20 Lessons You Learn As An Undergrad


1. It’s totally acceptable to bail early from a class. Particularly if it’s a huge lecture and you can get out of the room without drawing attention to yourself. You’ll get a feel for which professors are assholes about attendance; avoid skipping or being tardy for those lectures, because you do not want to be on a prof/TA’s bad side. But: you are paying to be there. Keep that in mind. Would you pay for an order at McDonalds and then drive off before they serve your food?

2. Cramming works sometimes. But really nothing beats having a firm grasp on the test material and practicing over time. If you have a reasonable base knowledge of a topic and just need some finesse work on the details, you can probably do that with a one- or two-hour block of focus right before the exam.

3. Making friends in class will make you more likely to attend. It makes you semi-accountable, because they’ll ask where you were if you miss class (read: when you miss class). If you have a spot where you almost always sit in lecture and there are people who consistently sit near you, chat them up. That way you’ll be able to create study groups and share resources later on (like borrowing notes when you miss class, working together on study guides/projects, etc.).

4. Dress up for class. This doesn’t mean wear a damn necktie every day, but unless it’s a morning class and the class atmosphere is very mellow, don’t show up in sweats. Sweats/yoga pants are pretty comfortable but no adult is going to get a stellar impression from a college kid who looks like he/she just rolled out of bed. Get up, shower, shave, pull on some jeans or chinos or a skirt or whatever, and have a stiff cup of coffee. You can wear sweats during your nap later.

5. Find things to do off campus. Wherever you go to school I guarantee there are parks, lakes, rivers, mountains, something within walking/biking distance for you to go explore. If I never ventured off campus I’d die of boredom. You can only watch so many movies and sit in the quad cafeteria for so long before you hate yourself. Which brings me to the next point…

6. Find a hobby or sport that keeps you reasonably fit. I’ve been competing in triathlons since the latter part of high school and I race with my university’s cycling club. You don’t have to be part of a competitive club but you should find something that keeps the “freshman 15” far away from you. I have a lot of friends that are into rock climbing, backpacking, trail running, mountain biking/road cycling, hell, even something like intramural volleyball. If it’s something that causes you to break a sweat and you can do it on a regular basis, do it. Enjoy it. And if you lack motivation, keep in mind that the more you exercise, the more you can eat whatever the hell you want.

7. Find a way to get plenty of sleep. For me this often meant sleeping 12 hours straight on Saturday nights to catch up, but I should have tried harder to crash at a reasonable hour during the week. Dragging ass to your 8 am chemistry lecture is never fun, but it’s really going to suck if you were up until 3 am the previous night scrolling Tumblr (not that I’m exempt from that). And try your hardest not to sleep late on days when you have morning class. Sleeping through class is a bad habit and for some reason you’ll probably find yourself sleeping through the important days. Like tests. Yeah, I’ve done it more times that I’d like to count.

8. Stay healthy. Make it a habit to wash your hands before each meal/snack and whenever you get back to your dorm or apartment. Also, drink plenty of orange juice/Airborne/whatever your go-to thing is. If college has anything in common with high school it’s that germs spread as fast as gossip, and it’s always cold season. Being sick is no fun and not only will you miss class, you’ll probably miss your friend doing a keg stand at the house party on Friday night. That sucks.

9. Make a wide variety of friends. It pays to know people who work on campus and might have connections, firstly. I have friends that are computer science majors and sit in their rooms all day, and I have jock friends that play rugby and drink lots of beer. I have teammates that I train with and friends from class that I get together with to study and hang out. If you want to spend a night alone just chilling on the couch that’s fine, but there should be people for you to hang out with on any given night of the week.

10. Have some options for food. Even when I was living in the dorms and could only have a handful of things (you’re usually only allowed a toaster, coffee maker, and mini fridge because of residence regulations) I almost always made my own breakfast. I kept bagels & bread around for toast & sandwiches, I always had peanut butter, lunch meat and cheese, typically a case of whatever I wanted to drink—Arizona tea is a favorite of mine—and a handful of other snacks. Every morning I’d make coffee, toast up a bagel with peanut butter, and chill for a half hour before class with a newspaper or some class notes. Groceries cost money but it’s a hell of a lot better than trying to make it through the breakfast or lunch line at the cafeteria before lecture. Also: you will be very, very sick of cafeteria food within a few weeks.

