My son, and a number of my friends’ kids, are heading off to college in the next few weeks. One of these soon-to-be freshmen asked me if I had any advice for her before she heads off, and my first thought was: “Wow, that is a hard question!” My second thought was: “If you saw how I conducted myself in college, you would not be asking me this!” My third thought was that any advice I might offer could be too specifically tied to my own personal lived experience.
So, I asked a bunch of people who I consider wise to offer me some wisdom. Today’s note is my best effort to write a useful summary of the responses, comingled with my own advice.
Most of the suggestions fall into a few discrete categories, so I’m going to structure things that way, with some extra credit material at the end. I am using “college” and “university” interchangeably in this essay so that Americans, Canadians, Aussies, Brits, and everyone else around the world can enjoy it equally, regardless of what brand of English they prefer. Without further ado…
Before you fly the nest
Advice for kids heading to college
There is no correct way to do college, and this note is not meant to tell you what to do. Follow the advice here that resonates with you and discard the rest.
1. Explore, get outside your comfort zone, and experiment
“I don’t know where I’m going, but I know exactly how to get there.”
Almost everyone offered some form of this advice. Explore. Experiment. Take risks. Whether you know exactly what you want to do with your life, or you have no idea… Don’t overcommit to a plan.
Explore and take courses outside your domain. My only regret from university is that I didn’t take a wider of variety of courses. I was singularly focused on one goal (becoming a trader), which was good because it got me here. But I really didn’t need to take every single international finance, capital markets, and economics course available. I learned more about markets and trading in my first month on a trading floor than in my four years of school.
I wish I tossed in a few more writing, philosophy, psychology, and sociology courses. I would have come out a lot more well-rounded. Here’s Suv’s take:
“It’s really easy to study what comes naturally, and most people do just that, but there is a lot to be gained from struggling and feeling out of one’s depth. In the grand scheme of things, university time is low stakes so experimenting at the edges of what your interests are is a useful exercise. I took one class a semester that was “left field.” I learned some of the most important things about me and my relationship to comfort zones, self-awareness, etc. in classes that didn’t feel that natural to me (art history, political science). This also applies to making friends, sports, and everything else at college. School is a unique space for trying stuff. To paraphrase Mike Tyson: Everyone has a plan until they get punched in a deductive logic seminar.”
Film, comparative religion, dance, whatever. Find some stuff you are interested in and maybe one totally random course that is wildly outside your wheelhouse. Sam offered this specific advice:
“Take every course you possibly can, and don’t be afraid to drop a few. There aren’t many people that can handle taking 7 courses a semester. But signing up for 7 – or the max – can be incredibly insightful. You get to peek into a variety of disciplines and sometimes find a connection to a professor or subject that was unexpected. Then drop a few that fail to click. It’ll make learning enjoyable and expand future networks in unimaginable ways.”
Sam is one heck of a polymath, so it worked for him! Maybe check the add/drop dates with the registrar first, so your parents don’t get dinged with extra fees (!)
I was extremely focused on trading from high school onward, but the opposite can work just as well. As Clarkie says:
“I think it’s OK and normal not to know what you want to be. How can you possibly know at this stage of your life? A few will know, but most will end up doing something different than what they originally thought. Keep as many doors open and try different things every summer. Volunteer during the school year. Find areas that interest you, etc.”
Laser focus can work. And “let me find myself slowly by checking out a ton of different stuff” can also work. There is no correct way to do college.
Here’s Ben’s take:
“College has two functions in life – accreditation and self-invention.
Accreditation is the story you tell the world about who you are. It’s your GPA and your accomplishments in college. This is your passport to a good job or grad school or whatever comes after college. So yes, grades matter. And your freshman grades matter most of all. Sorry. You can stamp this passport after you get out of college, but it’s SO much harder. Do it now.
Self-invention is the story you tell yourself about who you are. It’s your active choices to study what you want to study, kiss who you want to kiss, dream what you want to dream. You will make some bad choices. That’s okay. You’ll make better choices next time. This is your passport to living a life of autonomy and meaning, and to a big world where people who are similarly living lives of autonomy and meaning will connect with you. You can also stamp this passport after you get out of college, but it’s SO much harder. Do it now.”
2. Seek balance
There are so many things to do while you’re away at college. You can spend all your waking hours on one thing: learning, playing video games, studying, reading, eating, playing sports, drinking, or sleeping (for example). Seek balance. If you’re worried you might be spending too much time on something, you are probably right.
After freshman year, Chris’ Dad told him:
“There are 24 hours in a day… If you work for 8… Sleep for 8… And have fun for 8… You will be fine.”
That’s a good starting point! Most bad outcomes in college come from a lack of balance. Kids study too much and drown in stress and overload. Kids drink five nights/week and sleep it off all day and miss class and smoke too much weed. Kids obsess over their physique and spend all their time at the gym. Kids play video games all day with the curtains shut.
