The Top 5 Lessons I Wish I Knew as a Freshman in College

By: Jonathan Guerrera In: For Students 3 Feb 2011

As my college graduation draws near, I thought it would be beneficial for me to summarize the lessons I’ve learned, in order to help those who are just beginning this priceless four years of their lives. This post will contain the five most valuable truths I’ve learned in my four years at school. I truly feel that it was because of these truths that I was able to take full advantage of what college had to offer me.

Let me just preface these lessons with one simple fact about college: it can be confusing, overwhelming, challenging, exciting, and crazy all at once. Nobody will have the “perfect” college experience because there is no such thing. The experience is different for everyone.

Furthermore, understand that mistakes, errors in judgment, and slip ups will occur along the way and this is perfectly normal, since growing as an individual requires lots of pushing beyond one’s comfort zone. Did I make lots of mistakes? Definitely. Do I wonder what my college experience what have been like if I had done certain things differently? Of course. So I don’t want these lessons to sound preachy. Rather, I wish that they will function as a helpful guide with a firm grounding in four years of experience.

With that said, my hope is that these five lessons that I learned along the way will help you take full advantage of everything college has to offer you.

1) Leave With No Regrets

The overall secret to an amazing college experience is simple: Leave with no regrets. No one graduates college thinking, “omg, I’m so pissed that I chose to try so many new things and meet so many people while I was in college.” Usually, the exact opposite is true. Many of my friends who are seniors and recent graduates admit that they wish they had reached out more and tried more things before graduating and starting a 40+ hours per week job.

If you’re ever in doubt as to whether or not you should do something – whether it’s go out on a Friday night, go to a general interest meeting for a new club, or introduce yourself to a group of people – I want you to apply this simple heuristic: do what makes for the best story. For example, which will make for a better story: Going to that party with some cool people you met in your dorm or staying in to play World of Warcraft until 3am?

2) Never Stop Questioning

Repeatedly ask yourself: “How satisfied do I feel with my social life, my grades, my professional development, and my exposure to new things?” For the sake of simplicity, these are the four areas that I’ve distilled my college experience down to. I’m fairly certain your college experience will break down into these same elements as well. But if they don’t, feel free to create your own set of metrics.

Ask yourself the above bolded question once a week, or even once a day if you must. The problem is that many students never bother to ask this difficult question DURING college because they’re too caught up in a hurricane of activity. In both my sophomore and junior years, I was way too caught up in my schoolwork, which caused my exposure to new experiences to plummet. To make matters worse, I was too busy to recognize that this area of my college experience was suffering. It took me until the summer after my junior year to finally knock some sense into myself to fix the problem. It’s a shame that many students never get around to asking these important questions during college. I believe that by spending time every week to ask these important questions, you will avoid becoming a college graduate who finally stops to reflect once the experience is already over.

As often as you feel necessary (once a week is optimal), sit down and spend 10 minutes asking yourself how you feel about your 1) social life, 2) grades, 3) professional development, and 4) exposure to new ideas and experiences. If any of these areas are suffering, begin taking steps to fill in the gaps. Such steps can include improving your study habits, joining a new club, attending more social events, etc.

For an effective way to keep track of these important areas of your college life, check out my post from earlier this month: http://www.livingforimprovement.com/key-lifestyle-indicators-a-powerful-tool-for-long-term-success/

3) Find the Study Method That Works For You

If you’re stuck inside studying all day due to inefficient study habits, you will have less time to have a well-balanced, fulfilling college experience. Find a studying strategy that works for you, and don’t quit testing new strategies until you’re happy with your grades compared to your time invested.

To accomplish this, I spent a year and a half fine-tuning my own strategy for keeping my grades high with minimal stress. I plan for my next blog post to be a brief tutorial on my studying strategy that allowed me to graduate with a 3.99 GPA without ever resorting to all-night cramming sessions or locking myself in the library during midterms and finals.

