25 Valuable Things I Wish I Knew In College

Toa Heftiba

I’m 25 years old. I’ve interned and lived in New York City. I’ve worked post-grad for over a year, but in the two years following college, I’ve spent my time reading and learning.

Though I came from a small town in Texas and went to one of the premier public universities in the country, I’ve learned that in many ways I did college wrong. And you might be doing it wrong too. Here are twenty-five things no one tells you in the classroom or before heading off to college.

Note: These are my takeaways and how I perceive my college experience. I appreciate every teacher, classmate and all college staff for their help.

1. Lots of Your Teachers are Wrong

Embrace the fact that many teachers are wrong. They’re academics. They have tenure. They want you to follow certain career trajectories. Of course, lots of teachers know their industries and are well qualified, but many of them will lead you astray and give bad advice. Discern between the two.

For a unique example to prove this point—I recently saw a professor tell students to avoid any job writing 2,000 words if it pays less than $80. This is a remarkably entitled and incorrect attitude. I’ve written 2,000 + words for less or no money, which has helped me obtain a job and freelance projects that are leverage and experience in my career.

2. Advisers Just Want You to Graduate

Enough said. Advisers aren’t trying to sit down and navigate your life or your career with you. At my university, many of my meetings were 15 minutes or shorter. Navigate your own path. Don’t rely on the system. (More on this later.)

3. Don’t Fall Into the Party Trap

It’s a waste of time. Yeah, join a social group or a fraternity or sorority or whatever, but stay sober. This isn’t for the sake of being morally righteous or anything like that, it’s just a practical advantage. Sobriety equals more time to learn, read, study, and make use of college. You’ll also be surprised at how liberating it feels to be in control and have no craving for a substance most people can’t live without.

4. Postpone the Existential Crisis for a Later Date

I believe this idea came from Tim Ferriss as well. But from a productivity standpoint, living in existential dread is a poor use of time. College seems to encourage this, especially with the glamorization of psychedelic and recreational drug use. This doesn’t mean avoid asking deep, big questions in general.

Just prescribe to a philosophy, a faith system, or chalk up your existential dread for a later date. If you do ask questions and it’s a part of who are you, use that as material for work and make sure you aren’t living in your head.

5. You’re in College, You Have Unlimited Access

In college, you have access to people and events that you’ll never have again. This especially applies to people that work for student newspapers and television stations, but simply with the “@.edu” email address, people will respond and help you out because you are a student. Reach out to anyone and everyone. Take advantage of this. The worst case scenario is being rejected.

6. Be Rejected More

Send more spontaneous requests to connect with people, teachers, thought-leaders, and anyone you find interesting. Give it a go with that person you have a crush on in class. Apply to more internships. Learning how to fail and be rejected and continue moving forward in life is extremely valuable. Start doing so in college.

7. Work for Free

In Charlie Hoehn’s “The Recession Proof Graduate,” he lays out a formula for both maintaining a job after college, and landing jobs by working for free.

This strategy encompasses points #5 and #6. You reach out to people you’d like to work for, work for free, and if it doesn’t work, so what? You’re good with rejection now.

8. Start Your Own Projects

Start the blog. Start the music project. Write the screenplay. Whatever it is, you’ll never have this much free time in your life again, so take advantage of it. Even if the advantage of it for you just means going to the gym more and getting your body right.

9. Be Humble and Say Yes to Everything

Have humility in everything you do. All successful people have stated the same strategy. They always stay a student. But how many students do we all know that aren’t students even while they are students?

Don’t assume you know more than you do. Be willing to learn everywhere. And be willing to take opportunities everywhere. You want to write but you can only get your foot in by writing press releases for a college group? No problem, take it. Never be too good for a project, job, or an experience with new people.

10. Start Habits Now and Exercise Daily

As clinical psychologist and psychology professor Jordan Peterson says, “Don’t practice what you don’t want to become.” So now at this moment in college, practice being the future self you want to be. Write every day, exercise daily, or [insert another blank activity] that you want your future self to excel at or do frequently.

11. Do the Opposite of Your Peers

Whatever your peers are doing, do the opposite. Run away. If they aren’t seeking internships, get them. If they are wasting time with drugs and alcohol and existential crises, don’t.

Hopefully “peers” aren’t your friends because you chose better friends, but especially avoid what the general student population at a college campus is doing.

12. Stop Trying to Avoid the Real World

Don’t graduate college and “take a year off” or any other form of procrastination. The real world will come to you even if you don’t go to it, so it’s better to be as prepared as possible. Prepared with good habits. Prepared with skills. Prepared with a good head on your shoulders. And ready to work.

Life is hard, hard work. There is value in that. No one gets a free pass from working hard, and the earlier you put off work, the longer your road to success will take and the worst habits you’ll have in place.

13. Wanderlust After Graduation is a Waste

You aren’t going to find yourself by traveling across the world. Look at the social media feed of anyone who’s taking a European trip post graduation. What are they doing? Drinking, hiking, partying, exploring, and any other activity that is utmost leisure and doesn’t actually prove anything to themselves. It proves they can have fun and meet people. These may be great skills in isolation, but at a time where you need to move forward in life and there is fierce competition, this is a horrible plan.

