Coming out of high school, you likely have mixed impressions of what college is like.
From “everyone is cut-throat and studies really hard all the time,” to “it’s so much less intense than high school, people party every weekend,” anyone you ask will cast a different light on the college experience. You might think you’ve done your research, and you know what to expect, but in the likely event that you have some misconception of what it’s like to be a college student, this article should clear the air.
MYTH: College dorms are gross.
A lot of people like to say that “slumming it” is part of the college experience. From some of the things you hear, you might be half-expecting a cockroach-infested, poorly ventilated, really cramped little box with a bed that’s slightly-too-hard to be comfortable. This image is a bit exaggerated; of course, college dorms are no five-star hotel, but they’re definitely spacious and well-maintained enough where even people coming from nice homes shouldn’t feel too underwhelmed. You may have to slightly adjust your idea of a “nice” room, since you’re probably used to air conditioning, great lighting, a pretty view out of the window, etc. Not all college dorms will have overhead lighting (some just have desk lamps), many won’t have air conditioning, and your view may just be the side of the building next to yours, but you have your own bed, a desk, drawers for personal belongings, and a closet with hangers and shelves, as well as wall-hooks that allow you to make effective use of the space.
FACT: Your room is as nice as the effort you put into it.
If you walk around a dorm building and inspect all of the rooms you pass by, you will notice a large variety in terms of how nice the rooms seem. This discrepancy isn’t due to the room actually being better or worse than the one next to it, since the rooms are essentially identical in a hallway. Instead, the rooms differ based on how the residents decorate them. Instead of air-conditioning, invest in a nice fan and your room won’t get unbearably hot or humid on those 80-90 degree days. If the overhead lighting in your room isn’t great, buy a nice floor lamp. You can always maximize your space by lofting your bed and storing anything you don’t use frequently underneath. Also, the walls of dorms are pretty bland, but if you decorate with posters, whiteboards, pictures, calendars, etc. you can add a sense of personality to the room. A microfridge for the room so you can stock up on ice cream and cold drinks can make you want to spend even more time in your room, and buying a cool chair (I personally recommend a net chair) can turn your room into the go-to hangout spot for your friends in the dorm. Don’t go overboard, though, because you shouldn’t be spending your life savings on a room you’ll only live in for a year or two. Check out your school’s dump-and-run sale at the beginning of the semester, find local stores with good prices, and turn your room into your personal getaway.
MYTH: People party every weekend… and sometimes weekdays.
I won’t lie to you, those people exist. The people who you sometimes think to yourself “do you ever attend classes/why do you go to school at all?” For some people, it’s possible to go out all of the time and still stay on top of their school work. For most people, however, going out is a treat for getting ahead on your work and earning some free time. There are a lot of factors that will also determine your social scene. Some people stay in their dorm all weekend, watch Netflix, play cards with some friends, and get a lot of sleep. Other people are running around campus going to random events, playing sports, checking out local shops or restaurants, etc. Depending on the size of Greek Life at your school, there could be parties every Friday and Saturday, or there could be a big party once every 2-3 weeks. Thursdays out are fairly common for people who party a lot, and occasionally Wednesdays for those who really party all of the time. At the end of the day, though, people don’t have unlimited energy, or unlimited resources to throw parties, and you can’t fail out of school if you want to maintain your college social life, so Sunday-Tuesday should be fairly quiet on most campuses most of the time.
FACT: Most students work hard and play hard, they party when they don’t have work to do.
Sometimes, you just need to blow off some steam, and even the most academically-focused students will go to parties when they feel up to it. However, for the typical student, this is only when they feel that they have no pressing work to deal with. The same student could vehemently refuse to go out on Friday because they have a project due on Monday that they haven’t made that much progress on, but enthusiastically organize their whole group of friends to party on Saturday because they worked really hard on that project and feel on top of their work. Striking the perfect balance between socializing and studying (and sleeping) is what will allow you to have the most fun in the grand scheme of things, so find yourself some friends who have similar work habits and are fun to be around, and you should never feel that you are working too much or having fun too rarely.
MYTH: Students stay up all night in the library and get 3-5 hours of sleep.
Students who are majoring in infamously difficult topics may seem like zombies if you see them walking back from the library at 2AM, or falling asleep in the middle of a lounge area with notebooks strewn all over a table. In reality, a lot of these students like to be a bit overdramatic with their work. What the person who stayed up until 4AM won’t tell you is that they didn’t start their work until 10:30 PM because they weren’t in the mood to, so they took a nap and watched some Netflix. Sometimes you really will get overwhelmed with work and have to sacrifice some sleep to make sure it gets done, but this doesn’t happen every day, or even every week. At college I’ve actually met more people who go to sleep before 10:00 PM than I did in high school (also, you probably wake up later for college classes than you did for high school). Students really like their sleep, and you might have 1 in 10-15 friends who actually stays up all night doing work and never sleeping.
FACT: Students who manage their time efficiently can still get their normal 6-8 hours of sleep.