In the meanwhile, I strongly encourage you to expose yourself to new ideas related to academics, studying, and living a balanced college life. For this purpose, I highly recommend Cal Newport’s blog, Study Hacks: http://calnewport.com/blog/. It is through the ideas Cal discusses on Study Hacks that my college experience has become more fulfilling and enjoyable.

4) Start Professional Development As Early As Possible

If you are 100% sure of what you want to do after graduation, this paragraph may not apply to you. However, many of us are not sure what we want to do. Until you figure out your ideal job/career, your goal is to keep exposing yourself to new fields, possible career paths, and role models (teachers, upperclassmen, etc.) who can help guide you.

Once you have identified the career path you wish to take, it is essential to reach out to professors and students that share your major and ask about the types of internships, fellowships, or opportunities you must take advantage of to remain a competitive candidate for a job in the real world. Don’t leave this up to chance. For starters, clubs on campus are a great way to meet students that share your major.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to graduate and still not know what you want to do in life. There are generally two types of people who find themselves in this situation. The first type is someone who has spent four years exploring different paths, interests, and opportunities, but has yet to find the right job for him/her. This is good, and as long as you continue to work hard, you shouldn’t be discouraged by the fact that you are still in the exploration phase. The other type of person in this position is someone who never bothered to try, and simply floated their way through their classes and never felt the need to challenge themselves to explore outside the classroom. This is what you want to avoid. As long as you are actively working towards discovering the career that’s right for you, you’re in good shape.

5) In Your Senior Year, Make a Bucket List

A bucket list is usually reserved for lists of things to do before you “kick the bucket” (aka – die). However, once you graduate and start your career, it will mark the end of this distinctly unique part of your life. Therefore, you should have a bucket list to make sure that you don’t end this part of your life with regret and unfulfilled wishes.

By your senior year, you will have a much stronger knowledge of the school and of yourself. Once you understand these two well enough, you will be in a great position to create a list of experiences that you want to have before you graduate. My bucket list was mostly social things to do, such as to try a scorpion bowl, join ballroom dance club, go to trivia night at a bar near my school, and so on. For others, their bucket list might include restaurants to try, events to attend, clubs to join, and teachers to build connections with.

As with any experience in life, it is crucial to finish strong if you wish to retain a high quality memory of the overall experience. A bucket list is a great way to challenge yourself to finish college strong.

Conclusion

If you’re still in school, I hope that these tips will help maximize your enjoyment of the college experience. If you know anyone currently in, or about to embark on the college experience, you will be doing them a huge favor if you share these lessons with them.

If you have any other college lessons you feel students would benefit from, please share them in the comments below!

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  • Tessa

    I would be lying if I didn’t tell you tears are in my eyes. Amazing entry… I’ll be sharing this with my HS senior sister. <3 Much love.

  • shaggy

    It’s almost a decade since i finished college but i can still remember and relate with most of what you say, especially the importance of stories and ending things well. Whenever I meet with friends we still only talk about the stories. It seems “college life” is remembered as what happens outside of class hours and yet while you’re living it your main concern is battling the demon of studies (to the detriment of other needs).

    The importance of developing an efficient system of study can’t be emphasized enough. Wish I had known then even a few of the techniques i know now e.g. skimming the day’s topics in advance, dividing notebook pages into a left half for self-study notes (pre-class) and a right half for lecture notes – would have saved time on clerical scribbling allowing thinking, comparing, and reinforcing learning. Harnessing the classroom time well is one of the best ways to save that most precious resource.
    Am looking forward to reading more on your site. This is great work you are doing!

  • http://www.livingforimprovement.com/ Jonathan Guerrera

    Very true. Thanks for the wise words, shaggy!



I'm Jon Guerrera, a life hacker at heart, and the man behind the scenes here at Living For Improvement. This blog documents all of my successes, failures, and lessons learned as I hack my way to happiness and fulfillment.


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