back to school week

All the Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Started College

We asked the most educated guy we have on the roster for wisdom.
September 6, 2017, 3:29pm
Assets via Shutterstock | Art by Noel Ransome 

As part of the modern era's tragic first attempt to design a new and better world, the French government created a new calendar that put the New Year in September. This has always appealed to me, since 12 years of grade school and another decade of college have drilled into my head that the autumnal equinox is the true annual marker of change and new beginnings.

Few of these personal revolutions are bigger than freshman year in college, especially if you're freshly living away from home. Because I am a wizened old crone of 30, I have had many long years to consider the follies of my youth, and achieve true wisdom. I pass this treasure now on to you in the hopes that it will prove useful, even though I know that it won't because you're 18 to 21 and therefore already the smartest person in the history of the planet.

It's okay to have no idea what you're doing

So much goes into selling the idea that college is good, vital, and necessary to your future that you might be overwhelmed with a sense that you must discover and begin your life's immutable calling by the end of your first semester, or else you are failing at life. This is absolutely not true, and while what you major in for your undergrad is obviously important, in a much more real sense it doesn't really matter. Take your time and cast a wide net lest you end up wasting a lot of time doing something you hate and suck at.

It's okay to quit what you're doing and change streams, no matter how far along you are

I started my first semester doing a minor in economics because when I was 17, I was reading a lot of Ayn Rand and generally convinced that a good understanding of how capitalism worked was necessary to understand the world and also get rich, and therefore powerful. I very quickly discovered that mainstream economics, as it was taught at the undergraduate level in most Canadian universities immediately prior to the Great Recession, is basically just money-themed calculus. It didn't teach me anything that broadened my intellectual horizons, I was not very good at it, and I didn't like it at all. But even though every semester at exam season I would prefer death to rewriting Intro to Labor Markets or whatever for the second time, I refused to quit and change my minor to psych (something I loved and was good at) because I had it lodged in my head that suffering through this would be good and valuable in the end. I was also worried about wasting time doing something new after I had already sunk all this time and energy and money into an economics minor, which I would learn later (not in an economics class, of course) is called the "sunk cost fallacy" and sticking wound up delaying my graduation anyway because I had to get a bunch of C's in my bullshit minor.

(The joke was on me, but it was also on my economics education. My university hosted Icelandic prime minister Geir Haarde to give a talk in April 2008, about how he used his experience as an economist to guide the country to unforeseen levels of prosperity, and then he became the only politician in the world to face jail time when the world financial system imploded later that summer because many economists had no idea what they were doing.)


Anyway, to reiterate: Do what you want because it doesn't really matter, and it's not a race because there are no jobs at the finish line for anybody.

Education does not equal intelligence

Obviously, there is a positive correlation between the two but you should never mistake grades as a perfect representation of intelligence. Lots of very smart people, for a variety of reasons, struggle to get consistent A's, while conversely some of the most stunned individuals imaginable will sail through stuff with flying colors. It is also definitely possible to be "educated stupid," which is what happens when you learn a bunch of jargon or rote memorization without kindling the critical self-awareness that makes true consciousness and intellectual growth possible. "The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled," etc.

There is, of course, an important distinction between being a critical thinker and a contrarian asshole. Education helps you work it out, but getting a credential doesn't mean you've found it. Caveat emptor, motherfuckers.

That said,

Go to class, for God's sake

Look: There is a lot to the rounded educational experience beyond attending classes and getting good grades. There is a whole realm of personal exploration where you do things to discover the particular ways in which you, yourself, are an idiosyncratically weird person, and how best to just roll with that. Sometimes this involves campus clubs or activism, or intramural football games that are thinly veiled occasions to beat up people you don't like, or all-night marathons of terrible progressive rock with your dorm buddies, or blowing off doing responsible things to get wasted in the student bar at 1 in the afternoon on a Tuesday before retiring to a dingy student basement to smoke a lot of weed and watch Kenny vs Spenny. All of these things are important for personal development, truly.

But also, go to class. You should definitely go to class at least, like, 70-80% of the time.

You will get scurvy if you don't eat any fruit or vegetables

This seems really obvious to everyone born after the 17th century, but, it bears repeating, because some of us (teenage dudes living unsupervised, particularly) are idiots. Learn how to cook. It is really embarrassing when a doctor has to prescribe you orange juice because you thought only eating two packs of instant oatmeal a day for several weeks was a good weight-loss plan.

Take notes and otherwise write things out by hand if you are able because you will learn better

I spent 12 years in college both as a student and later in a teaching capacity and guess what: Laptops are mostly bullshit. Just take a notebook to class and take notes by hand and draft ideas and essays by hand. Your brain will work better. I will not pretend to understand the actual mechanics of how this works, but it does.

Do stupid shit, smartly

Making mistakes and doing catastrophically dumb shit is arguably the most important method for becoming a less terrible person, and your first couple years in college is probably the only real *safe space* in which to experiment with ruining your life. The key is to keep your wits about when you choose to be an idiot: practice enthusiastic sexual consent; research the effects of any weird drugs you take, control the dose/set/setting, and make sure you're not taking anything containing fentanyl.

Above all, indulge in your personal freedom, because you will never have such a radical expanse of it again. (And no, you cannot prolong it by going to grad school, so resist that temptation if that's what you're looking for.)


Do not start a serious long-distance relationship with your best friend from high school less than two months before you leave your hometown to start your freshman year

It, uh, does not end well for anybody involved.

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