Maybe you’re the unique soul that travels and gets work done, but I doubt it. Save your money. Stay home. Start moving in a direction. Realize that you’ll find yourself through work, struggle, and real-life situations that test you. You won’t “find yourself” in a hostel in Amsterdam with a bunch of strangers who will have no influence on the work or path you actually take once you come back to reality. Traveling is a cheap millennial trick, don’t buy in. I’ll leave you with this quote from the Stoic philosopher Seneca that will better explain the uselessness than I can.

“They make one journey after another and change spectacle for spectacle. As Lucretius says ‘Thus each man flees himself.’ But to what end if he does not escape himself? He pursues and dogs himself as his own most tedious companion And so we must realize that our difficulty is not the fault of the places but of ourselves.” — Seneca

14. Realize that Everyone is Human

Similar to #9, everyone is just a person. Whether they are the local food server at your dining hall, the president of the university, or the professor you detest, everyone is just a person. They struggle with the same fears, anxieties, and woes that you do. Be kind and treat them fairly. Don’t take things personal, because people likely mean no harm. They just have their own stresses.

On the same note, know that people you deem “successful” are also just people. Many times they got to where they are now through hard work, applying some of the strategies I’ve listed, or a few moments of luck. Don’t be so awestruck and learn, learn, learn from them.

15. No Decision is Permanent

This will start to sink in the older you get, but there is no permanent decision. You can drop a class, then retake it. You can drop out of school, then go back. You can change schools and then go back.

When we’re young and think the pressures are high, it feels like every decision matters so much, like there’s no coming back from anything. Oftentimes this isn’t the case. Obviously, you probably can’t recover from a 2.5 GPA, and some decisions are permanent but moving, choosing majors, and other decisions can be re-done. So calm down.

16. Your Major Doesn’t Matter

It really doesn’t. Many people don’t work in fields related to the majors they choose, and even if their work is relevant, it’s slightly off from what they did in college. This counts for every major, from journalism to accounting.

Look for different types of internships. Work in PR. Work in marketing and reporting. Learn how to sell and cold call. Gain all of this skills and slowly chip away at what you would like to do long-term.

17. You Can Probably Do Your Job Without a Degree

Now this point will vary depending on what your career path is. A doctor can’t be a doctor if he doesn’t go to school, same with other professions.

But many people I know have succeeded without ever obtaining a degree, and they’re probably even doing better than college grads with degrees. The other point here is that college is not for everyone. Unless you’re certain about why you’re going to school or the degree will outweigh not having one, avoid the debt. There are many well-paying trade jobs and careers outside of college. Joining the military is a great option for those who want real-world experience and school.

18. This is the Freest Time You Will Ever Have

At no other point in life can you choose classes that start at one p.m. or take a day off just because. Your schedule will never be this open again. So take advantage of it. Use that time wisely because you will never get it back.

19. Learn How to Learn

Learn how to take notes. Learn how to read dense texts above your level. Learn how to maintain focus and omit distractions (this may include avoiding social media and other distractions on this list).

To advance in life you must always stay a student. The learning does not stop after college, but college is the best time to learn how to learn.

20. Avoid Social Media Addiction

Avoid the trap of caring so much about what peers think, wasting time trying to impress them on social media, and avoid indulging in it. It’s a time consuming and focus-killing habit. The good friends you make in college won’t care about what you’re doing on social media. Don’t build the life-sucking habit that many in our society have of being addicted to a phone.

21. Be OK with not Being Accepted

This applies to many points on this list. If you’re not drinking at a party, off of social media, and you actually care about improving your status in life, many people will look at you funny. This is hard because we all need social validations and good friend groups. But as you grow in life you’ll realize that some decisions that are worth making will not be approved by other people. This does not matter. You don’t need their approval, and you need to stick to your path and do what’s best for you. Start building this strength and self-confidence in college, a time where so many waste time attempting to fit in or seem cool with certain crowds. Having thick skin is a life-hack.

22. Seek Out Mentors and Ask Questions

Make it an early goal to find someone who is doing what you want to do and work for them. Learn from them and ask a lot of questions.

23. Learn to Make Yourself as Uncomfortable as Possible

Life is an uncomfortable struggle. Work is hard. Life is tiring. Learn how to do your best work during the struggle. Do this by seeking out challenging tasks, goals, and pushing past your limits at everything you do, even if it’s just working harder on a run.

24. Learn How to Communicate Effectively

The better you are at communicating, the more you’ll succeed. Know how to communicate your message whether it’s written, spoken, and especially during high-pressure situations. Read books on communication strategies and avoid the common pitfalls of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Saying the wrong thing can damage relationships, a new meeting, or keep you from that internship you want.

25. Be Strategic

Have an actual plan. See a few moves ahead. Read books to hone your strategic mind. Don’t jump into college as an aimless and wanderlust youth. That isn’t the point. Your aimlessness and youth will fade, and if you didn’t lay the groundwork and determine a life you want to live with a strategy to get there, you won’t be very happy.

A few book recommendations I wish I had read before or during college:
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
On the Shortness of Life – Seneca
Discourses and Selected Writings – Epictetus
Man’s Search for Meaning – Victor Frankl
Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World – William H. McRaven
Extreme Ownership – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
The Defining Decade – Dr. Meg Jay
The War of Art – Steven Pressfield
Ego is the Enemy – Ryan Holiday
The Obstacle is the Way – Ryan Holiday
Linchpin – Seth Godin

Those are only a few. I’m sure there are other crucial books that I’m missing. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Diego Contreras is a content marketer and writer. He works for an Austin, Texas, based home security company and for lifestyle brand, Human Influence.

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