Even though it’s been almost five years since I’ve gone back to school in August, this time of year still carries the feelings of a fresh start. A fresh academic year, a fresh cycle – fresh notebooks, fresh goals, fresh ideas… The opportunity to begin again is always an exciting one.
For the Class of 2017, this August brings a particularly fresh and exciting start – the start of their very first year of college. This school year, they’re not simply “beginning again;” they’re beginning.
To send them off, I thought I’d use this blog post to offer some advice that I wish I could give myself as a college freshman. Knowing what I know now (which is not to say I’m an expert by any means), these are a few things I would do differently if I could do my college experience over again.
1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – even when you feel like you’re not ready to.
There were a lot of times in college when I would avoid speaking up with questions in class because I was afraid of revealing that I didn’t know exactly what I was talking about. Whether it was because the class was moving faster than I could keep up with, or because I hadn’t done all of the textbook reading ahead of time, I would be hesitant to ask for help until after I had gone home and tried to answer my questions on my own. Looking back, I realize that I missed out on a lot in my classes because I just ended up copying down whatever the professor said so that I could decipher it later, rather than actively listening and participating in the class as it was happening. It takes courage and humility to raise your hand when you don’t know what’s going on, but it’s so worth it.
2. Get to know your professors.
That same hesitation to ask for help also led me to avoid my professor’s office hours – something that I truly regret. Professors, especially those who set aside time to meet with their students, are a great resource not only for clarifying course material that you might be tested on, but also for tapping into deeper interests you might have about related topics. While I know it’s intimidating to meet with professors one-on-one, remember that they’re just people, too. Don’t be afraid to admit that you’re human and that you’re struggling with the material, and on the other hand, don’t be afraid of “wasting their time” by asking them questions that might go beyond the scope of what they’re testing you on. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Be curious.
Engage with the material that you’re taught not because you’ll be assessed on it, but rather because it fascinates you. Choose a course not because you think it’s what you “should” be taking, but rather because the central topic speaks to you. High school, in many ways, trains you to pick the classes and activities that will set you up best for success – the ones that will look the best on your resume, the ones that will get you the best recommendation letters, etc. But now you’re in. Let go of being interested in what you think you’re “supposed to” be interested in, and take a moment to reflect on what it is that you want to get out of your college experience. What is it that you want to learn? What it is that you are uniquely interested in? Train yourself to be curious, cultivate that curiosity, and follow it wherever it takes you.
4. Study abroad.
Just do it. While not unheard of, it is very rare to have the opportunity to travel with the ease and security of an academic program after graduation. Traveling is so rewarding and teaches you so much about yourself, and there is never an easier time to do so than while you’re in college. Take advantage of it while you can.
5. Get real-world experience.
One of the biggest things that I’ve learned since graduating is that there is much more to a job or career than the subject matter that it’s related to. The fact that you like molecular biology does not necessarily mean that you’ll like doing research in a molecular biology lab, for example. Things that seem insignificant (or at least distant) when you’re in college – like working hours, company size, office culture, job stability, and location – end up playing a much bigger role in your day-to-day happiness than you might think.
On the flip side, for every area of study there is a multitude of career options that you might not even consider when you’re in class. As a biology major, I often felt like I had only two choices – going to med school or a pursuing a PhD. – when in reality, there were countless other possibilities that I wasn’t even considering.
So how to discover what might be a good fit? Experiment! Involve yourself of different internships, on- or off-campus jobs, research opportunities, and volunteer organizations. Observe the adults working around you and try to imagine yourself in their roles. Pay attention to the things that you like and that you don’t like about each of the positions that you’re in. All of this will be useful information when it comes to deciding what it is that you want to do after graduation.
6. In sum, explore.
And do so shamelessly. You’re in a special time of your life that is a testing ground of sorts – a time to test what subjects you might be interested in, what careers might be a good fit for you, what type of life you want to build. Don’t hesitate - dive in. Expose yourself to as much as possible. Test as much as possible. The more you experience, the more you’ll be able to discover and define who you are. Enjoy!