College 101: A Crash Course
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By Logan Ury, Harvard '10
Congratulations! You’re going to college. You’ve worked hard to earn the four exciting years ahead of you. You’re guaranteed a whirlwind of exhilaration, exaltation, and “I-probably-should-have- considered-what-that-would-feel-like-in-the-morning.” At this point, I’m going to assume you’ve already made your final decision. Whether you’re headed to the school of your dreams or that or that second choice which ultimately proves to be the perfect match, come Thanksgiving, you’ll be a changed person sitting around the dinner table. College challenges you to truly consider who you are and who you will become. Back in high school, there were assigned courses and recommended extracurriculars and perhaps the same friends since “Mommy and Me.” But college is a chance to reinvent yourself, as many people do. The choices you make – what to major in, whether to go Greek, who your friends are – are finally yours. College makes you grow. It makes you think. And it may just kick your ass in the process.
Enter: me. Who am I? A completely biased, degree-free, know-it-all who just so happens to have been sitting exactly where you are now only a year ago. I too spent countless hours perusing the Internet for some magical website which would help me unlock the key to my college experience. Now, with the invaluable knowledge of my freshman year, I’ve realized there’s simply no pedagogical panacea. Also, smart words make you look like a jackass. Instead, I’d like to share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned along the Crimson-brick road.
So come along and listen up. In the infamous words of one of our generations most esteemed philosophers, Eric Matthews, “Little bro, life’s tough. Get a helmet.”
The summer before college can be one of the most comfortable yet unfamiliar times of your life. You’re an adult, representing an impressive 18 years of experience. But at times you’re still a child unsure about leaving home. Don’t worry about it. Even though everyone around you—sporting their college sweatpants, t-shirt, keychain, lanyard, visor, flip-flops, and mouse pad—seems completely confident, they’re not. It’s a big change and everyone’s nervous. There’s not much you can do short of flashing forward five months to see everything will be okay. Alternatively, you can make the summer count.
Read your course catalog. It’s a mistake to decide exactly which classes you’ll take unless you have to. In all likelihood there will be several prerequisites before you can take that “Senior Tutorial: Philosophy 1521,” which may not be the best freshman course anyway. Use the list of courses to contemplate your future academic life. Your goals may change a great deal, but any amount of honest thinking about your interests will be fruitful.
A wise soul once told me, “College is an unbelievable opportunity to get smart.” At the time, my response (“duh!”) reveals just how not-smart I could be in high school. But my friend was right. College is really an incredible playground for the mind, a place where you can read great books and partake in incredible conversations. So why not use the summer to start getting smart. Read a book. See a foreign film. Memorize the capitals of some African nations. Come on; make yourself that interesting, collegiate person you’ve always dreamed of becoming.
“You want me to put that where?”
Yes, they do. Somehow colleges expect you to fit 18-years of stuff into a tiny, two-person room. The trick is to learn what to bring and what to keep under your bed at home. To help, here’s my:
Top 10 list of Don’t-Leave-Home-Without-Its
1. Shower shoes. Communal showers? ‘Nuff said.
2. A laptop you know and love. You’ll be spending countless hours on it and it’s important to have a computer you’re happy and comfortable with. Spend some money on that warrantee; after my sister drenched her laptop in Diet Coke, she was glad she’d shelled out that extra hundred bucks her freshman year.
3. Extension cords.
4. Clothes you’ll actually wear. It seems obvious, but most freshmen make the mistake of bringing their entire closets, only to lug most of it back the first time they go home. Spend some time thinking about what you actually wore this year. Then consider the weather of your college and be realistic. While my Florida brain told me nineteen pairs of flip-flops were perfect for my Cambridge college, experience proved me wrong.
5. Bed risers.
6. Posters and poster gum for your wall. There’s no smoother social lubricant than a conversation-sparking Bob Dylan poster or that handy Periodic Table of Mixology.