11. Spend wisely. Being broke isn’t any fun and it’s total shit to realize it’s Saturday and you don’t have any money left from what your parents sent you last week. Being on a college campus means you can probably do a decent amount of things on the cheap or for free, but if your friends are all ordering subs or pizza and breadsticks and you don’t have any cash to pitch in, you’re screwed. Maybe one of them will spot you five bucks. But doesn’t it suck to have to call your parents and say you need some more money?

12. Get a job. Most college campuses offer employment to a limited number of students. These jobs are almost always ridiculously easy/menial tasks that pay minimum wage but hey, it’s pizza money, and having employment makes you look more responsible to your parents, professors, friends, etc. Balancing classes with scheduled shifts isn’t the easiest thing but I have faith in you.

13. Make yourself at home. Whether you live in a dorm room with another person, in an apartment, or in a leased apartment with a handful of friends, you’re going to be spending a lot of time there. Going home every two weeks to see your family feels nice but you’re going to miss out on a lot unless you make campus your second home. Learn the ins and outs of your area, the quickest way to every class, which days the cafeteria serves the stuff you like to eat. Put up some posters, for crying out loud. Invite people over and cook a big meal. Tell your parents you’re doing great and you’ll be home in another couple of weeks.

14. But keep in touch with the folks. Calling home is a nice feeling and your parents will appreciate it. If you only ever call when you need more money or a care package, though, they’ll be less inclined to open the pocket book and more so inclined to tell you to sell essays or something.

15. Don’t wear t shirts that say “I don’t give a sh*t.” But seriously, embody that sentence. I don’t mean skip class all the time and miss assignments. I mean if you show up late for class it’s not the end of the world, so quit blushing. Don’t run to class, unless it’s a test, and usually even that isn’t necessary. Wear your sunglasses inside sometimes. Don’t tuck your shirt in. Don’t get mad or embarrassed when you drop your cup of Pepsi and it goes everywhere. Don’t set alarms on your phone for when you should do laundry, when you should do dishes, when you should take study breaks… Just do things.

16. Using a planner is a good idea, though. To-do lists are your best friend, especially if you forget important shit on a regular basis like I do. I was anti-planner since like the third grade. But once I realized how much it helped to write lists of things I needed to do and keep them pinned above my desk, I broke down and spent $14 on a nice-ish planner and I use it every day. And guess what? I forgot less stuff and my grades improved. Having a wall calendar with squares big enough to write in is also solid.

17. Spend a limited amount of time on your computer/phone. This doesn’t need a whole lot of explaining. Tumblr is awesome, Twitter is pretty neat, Facebook kind of sucks but you get what I’m saying here; there are a whole lot of ways you can occupy yourself with electronic devices. And none of them are going to help you talk to the cute girl/guy in Starbucks.

18. If you want alcohol, plan ahead. Most college freshmen aren’t 21, and you probably aren’t either. The thing is, your older friends almost definitely have plans for Thursday night. If they get a text from you asking to buy beer and you need it tonight, tough luck – first of all, your friend is assuming some risk by doing this for you. Second, sure you’re the one actually paying, but they still have to walk/drive to the store, pick up the drinks, and get them to you discreetly. People have things to do that don’t always involve helping you out, unfortunately. So call or stop by on, say, a Tuesday, give your buddy a $20 bill, and let them know you would like a bottle of whatever and that you can pick it up anytime on Thursday. This will help avoid resentment towards freshmen (who almost always go about this the wrong way) and keep things smooth with your buyer so you can ask them again in a week or two.

19. Know your limits. Puking is bad. Sleeping in strange places is bad. Not having anyone sober to drive home is bad. If the keys are in your pocket, keep your shit under control. Things happen and sometimes you find yourself asleep under a coffee table, but do your best. And for the love of God don’t go hard the night before your morning shift/three-hour lecture/10k race/big presentation. That’s bush-league stuff.

20. Don’t pick a career yet. Keep your first year of classes as general as you can, because even if you’re totally certain that you want to be an architect, by the time you’re a sophomore you will be totally certain that you want to go to med school. I have met very, very few people that stuck with one field of study all the way through college. And that’s alright! I’m on my third choice currently, and it’s the best one yet. Granted you can add a year or two to your bachelor’s degree by making late changes, but that is better than waking up one day at the age of 36 and realizing you hate your career choice. Whatever it is you like to do, there is a way to make good money doing it, and it’s up to you to find that niche. There’s no reason to pick a job you hate for the security it might offer. TC Mark

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