork can take up to seven weeks to process, so start on all this early.)
7. Form a study group.
If you find yourself struggling with a particular class or topic—and, you know what, even if you don’t—it’s always a good idea to get together with other students who give a shit about the subject to go over class material.
The most important thing is that you guys get together semi-regularly. That way, you can’t get out of spending some extra time on the subject in question, and you’ll develop a little group of friends who are taking it too—which will make it easier to speak up in class and make school more fun, which is always a good goal. I had a comedy-writing group like this when I was in school that ended up meaning a lot to me.
8. Take advantage of office hours.
Don’t just interact with students; get to know your instructors too. Almost every professor has this thing called office hours, where they’re required to be in their office, with the door literally and figuratively open to students who have questions related to the subjects they teach. You’re essentially paying for these hours whether you use them or not, so you might as well use them. Don’t be intimidated by the stature of the professor, no matter how famous or busy they seem.
Here’s something else most people don’t know: When you’re in college, you can meet with pretty much anyone who teaches there, even if you’re not taking a class from them. Absolutely do that. It’s the last time you’ll have access to so many experts in so many subjects, with whom you can just arrange a meeting anytime you want, and they have to talk to you. I can think of very few other post-childhood instances where “because I’m curious” is considered a valid reason to meet up with a virtual stranger. Professors usually have to offer office-hour slots to their own students first, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to get some time with that skydiving economist you admire. Also, it’s a good way to vet teachers you’re thinking of taking courses from in the future.
9. Don’t take personal advice from strangers on the internet (including me).
In 2008, when I was getting ready to start my freshman year at New York University, I read countless “So you’re headed to college!” articles. They usually started with the line “College can be one of the most _______ experiences of your life,” and the blank space was filled with some dramatic adjective like exciting or enriching or frightening. Because I was young and pretty scared of the unknown, I believed whatever they told me and took all of the advice that followed.
Now that I’m a few years on the other side of that “_______” experience, I realize that it’s a space you fill in yourself. College is what you make it. Work hard. Have fun. And watch out for Kelsey M. ♦