7. Formalwear. At some point, you’ll have to shower, dress up, and actually look presentable. A nice suit or pretty dress will definitely come in handy.
9. Space-savers like shoe hangers, sweater racks, and desk organizers. Your room will be small and any tools that help you maximize space are worth purchasing.
10. An open mind. I can’t stress it enough. In the best way imaginable, college cannot and will not be what you expect. Open your ears, your heart, and your mind, and you’ll already be ten steps ahead of the game.
And now, for the equally essential
Top 10 List of Don’t-You-Dare-Put-That-In-Your-Suitcase
1. ‘Tude. Look, we get it. You were a big-deal senior last year. You ran the students, the administration, and the cafeteria. But this is college, and every frosh learns to start over at the bottom of the food chain. No worries. In four short years you’ll be at the top anyway.
2. Your collection of pogs / beanie babies / stamps / coins / Joey Lawrence autographs. Space is tight. Save the first-editions for your Trekkie convention.
4. Expensive stuff you don’t want broken. You’ll be glad you left it at home when that careening beach ball someone stupidly hurls across your room caroms into your dresser.
5. Condoms. Of course you should practice safe sex—we aren’t advising you to leave your judgement at home. But university health officials will throw enough free prophylactics your way to make you feel uncomfortably aware of their purpose.
6. Your high school girlfriend or boyfriend. Maybe I’m biased, but it just won’t work. Prom was great, but now it’s time for the last dance.
7. Books you’ve read / would like people to think you’ve read. Dorms are small and you’ll be buying enough books as it is. Save the literature-BS for the section you didn’t to do the reading for. Also, see tip # 9.
8. Your Mom. All jokes aside, it’s important to break away from your parents when leaving home. Her cookies and brownies will gain you instant popularity on your hall, but be prepared to make your own decisions, without calling home first.
9. Your high school yearbook. Have you heard of the Facebook? Focus on reinventing yourself, rather than reliving high school memories. No one likes an Uncle Rico.
10. Stereotypes. You’re not who you were in high school and neither is anyone else. If you’re going to school with people you knew beforehand, give them a fresh chance. If you don’t know any of your classmates but think you recognize them from people in your past life, stop. Your preconceptions will get you nowhere.
Turf Wars: And you thought the Middle East was bad
My best advice when it comes to your roommates is fill out the form as honestly as possible. For example, I am a complete slob. I live and die by Albert Einstein’s words, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?”
However, when it came to filling out my roommate form, I decided I didn’t want a messy roommate who would add to my chaos. Instead, I wanted a neat-freak roommie (read: maid). Despite my misrepresentation of myself, my Dad wrote a truthful parents letter in which he literally wrote, “She could be in the Guinness Book of World Records for messiest room.” Thank goodness he did. My roommate and I were slobs together. From the disgusted looks of my neat-freak friends on the rare occasions they ventured into my room, I know that lying on my form was a bad idea. You are who you are and the housing office should know that. Plus, they, which they won’t take back for detesting the smell of Lysol.
With that said, no roommates will get along perfectly. A small space with two hormonal creatures is by no means an easy living situation. There will no doubt be several disputes, accompanied by yelling if it’s girls or wrestling for the guys. Try to be respectful of our roommate’s belongings and privacy. Being sexiled (unable to enter your room because your beloved roommie is gettin’ it on) sucks. But try to be understanding. Sooner or later, you’ll be on the other side of that door too.
Okay, so I know I just told you to be honest on your roommate form, but there are always going to be people out there who just cannot imagine living in an enclosed space with another human being. For those of you who absolutely need a single, I’d recommend writing that you smoke six packs of cigarettes. You’ll probably get your own room (and a D.A.R.E. t-shirt) to sleep in. You can also learn a lesson from my friend’s experience. Jokingly, he wrote that he absolutely hated people who snore. The first day of school the head housing official found him moving in and told him, “Zach, as there was no way for us to ascertain the exact snoring levels of our undergraduates, we have given you a single.”
