Back to school

11 things I wish I knew before going to college

Aug. 24, 2014 at 8:27 AM ET

Sarah Bourassa and her college roommate, Hanna Lee, getting ready for a University of Colorado Buffaloes football game.
Courtesy Sarah Bourassa
Sarah Bourassa, right, and her college roommate, Hanna Lee, getting ready for a University of Colorado Buffaloes football game.

When you hear about college, you may think of the movie "Animal House" and frat bros doing keg stands in the front lawn. But what should you actually expect? Sure, you may receive a campus map and list of clubs at your orientation, but no one really gives you the inside scoop. Here are 11 things I wish I knew before going to college.

1. Everyone is in the same position as you.

“It's easy to forget that everyone there is the same as you: nervous, out of their comfort zone and eager to make new friends,” says Austin Manapsal, 23, a graduate from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. 

Starting college is the time to be friendly, confident and open to meeting new people. And you can feel less intimidated by remembering that they are in the same situation as you and will likely be grateful you reached out to them.

2. Learn how to deal with roommates.

It’s not easy living in the same room as someone, no matter how well you get along. From coordinating sleep schedules to when you can have guests over, having a roommate requires constant communication and compromising. 

Whether you choose to live with someone who you already know or with someone new, being direct, open and considerate can help build a successful relationship with your roommate. 

However, if you do end up in a difficult roommate situation, talk to your resident adviser. He or she will be able to help you resolve the situation, whether it’s talking through your disagreements or switching roommates. 

3. Beer and liquor have more calories than you think.

When you hear of the freshman 15 and weight gain in college, you probably think of the all-you-can-eat dining hall food and late-night pizza orders. 

But don’t forget those sneaky calories packed in beer and liquor. (For those 21 and over, of course.) Beer has about 153 calories (consuming four beers would be about equivalent to a Big Mac), while hard alcohol has 97 (not to mention the calories in the sugary mixers like juice and soda). 

While it’s easy to get caught up in your busy schedule, tough classes, new social circles and partying, it’s important to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Eat a balanced diet, stay hydrated, get enough sleep and exercise regularly. You will feel better physically and mentally.

4. Stay one step ahead.

“Being 18 and free to do whatever you please is a bad combination, especially when it comes to balancing college life with classwork,” Manapsal says. 

Procrastinating on completing your schoolwork until the night before can lead to pulling all-nighters, high stress and low grades. 

“College has the ability to put a lot on your plate at one time, so stay organized and one step ahead of your work,” says Billy Hartman, 22, a graduate from Temple University. 

Dr. Larry Marks, a licensed psychologist at Counseling & Psychological Services at the University of Central Florida, suggests making a schedule, keeping a to-do list and setting goals for the semester that reflect your priorities. And make big projects more manageable by breaking them into small steps to complete over time. 

5. Get to know your professors. 

You may feel you get lost in the crowd, especially in your larger classes. Evan Mistur, 23, a graduate from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, suggests cultivating strong relationships with your professors.

“These people are your lifeline to recommendations … it's important for them to get to know you,” he says. 

Introduce yourself, visit them during office hours and ask questions about your courses and interests. Who knows, they may be able to connect you to others in your field or help you get your first job out of college.

6. Manage your finances.

“It is very important to start managing your finances early, and college is a great place to start,” says Hartman.

There are many ways you can cut back on costs while in school if you think strategically. Search for the cheapest place to buy textbooks, such as renting them for the semester through Amazon. 

Look into scholarships through your school or outside organizations. Sites like Scholarships.com or Fastweb can help you find scholarships that are specific to your needs. 

And if your schedule allows, get a part-time job so you can help pay for food and housing.

7. It takes time to find who your true friends are.

“Say goodbye to your high school group,” says Kevin Mark, 22, a graduate from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. 

Once you leave for college, you’ll constantly be meeting new people on campus and will quickly find out which of your high school friends you’ll stay in touch with.

However, this doesn’t mean you will have a new group of close friends instantly.

“… College isn’t actually a love-fest in which everybody is included in everything,” Julie Zeilinger writes in her book "College 101: A Girl’s Guide to Freshman Year."

It’s up to you to make an effort to meet people and build these relationships. Manapsal recommends meeting as many people as you can. Even though you will not become friends with all of them, the more people you talk to the more of a chance you will have to find people you click with.

“The friends you make at college are friends you'll have for life,” he says.

8. Find your interests and follow those.

You’re investing a lot of time and money into your education, so choose a degree that you will be happy with in the long run. 

“Don't feel as though you are required to study a field you do not enjoy just because it might yield a good job afterwards. If you don't enjoy it now, you never will,” says Mistur.

Though it can be hard to know what you want to do at 18, think about what your strengths are, what you are passionate about and what job you can see yourself doing down the road. You can also visit your university’s career center, take career interest surveys and talk to an adviser.

9. Take the initiative.

Your orientation will likely cover all the programs, activities and clubs you can join. But with so much information thrown at you, it’s easy to forget about them and not take advantage of what your school has to offer.

“There is so much opportunity to get involved and succeed at school, you just have to take the initiative,” Hartman says.

If you hear about something that interests you, find out how you can join and what the deadlines are so it doesn’t fall off your radar. Not only will it be rewarding to get involved in what you’re passionate about, but you will meet new people who share your interests.

“Research has demonstrated that the more students engage with their academics and campus life, the more successful they will be,” says Dr. Marks.

10. Be prepared for a roller coaster ride.

Some say that college is the best four years of your life. While it’s likely you will never have another experience like it, it will be filled with ups and downs. “There will be times throughout your college experience that will test your will power, and it is so crucial to stay strong and fight through it,” Hartman says.

Finding your way to adapt to college is a normal challenge, and it will get easier over time, Dr. Marks said. He recommends using your support network of family and friends to help you cope with adjustments or reaching out to a school counselor.

11. College will fly by.

These four years go by incredibly fast, so make the most of them. After all, when else will you be able to wear sweatpants every day, attend epic theme parties, have access to an unlimited buffet and sleep until noon?

“It’s the only time in life when you'll be surrounded with thousands of people your own age, and the last step before you begin the rest of your life, so enjoy it while you can,” Manapsal says.

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