college, studying

What I Wish I Knew: Going to College

August 23, 2015

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My classes start tomorrow and the internet is full of ~what I wish I knew~ lists from old people pretending they know what it’s like to be a college student now.

Make friends! Do your homework! Don’t take morning classes! Don’t drink! Become a shut-in! Don’t take out student loans! Do a bunch of unpaid internships!

Can we say out of touch?

I am a junior nontraditional student who works full-time and is taking 18 credits this semester. I’m old (ish) but I’ve spent years living in a college town and I’m in school now. Here are my tips for a successful school year.

 

Never ever ever buy anything at the campus bookstore

Higher education as a whole is a scam, but textbooks are the worst. This semester I spent four dollars ($4) on textbooks.

If your professor doesn’t have the books listed online before classes start, email them to ask what the assigned readings are so you can order them early. Do not get sucked into the campus bookstore. Everything is ridiculously overpriced.

Follow my tips for getting your books for free or dirt cheap. I’ve acquired $2200 in textbooks since 2013 and I’ve paid about $200 total. You don’t have to go broke over books.

Keep your backpack light

As a hoarder, I believe in being prepared. I always have a million things in my purse or backpack, because I always think I’m going to have all this extra time on my hands to knit or read a book. Spoiler alert: you have less free time than you think, so take only what you actually need.

Studies show that you student backpacks should way no more than 15% of your weight. You do not want to have back problems in the future just because you carried too much crap to class every day.

You don’t need a laptop to take notes or even to write your papers. Any worthwhile university or college has a library and computer lab. Go there and use them.

You don’t need to take all of your notes for all of your classes to every class. Unless you scheduled all of your classes the same day and have finals in all of them, leave your old notes at home.

You only need one pen or pencil in class. You can highlight and annotate your notes later. Pay attention to the lecture, not to your color-coding system.

Work ahead early

I get burnout about 2/3 of the way through the semester every semester. That’s about the point where papers are due and group projects fall apart and you have too much on your plate.

Pretty much every class is structured the same way: a bunch of intro readings for a few weeks, then some smaller projects, then huge projects and exams.

The beginning of the semester is a cakewalk compared to the back half, so read and work ahead as much as you can in the first few weeks of class. Put everything in your planner during the first week of school, and use an assignment tracker to figure out what weeks are good for working ahead and what weeks will be hell weeks.

Working ahead is also a great time to start reaching out to your professors, because it shows them that you care enough to start things early and to talk to them like people.

Have an accountability system

I am one of the most forgetful people in the world. If I don’t have something written down at least twice, I will forget to do it. Combining my planner and assignment tracker has helped me stay on task and turn things in on time (most of the time).

Figure out what kind of planner or binder system works for you. I have a lot of ideas and printables in my Pinterest board to peruse.

Make your schedule and commit to it. Whether you approach treats as incentives (watch some Netflix when you’re done studying) or hostages (no Netflix until you’re done studying), figure out what motivates you to get stuff done.

Don’t pretend to be a morning person

If I had a dollar for every time I told myself I would wake up early and finish something, I could by myself a big freezer to meal plan with.

Have your shit together the night before. Do not tell yourself you’ll wake up an hour early to write your paper due at 9am or convince yourself you will wake up early enough to make breakfast.

Plan everything the night before, and have it ready to throw into a bag and go. You’re gonna spend a lot of days waking up with 10 minutes to get to class. This is why I spend my Sundays meal prepping.

All-Nighters are not worth it

Your sleep is more important. I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but those extra 4 hours of studying will mean nothing in a year. Instead of wasting hours perfecting your notes and flash cards, just print off some study guides online and review them before class.

You will think and perform better with 10 minutes of studying and 4 hours of sleep than if you’d stayed up all night studying, so go to bed!

Don’t sacrifice your life for a grade

Yes, it’s important to keep your grades up so that you can graduate on time, get into upper-level classes, and qualify for scholarships. Obviously you should put in enough effort to continue in your education.