Mix it up.
3. Choose good friends
You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. This is a fact confirmed by volumes of research. If your friends smoke, you are more likely to smoke. If your friends exercise a lot, you will tend to exercise more.
Don’t hang out with people that make you feel bad. We are greatly influenced by those around us. Their attitudes, ways of thinking, self-esteem, and decision-making all rub off on us. Do your best to hang out with people that resemble the type of person you would most like to be.
You will learn, years after graduating, that many of the friends you made in college are your closest lifelong friends. There is a good chance the best man or maid of honor at your wedding will be someone you meet in the next few years. You will also learn the difference between “drinking buddies” and “real friends.” There’s a big difference!
As Justin put it:
“The relationships you form in college will do your emotional health a tremendous amount of good, both now and later. A good handshake and a smile go a long way.”
4. Adopt good habits
Be organized. Keep a calendar. Be on time. Go to the gym a few times a week. All that good stuff.
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”
James Clear, Atomic Habits
Many of the habits you adopt in university will stay with you for the rest of your life. Habits are important.
5. Avoid irreversible / catastrophic outcomes
If someone offers you a line of oxy or cocaine, just say “I’m good, thanks!” and move on. If someone offers you a drag of a cigarette or a puff on a vape, just say “I’m good, thanks!” and move on. If you think you might be able to drive home because you’re not THAT drunk; get an Uber. If there’s a 1% chance you are about to do something that could lead to an unwanted pregnancy… Stop.
Everyone makes mistakes. But there are a few specific mistakes that are irreversible. Don’t roll those dice. Sure, you might try the oxy and that’s a cool one-off experience and life goes on. Or… Your brain chemistry might be such that the “just one line, just to try it” is the first page in a lifelong story of addiction.
It can be hard to say no! But you need to know how to say no at those few key moments.
“Too often people focus on the worst day, not the first day of addiction.”
Chris Herren, 33rd pick in the 1999 NBA draft, and briefly a starting point guard for the Boston Celtics. His dream went to dust as he got hooked on painkillers, oxycontin, then heroin.
If you never start, you won’t have to spend the rest of your life trying to quit.
6. Don’t worry if it’s hard, especially at first
Everyone is nervous. Nobody knows what they are doing. It might look like they know, but they don’t. You are not alone. As Jen says:
“No matter how prepared you are or how good your grades are, first year is challenging. The academic expectations are high. It’s different than what you have been doing for the last four years and you don’t know what to expect. Add on top of that, you are away from home, managing life without the hands-on guidance of your parents. Keep everything in perspective. You will find your groove.”
Don’t compare yourself to others. There will probably be some people that are way smarter than you at college. You will be way smarter than others. You deserve to be there; your college accepted you for a reason! There will always be someone ahead of you and someone behind you. Your entire life. Just be your best self and don’t worry about what they’re doing.
A few more dos and don’ts
- Don’t half-ass it. If you’re going to do something, go all in. Try your hardest.
- Play intramural sports. It’s one of the most fun, positive experiences you’ll have at college.
- Don’t think about the future too much. It’ll be here soon enough.
- Work hard, even when you don’t feel like it. Sometimes you just have to grind.
- Don’t strive for perfection, strive for excellence. Perfect is the enemy of good. Perfectionists are difficult and generally unfun to work with. Be conscientious and diligent. Not perfect.
- Find a workout partner and commit to each other to go to the gym or exercise a few times a week. It’s easy to let yourself down but it’s much harder to let someone else down.
- Don’t surround yourself with a bunch of people the same as you. Engage with people that don’t look like you, talk to people that are radically different from you.
- Don’t use a highlighter. Don’t take 50 pages of notes every class. Take concise, short form notes to encode information durably in your brain.
- Don’t be scared to try. Think of life as a big series of experiments. Some succeed and some fail.
- Don’t let anyone occupy your mind (or get in your pants) unless you really want them there. It’s your life, your mind, your body, your decision. Take firm control of your autonomy.
- Trust your own sense of right and wrong. When you’re not sure what to do listen to your inner voice.
It’s cool to be smart. Nice people finish first. Read some poetry. Nine a.m. is not that early. Take your clothes out of the washer as soon as they are done. Make the effort to talk to a few professors outside of class (they are human beings, just like you). Don’t stress the GPA. Take at least one writing course. Call your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles—They might send you gifts! Ask for help if you need it. Clean the microwave, even if you weren’t the one that messed it up. Smile at yourself in the mirror if you’re grumpy.
Finally, here’s Paul to sum it up:
“This is going to be the best four years of your life. Enjoy it…
… But don’t f*ck it up.”
I hope you enjoyed reading this, and I hope you (or your son or daughter) have a great time at school. Thanks to everyone who contributed to this note. I appreciate your time, wisdom, and friendship.