“You can lead a boy to college but you can't make him think.”
– Elbert Hubbard
Animal House may have given you the wrong idea about this whole “college thing.” Yes, people do throw ridiculous parties, wear outlandish costumes, and accidentally hook up with local high schoolers. But what they don’t show you, is that college students also go to class.
College courses are far different than the classes you took in high school. In classic elementary school fashion, let’s start with a little vocabulary lesson. In college, teachers are professors, essays are papers, and time management is the key to a successful academic career.
Besides terminology and toga parties, realize that the game of college is entirely different than the one you worked to master in high school.
Sigh, high school. A magical time bustling with prom dresses, pep rallys, and existentialist crises. There’s a lot to be said about those four years, but for our purposes I’m going to stick to the important differences between high school and college.
The most noteworthy distinction is initiative. In high school, you did not need to be proactive. Perhaps you were identified as a “smart kid” during your freshman or sophomore year; a few influential teachers and guidance counselors put their arms around you and made sure you’d succeed. They reminded you about scholarships and nominated you for awards. In their protective grasp, you were golden.
Your classes were manageable, as larger assignments were broken down into little snack packs with your teacher awarding points for draft after draft of the same paper. You always knew what grade you had in a particular class and your teachers kept you up-to-date with your overall progress, reminding you of missing work and perhaps even calling in your parents when you were missing too many assignments.
Speaking of assignments, your classes were full of them! Worksheets, in-class projects, extra credit crossword puzzles—high school teachers LOVE giving out busywork. And as annoying as they are, these easy grades served as buffers, rescuing you from a disastrous test score or lab grade.
In college, you can forget about all that. I’m not trying to scare you, but there’s honestly no hand-holding here.
Scheduling classes presents one of your first chances to be independent. While there are core requirements and prerequisites to fill, you’ll be presented with far more options than in high school. Smart scheduling cannot be overemphasized. No, I wouldn’t recommend you try to habla Espanol for the first time in an advanced Spanish class just because you don’t want to take the daily introductory course. Obviously you have to take the classes when they’re offered. With that said, carefully consider the way you’ll think you work best. I like having a class and then an hour or two off because I find that I get a lot of my best work done during that time. Signing up for too many classes in a row was a mistake I made last semester; I ended up skipping lunch or not paying attention to lectures because I had too many hours of class back-to-back.
Despite my scheduling woes with too many non-stop classes, I was proud that I learned not to take “no” for an answer. I’m not sure if this is true at every school, but as a general rule of thumb, professors want students who truly want to take their classes. Therefore, if you are not accepted into a course right away, it is never a bad idea to speak to the instructor in person or send him a polite e-mail explaining your interest. The worst thing he can do is say no. He may even offer you a spot in his class next year. The most fulfilling class I took this year was a second semester Psychology course with a professor I’d had in the fall. I pleaded my way into the class as the only freshman. It was a risk, but one I’m incredibly glad I took. College is a chance to truly pursue your passion, and an overbooked classroom should never stand in your way.
Another place you’ll be on your own is keeping track of your own grades and assignments. By the time you get your first marks, unprotected by the buffers of piles of worksheets and nights of homework, you’ll be missing all that “busywork.” College is based on fewer assignments, each which counts for a huge percentage of your overall grade. It’s like Office Space’s TPS reports, except here they stand for tests, papers, and sets.
You also need to be responsible for your own time management. You are in classes fewer hours per day but there is also less structure to make sure you finish your work on time. As glamorous as they sound, all-nighters are no fun. Don’t be that guy who misses the best party of the year because he left his 20-page paper to the night before it’s due.
Besides ensuring your availability for all-night ragers, working in advance will also result in better topics for your papers. It’s essential to realize professors are going to expect you to think, not just regurgitate. You’ll be graded on the originality and thoroughness of your ideas, a concept you may never have dreamed of in your 10th grade English class. Each assignment will count for more and you’ll have longer to do them so try to actually spend that time coming up with a topic your grader will want to read.