But there are many things more important than grades: mental and physical health, maintaining good relationships, professional opportunities, paying your bills… A lot of times we’re taught that being in college is either party party party 24/7 or study study study 24/7, and there’s no in between. There is a lot in between.

Keep your grades up, but don’t sacrifice a good networking opportunity or a nap to bump your B up to an A. That especially applies to gen eds and classes you don’t really enjoy–don’t sacrifice your grades in the classes you like to keep a stellar GPA in the classes that don’t matter. Unless you’re becoming a doctor or lawyer, your “entry level” job won’t care about your GPA–and even if they do, they usually don’t bother calling the school to see if you really were on the dean’s list.

College is about more than just getting good grades, it’s about figuring out what is important to you for the rest of your life. You don’t plan on spending 12 hours a day studying the rest of your life, do you?

Stay healthy

The freshman fifteen does not have to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, even if you are stuck eating cafeteria food. Eat good snacks like granola bars or fruit, and have some salad instead of a sandwich or pizza. A little bit of planning can help you eat right even when you have no time between classes. The habits you develop now will stay with you for the rest of your life, so choose wisely. Your metabolism won’t last long, trust me.

Most schools have a gym on campus. It’s probably free, so use it!

Exercise keeps you alert and awake, and it helps you focus. Going for a run or a swim before class will help you stay on task during lecture. My favorite way to start the day is to hit the pool before I start work. Not only does it wake me up for class, but regular exercise can wear you out at the end of the day and help you sleep at a normal schedule.

 It’s okay to take a break or drop out

College is not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You can always go back later. I dropped out at 18 and went back to school at 25. I think it made me a better student to have work experience in between my first and second tries.

Whether you need to save up more money to go to school or you just need some time to rest your brain, there is no shame in taking time off. It may delay you reaching your goal of graduation, but it doesn’t delay your life in the long run.

Don’t know how to take a break from school?

Learn how to ask for help

From the registration office to the career counselor to the campus therapist, there are a lot of resources available to help students succeed. Even your professors are generally on board with giving extensions or exceptions if you plead your case and at least pretend you’re a concerned and hardworking student.

Look into what kind of support is available at your school, and if you don’t find what you want, ask for a second opinion. (This last part is especially true for the financial aid office, who are almost all con artists.)

There are also thousands of groups and services outside of school that can help you deal with any number of crises. I’ve included some of them in my runaway resources post.

Connect with people

A lot of what I wish I knew lists say to get involved on campus, but being a part of a club or group is more than just being a member and having something on your resume–it’s about making connections with people, whether they’re people you want to befriend, or people who can help you later on.

  • Talk to your professors outside of class.
  • Start a study group.
  • Become a regular at the coffee shop.
  • Join clubs you’re passionate about.
  • Learn about your local government.
  • Go to networking events and talk to people in your field.
  • Make at least one friend in every class.

Be a Slytherin: treat every new person you meet as someone who can do something for you in the future.

Experiment

And above all else, ignore all those old people dishing out advice about what would have made ~the best years of their lives~ even better. Figure out what works for you.

Don’t be afraid to do a little trial and error when it comes to new experiences in college. Maybe you can’t take morning classes, but you can go to the gym at 8 am. Maybe you can study in your dorm but the library has too many distractions. Maybe Tinder is full of dicks but the townie bar is pretty okay. Maybe you really do like Starbucks more than local coffee no matter what your hipster friends say.

College is a learning experience. You aren’t expected to get it right all the time. Chances are you’ll change your major at least once and your first job will have nothing to do with your degree, so you may as well enjoy and appreciate the time you’re spending in school.


This week I’m going to share some of my favorite resources for students. From apps and research journal sites to life hacks and the best student discounts, stay tuned as I help you make the most of college.

Here are some of my previous college-related posts to get you started:

For more college advice, check out my College Pinterest board or my Tips tag on Tumblr!

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