Two years ago, when I first stepped afoot UCLA, I had NO IDEA what adventures, joys, and hardships would await me. Here are some things I wish I’d known before beginning college.
- Coming into college, most people don’t truly know what they want to do in life. For most my life leading up to UCLA, I was almost 100% certain I wanted to go to medical school. Little did I know that medicine was indeed a poor fit for me. It wasn’t just the fact that I disliked my college chemistry classes with a passion, or found myself struggling to stay afloat in bio. Rather, it was the fact that being a pre-med student did not afford me the time to pursue my artistic passions as much as I wanted to. With dance and writing no longer playing a dominant role in my life, I found myself sad and empty. I realized that I needed to find a career that, in addition to putting food on the table, would allow me to pursue my artistic passions to my heart’s content. And medicine just wasn’t that career. It took me about six quarters into UCLA to fully renounce medicine, but when I finally shed away all the fear and self-doubt, I felt liberated and freed to explore other career options. By the end of my sophomore year, I finally found a career that I was passionate about and that would provide me with a lifestyle that meshed well with my artistic side.
- You don’t need to have it all figured out by the end of college. Many students live with the misconception that they need to know their career paths by the end of college. In reality, this is not necessarily the case. I know people who have majored in something they didn’t really know what to do with. And that is A-OK! You have a degree. That’s something. And there’s always the option of going back to school when you’ve figured out what you really want to do. The point is, there is no strict timeline when it comes to finding a career you really enjoy. Of course, finding out sooner than later can provide you with a sense of comfort and direction and also save money and time. At the end of the day though, you want to give yourself sufficient time to decide what you want to do for your professional life. Just because you’ve graduated college doesn’t mean the search is over. No need to stress, if you don’t know what to do. Take it from someone who, after questioning whether medicine was for her, spent countless nights awake in bed, stressing about what she was to do. Trust me, the stress isn’t worth it. I know most people are going to stress anyway. I’m here to reassure you that sometimes, you just have to have faith that things will work out in the end. Embrace the uncertainty as a time of exploration and liberation!
- Connections are, in some ways, more important than grades. Even if you’re pre-med or pre-law, and GPA plays a big role in your acceptance to pre-professional schools, grades are still not everything. You need to foster relationships with your professors/TAs/advisors, because they’re the ones you’ll be asking for letters of rec. Looking back, I wish I had gone to more office hours and gotten to know my professors more. I still have one more year to make connections, but really, you should start doing so from the beginning. It’s never too early to get involved in undergraduate research, which will give you the opportunity to get to know professors on both a professional and personal level. Just don’t be shy. I know going up to a godly professor can be intimidating, but just remember, most of them are really invested in helping their students succeed. Be brave, and get to know your professors– they are human, just like you and me!
- Be careful of falling into the “freshman gone wild” trap. It doesn’t matter how disciplined or focused you were in high school. College is a different animal. For many people, college is the first time they’ve experienced freedom of any sort. No more parents hovering over you, pressuring you to be the perfect child. You may be overtaken by curiosity and temptation when first arriving at college, where alcohol and drugs and hook-up culture is so prevalent. In some ways, coming from a very sheltered background puts you more at risk for going “wild” when coming to college. What do I mean by “wild”? Partying and drinking and engaging in other hedonistic extracurriculars, to excess. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with a bit of exploration. That’s a normative part of growing up, and some may argue it’s an integral part of the college experience. The problem is when it is done to the extreme. You don’t want to throw away your GPA and, more importantly, your health, for the sake of having fun. So, just be responsible when exploring the underworld of hedonism. Don’t sell your soul to the devil, like Dorian Gray did (reference to Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray”).
- You will have to master the art of time management. Like I said earlier, college is very different from high school. In high school, your daily schedule was pretty much set for you. School from 8am-3pm. Then extracurricular activities. Then homework. Then dinner, then sleep. Rinse and repeat. In college, you actually have a lot more time on your hands; lecture takes up an average of 3-4 hours of your day. It’s up to you to schedule the rest of your day, which is a challenge in itself. What time should you eat? Study? Take a nap? Coming into college, I was overly confident in my time management ability. Now, two years into college, I still struggle with managing my time smartly. I may devote too much time to dance and leave little time for studying. Or vice versa– locking myself in my room all day long with my head in a book and my soul shattered (ok, that was a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point, right?). Sometimes, I forget to eat. Other times, my scheduled 20-minute nap may turn into 4 hours. It takes a little bit of experimentation, but the goal is to find a schedule that works best for you, and stick to it religiously so it becomes routine. The biggest challenge for me was sticking to my daily plan. It’s the middle of the quarter; you are sleep-deprived and stressed with schoolwork; you’re in survival mode. It’s much too easy to lose a sense of balance in such situations. Many people tend to give up exercise and sleep and a healthy diet, so they’ll have more time to study. And it’s true– you won’t always be able to abide by a strict schedule, especially during midterms or finals week. The idea is to be strategic with your time. Prioritize what is important in the immediate future, and be disciplined in the execution.
- Willpower is the first thing to go, when you’re stressed. It’s a proven fact– stress reduces willpower (read Kelly McGonigal’s book, “The Willpower Instinct”). This fact can explain many things that happen in college– procrastination; freshman-15 (a term describing the all-too-common phenomenon of gaining a considerable amount of weight when first coming to college); too much partying and drinking. College is stressful. You’re constantly under stress to do well on quizzes, exams, and papers. If your college runs on the quarter system, you’re on a freaking time crunch. Fitting all the course material into 10 weeks is no joke. It goes by FAST. Bottom line is, stress is unavoidable during college. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself slipping a bit in discipline. Prior to college, I had always prided myself on my work ethic and discipline beyond my years. I exercised regularly. Ate healthily. Never touched alcohol. That’s why I was so surprised when I found myself slipping in discipline, once I got to college. In retrospect, what happened to me was not all that uncommon. Just make sure to check in with yourself periodically and, if you find yourself headed down a slippery slope and losing your self-discipline, make the necessary lifestyle changes to optimize health and stay on top of your schoolwork. I’m no expert on willpower, but I find that maintaining a healthy balance between academics and extracurriculars (i.e. things that help you release stress) can be very helpful in managing stress, and thus, optimizing willpower. Try to keep the stress at bay. Remember that you aren’t defined by a single grade. And carve time out of your day to take care of yourself, or you WILL burn out. Speaking of which…
- Burn-out in college is a thing. There is such a thing as studying TOO much. If you study too much, you will most definitely feel the effects of burnout. That’s what I did, during my freshman year of college. I had the unrealistic expectation of getting straight A’s while dancing competitively, just as I had in high school. The reality was sobering. All I did was study, and sometimes, that wasn’t enough to earn me that grade I wanted. I barely danced, and I barely wrote on my blog. But, as I emphasize time and time again, college is not high school. A’s are MUCH harder to come by. You really have to put in the work to get the 4.0. For the inherently talented, it may be easier to get straight A’s than someone like me, who has always had to study hard to earn good grades. Sometimes, you just have to lower your expectations to the level of reality. You have to accept that no matter how hard you study, you may not be able to attain the grade you want. And that is absolutely okay. My philosophy is, if I try my very very best, I will be happy. But, trying your very best does not necessarily mean you need to push yourself to insanity and burnout. It all comes down to balance– if you can effectively balance out studying with self-care, you are less likely to burn out by the end of college, than if you were to just study all day long whilst forsaking mental and physical well-being.
So, those are my thoughts on things I wish I had known before coming to college. I hope you guys have found this insight helpful!