Now when I say “grader,” I’m often talking about a Teaching Assistant or TA. Professors are invaluable resources and incredible lecturers, but for most of your classes, a TA will be the person leading your discussion section. TAs are usually young enough to remember what it’s like to be in college, which means they are more approachable, but also more attuned to tuning out bullshit. They may actually be interested in the subject matter but you’ll also find TAs who are simply fulfilling graduate school requirements. Because TAs are responsible for the majority of the grading, I’ve prepared my top 5 SSS- Success Strategies for Section.
Top 5 SSS- Success Strategies for Section (Discussion Groups, in Non-Harvard Parlance)
1. Learn how to read. Dick and Jane may be buried in your basement, but it’s time for a quick review. Somehow every single one of your professors thinks his is the only class you’re enrolled in. Realize that if you didn’t sleep, didn’t shower, and didn’t leave the library for the entire year, I still doubt you could do all your assigned reading. On top of those endless pages, you’ll be responsible for contributing something relevant to the conversation in your discuss section with your TA. The solution is to read less but also read smarter. Skim through your assigned readings until you come across a topic which truly inspires you, then delve into it. Giving 100% to an interesting subject will not only develop your understanding of it, but lead you to substantial and meaningful paper topics later on in the semester. For section, be prepared by thinking critically about elements of the reading which interest you in incorporate some outside examples into what you read.
2. Learn how to speak. Once in section, start drawing connections and listening to other students—but not too much because they may not have read either. Master the art of the BS and your section grade will thank you.
3. Have the confidence to believe everybody else is not smarter than you. No matter how nervous you are, you were accepted into this school for a reason—the admissions office believed you could handle the workload and add an interesting perspective to the school.
4. Keep in mind that while being self-assured is important, it’s also essential to remember that you are not smarter than everyone else. Maybe you were in high school, but those days are gone. Feel free to speak up in class, but only if you actually have something new to add to the discussion. Contribute with confidence and humility, a combination that will undoubtedly take time to perfect.
5. Your Mom (and Malcom Gladwell) was right: you only have one chance to make a good first impression. Show up to class on time and don’t plan on missing section without first receiving permission from your instructor. Hand in those first assignments on time so your TA will like you enough to grant you that late-night extension on the final paper.
“Think Big” – Doug Funnie
Now I know I’ve just given you a ton of information, most of it pretty damn scary. Before you start reaching for your inhaler, calm down. Breathe in and out. That’s it. I’ve started it off with all the tough parts about the independence college demands of you. Here comes the fun (little darling).
College is all about independent initiative. No one will ever hold your hand and guide you, but once you decide for yourself exactly where to go, your college will use unmatched resources to get you there. You identify yourself as a “smart kid.”
Let’s say you decide you want to study malaria vaccines next summer. No one will knock on your door begging you to accept a $10,000 grant to cover expenses. But with your college’s help, you’ll have access to a rare library, a coveted internship, and funding for that humanitarian trip to the African nation of Mozambique (aren’t you glad you learned its capital is Maputo).
Doug Funnie got it right. The trick is to “Think Big.” With a little research and imagination, anything you can dream of—working as a marine biologist in the Galapagos or interning at a fashion house in Italy—is within reach. You just have to ask the right people with the right amount of ingenuity and enthusiasm.
Oftentimes the “right people” are your—gasp—professors. Don’t let yourself be intimidated, they aren’t as scary as you think. You may be surprised to find that while you recognize their names from the binding of your textbook or daily quotations in New York Times, professors are often entirely approachable human beings. They love when students come to office hours, even without a specific question or discussion topic. Nowadays, as email becomes more and more ubiquitous, the personal intimacy of a face-to-face visit can truly make a difference. Students who learn to take advantage of opportunities to engage in conversations with their professors are often the ones with the most interesting thesis topics, the most impressive letters of recommendation, or the best-connected post-collegiate career. Beyond that, you’ll probably even have fun talking, and perhaps befriending, these incredibly interesting individuals.