If your classes end at 4:00 PM, you may be exhausted, so you should take 30 minute to rest and recuperate. If, however, you let that break last until you get back from dinner at 8:00 PM, that’s when you will start to enter dangerous territory. Some days you might not actually be able to start your work until after dinner because you have classes/clubs straight from 9-7. On other days, though, when you get out at 4, you should probably go to a library by 4:45 and try to get your work done for 1-2 classes before dinner. Sometimes it’s hard to motivate yourself to keep going straight through for 12 hours, but it’s completely worth it when you finish all your work before 11:00 PM, can hang out with your friends for an hour, and still get a decent amount of sleep. In the 30 minute or 1 hour breaks you may have between classes, you may convince yourself that there’s not enough time to do work, so you’ll just save it for later. Even if you can just do the reading for an assignment, or go print something that you’ll need later, you’ll do yourself a favor to use every opportunity you can to prevent work from piling up at the end of the night. Remember that your future self isn’t another person, it’s just you in a couple of hours. Don’t dump all your work on your future self; split the job and it’s a lot easier in the long run.
MYTH: Communal bathrooms and kitchens are weird.
Except for your siblings, you may have never shared a bathroom with anyone. Your biggest worries are probably “People aren’t going to flush the toilet and it’s going to smell all of the time,” or "people aren’t going to wash the sinks after they brush their teeth or shave and they’ll always be clogged,” or worst of all, “someone is going to pull open my shower curtain without thinking”. In terms of kitchens, you’re most likely used to the free-for-all with your family where everything is open to everyone, and you feel uncomfortable leaving something in the dorm kitchen for fear it will be stolen. These unfavorable scenarios rarely, if ever, actually happen in college dorms, because most other students are coming into the dorm with the same inhibitions as you. Some people will actually have poor hygiene and not be fun to share amenities with, but most people were raised with some manners. Also, at some schools, staff will clean the bathrooms, and resident advisors will make sure there are repercussions for people who leave dirty dishes in the sink all week, steal food, etc.
FACT: Everyone is an adult in college, if you have good habits you likely won't have to deal with anything too gross.
You’re not living in the bathroom or the kitchen, so even if they’re not sparkly clean all of the time you shouldn’t have an issue. If anything, the biggest worry in the bathroom and kitchen is running out of paper towels because people clean so much (it happened nearly every week my freshman year). Keep your toothbrush in a holder, don’t leave your toiletries on the floor, put your name on your food, and respect other people’s belongings. Just because it’s a shared bathroom doesn’t mean all of the bathroom products everyone brings with them are also shared. If you always wash your hands, wear shower flip flops, make sure to eat off of your own clean plates and silverware, etc. then you have nothing to worry about from other people. The people you are sharing the kitchen with aren’t sloppy five-year-olds who’ve never washed a dish in their life and don’t clean up after themselves, they’re also adults who want to live in a dorm where the public areas are clean.
MYTH: It’s hard to start making new friends after having the same friends for years.
Many school districts keep the same group of students together from K-12, so you’re used to seeing the same people every year on the first day of school, and coming back to mostly the same friends every year. The idea of getting tossed into a totally new pool of students whom you’ve never met before can seem intimidating at first since you can’t remember the last time you had to find a friend group from scratch. Firstly, you aren’t leaving your old friends behind, so you can still keep in touch with them while you figure out your new friend situation at college. Second, you’ve spent the last 12-13 years of your life developing the skills to socialize with people your age, so you are definitely prepared to go meet new people. People like to think they’re the only one coming into college without a lot of friends, and that most people are coming to college with a group of childhood friends that they’ll hang out with. The truth is 95% of people aren’t going to college with their close friends, and you’re not at any disadvantage compared to everyone else.
FACT: Everyone is excited to be in a new place away from home, and if you’re friendly, they usually will be too.
Colleges have orientation week for the sole purpose of integrating all of their new students into campus. There will be dozens of fun activities every day that hundreds of other students will attend, and since college is a self-selective process, you will probably have something in common with a lot of them. No one is bored during the first week of school. You just started an entirely new phase of your life and everyone is revving to go out and explore. You might meet people on a pre-orientation camping trip, you might meet them at a freshman waffle-making event hosted in one of the dining halls, you might meet them at a major-fair where students can see the types of research and projects that go on in their fields of potential interest. The point is, there are innumerable opportunities to meet new people. O-week is the one time where no one will find it weird for you to be extremely friendly out of the blue. You can knock on random people’s doors to meet people in your dorm, you can introduce yourself to strangers in the dining hall and have a meal with them, you can invite a passersby to join you for a board game or a party. As long as people get a friendly vibe from you, they’ll be willing to at least try to get to know you. You don’t have to become best friends with everyone you meet at the beginning of the year, but having a lot of acquaintances can help you join various friend groups for fun activities because you’ll have mutual friends with people all over campus.
Hopefully this article cleared up some of what you’ve heard about college. Take everything you hear about college with a grain of salt, because not every hyperbole applies to everyone, and you won’t know what the college experience is like until you try it yourself.
Alex W is a current college sophomore at Cornell University.