“Carpe Diem / Carpe P.M.” – Me
In one of my favorite episodes of Family Guy, Stewie and Brian try their hand with the university crowd. Stewie, in his classic English accent, announces, “Hey Brian, now that we’re in college, let’s leave a wacky answering machine message: ‘Hi, you’ve reached Stewie and Brian. Please leave your name, number, and a brief message and we’ll get back with you as soon as possible. Oh, and if this is Mum, please send money, because we’re in college, and we need it to buy books and highlighters and ramen noodles and condoms for having sexual relations with our classmates.”
Now I’m certainly not advising you to live your life according to Family Guy, although several young men on my hall this year did. However, Stewie does offer some valuable advice. His request reveals the careful balance that makes the best college experience—a combination of academics, healthful living, and fun.
We’ve already covered academics, and yes, I’ll admit, ramen noodles aren’t exactly a one-stop shop for all your nutritional needs. But college truly is about balance. Learning to manage your days with your nights, you diems with your P.M.s.
You may have gotten into college by being involved with every club and activity on campus, but don’t feel pressured to do the same thing in college. Instead, pick a few activities you really enjoy and dedicate yourself to them. You’ll most likely find some of your most meaningful friendships by surrounding yourself with people who share your interests. Allow yourself to develop in these communities, and do not feel pressured to sign up for every mailing list at the extracurricular fair.
Trust me, it takes months before the Ballroom Dance Team will agree to take you off their list.
While balancing your classes and your activities, you may just find you have enough time for fun. And at this point, there are no curfews or parents to reign down on all the fun. College relationships can be incredibly rewarding, a result of deep, late-night discussions on secret fears and dreams or silly 3 a.m. snowball fights in the dead of winter.
But watch out, these interactions are unlike anything you’ve ever encountered. When it comes to dating, take caution: you live, breathe, and eat the experience. Don’t jump into anything too serious too soon. There are always those couples that pair up at the beginning of freshman year because each member needs some support adjusting to college. Fast-forward eight months and they have no one to live with next year because they never got around to making any other friends. Instead, spend a few months getting a feel for the social scene. Explore different options before committing yourself to a group. College is a place where you can reinvent yourself and finding the right group may help you do so. Just make sure you’re on the path to become who you want to be.
Don’t worry too much about making mistakes. Everyone does some stupid things in college, especially in the beginning. It’s important to learn how to apologize, or at least untag those unflattering Facebook pictures. Speaking of Facebook, you’ll want to proceed with caution. There are actually companies out there created solely for the purpose of downloading and storing information from users’ profile. Think twice before writing about last night’s craziness on someone’s wall or posting that scandalous new album (at least if you ever plan on running for public office).
“I never let schooling get in the way of my education.” – Mark Twain
Congratulations once again. This time, not only are you going to college, but you’ve actually completed reading this essay.
We talked about utilizing your summer, what to pack, how to fill out your housing form, which classes to take, tips to impress your TAs, the best ways to meet your professors, and the importance of managing your schedule. Phew! It’s exhausting even thinking about it all.
I realize how overwhelming this whole college thing sounds so let me leave you with one of my favorite sounds, The Sound of Music. Maria begins, “Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” And she’s right.
The trick is to make college manageable. Don’t sign up for too many hard classes or time-consuming activities your first semester. Do focus on understanding your options and finding the balance between work, play, and “me” time.
Soon you’ll be in college, caught up in the excitement of getting smart, making stupid decisions, and starting out on your path of figuring out who you really are.
As far me, don’t fret. I’ll be back next year to help you get through sophomore year. Until then, look out for my postcard from Maputo.