How To Succeed At A Top 20 University

The West Green of Ohio University / Wikimedia
The West Green of Ohio University / Wikimedia

Walk in to your first class with a charmed confidence and an ambitious right hand for asking questions. The professor does not say “hello” as you walk by her desk, but walk up to introduce yourself anyways. She politely nods, as you stand in front of her not knowing what, or rather how, to say anything else. Similar scenarios will happen at least fifty times before your college career is finished. When she uses words like “perfunctory“ and “grandiloquence“ during her lecture, smile like a puppet with the strings pulled too tight.

Decide the first semester of your freshmen year will ultimately determine your entire future. Read all 419 pages of the Undergraduate Catalogue, and narrow your majors down to Biological Science, Neuroscience, or Political Science. Bio and Neuro for Pre-Med, and PoliSci for your Pre-Law back up. When your parents call, tell them your three choices and listen to the joy in their voices as they simultaneously shriek, “We’re so proud of you!” into the receiver. Do not tell them about your professor or how no one besides your roommate has said a word to you in three days.

Go to the quad to clear your head, where you notice a cute boy in rolled up blue jeans playing the guitar.

This boy will either be:

  1. Taken. It’s best to let this sink in now. Boys with guitars just don’t stay single for long.
  2. So self absorbed in his musical genius he wouldn’t notice Natalie Portman strolling by, nonetheless you in your faded yellow NORTHSIDE HIGH T-shirt.
  3. Extremely awkward but humble, with the budding confidence that comes along with starting over in a new place. You can bet he has some lingering acne scars and doesn’t know how to talk to girls. This is about as good as it’s going to get.

You look out over the sunbathed green lawn and try to appear mysterious yet welcoming. You probably just look like a girl sitting alone who doesn’t know anyone. In essence, a freshman.

Lucky for you, the boy with the guitar is a 3. As he walks up, pretend you hadn’t noticed him playing exactly ten feet southwest from where you’re sitting. You imagine he’ll be funny in a Michael Cera sort of way and will come from somewhere exciting and foreign, like Spain or Brooklyn.

He becomes your first real friend in college, and you sleep with him after a month. He will realize he never intended on being in a relationship and you will lose your first real friend in college.

Overcompensate for the loneliness. Join Model UN, join club soccer, join a volunteer organization. Pour yourself into your classes the other 30% of the time. Join a sorority because you’re still lonely and you hear they have test banks.

At the end of freshman year, you’re 13 pounds heavier and hold a 2.4 GPA.


Start off sophomore year anxious but optimistic. Room with one of your sorority sisters who’s also Pre-Med. When her boyfriend stays over five days out of the week, meekly smile and ask, “Hey Lauren, would you guys mind staying over at his place every now and then?”

After that, only see Lauren when she’s getting ready for class or at a sorority event.

Get really excited for sorority recruitment. Dream of having a “little sister” and being the person she turns to with all her problems. Dream of having to worry about someone else’s problems other than your own.

Rush week comes and it is not what you expect. Instead of sisterhood! and friendship! Your attention stays focused on powerpoints! and background checks! of each prospective member. Including: estimated family income, conversational skills, perceived attractiveness scale, etc.

When you’re alone again in your small double, question your reasons for ever joining something so superficial. Cry. Eat some frozen yogurt left in the fridge, and cry some more.

Go to the president of your sorority the next day and tell her you wish to withdraw your membership.

Now there’s no more test banks and Lauren barely speaks to you. Begin failing two of your Pre-Med requirements. Go to see your academic advisor.

He asks: “Why do you wish to pursue a profession in the medical field?”

Think: I’ve never thought about it that much.

Say: “Being a doctor is all I’ve ever wanted to be.”

He says: “Have you ever tried looking into some of your other interests? Just to see what else is out there?”

Think: No, that’s just wasting time.

Say: “I haven’t really had the chance to, because I’ve been pretty focused on my Pre-Med track.”

He looks at you, and smiles knowingly. “Well as your advisor, my advice would be to take some courses from other disciplines. You’re only a sophomore so you have time to explore your options while staying on the pre-med track.”

Think: Fuck that.

Say: “Thanks for all your help, I think that sounds like a really smart idea.”

Someone tells you the only way they survive Pre-Med is Adderall. Start taking Adderall. Doesn’t really matter where it comes from, the only thing that matters is it’s available on campus 24/7.

Start doing better in your classes. Adderall makes you more productive than you’ve ever been in your life. You can sit at a computer for hours studying and not get tired and not get hungry and not get anxious about the test coming up tomorrow. Get a B- on your Organic Chemistry exam, the best you’ve ever received in the course.

Think: Why doesn’t everyone take Adderall? We would all be so much more efficient.

Ignore your friends when they start to look at you funny. Look at yourself in the mirror and realize you look really funny. You’ve lost who knows how much weight and the deep, dark purple circles under your eyes are so pronounced against your white skin it looks like they’re made of badly applied clown make-up. And here you are, looking into the funhouse mirror at the geeked out clown that won’t stop turning in circles on her unicycle and honking a stupid red horn.

Become very scared. You’re smart enough to see the toll the drug is having on your body, but you’re also smart enough to realize doing better in your classes is positively correlated with your total Adderall usage.

Look at the clown in the mirror one more time. Decide your health is more important than your pre-health profession, and go to your school’s psychological counseling center.

End sophomore year with a 2.75 GPA and therapy sessions with Dr. Morris twice a week.


You’ve always considered “electives” to be for people who don’t know which shoe to put on first in the morning. Or just the University’s scheme to get you to stay in school longer so they can keep raking in money from the overprivileged parents of the overprivileged students that attend, “One of the most prestigious schools in all the United States.”

Whatever the reason, you must take some in order to graduate. Your school offers courses like, “Porn for the New Age: Pornographic messages and images in media and culture,” and, “The Art of Persuasion: How to Win at Any Argument.”

Decide to stick to something seemingly normal and choose, “Sociology 204: Self, Society, and Social Change,” “Spanish 237: Advanced Conversation,” and “Religious Studies 108: Religion in America.”

It is almost always during these thrown in classes you never think twice about, that you start to find clues to your path in life.

In your sociology class, discuss the importance of the individual and volunteering on social change. Reconnect with your freshman year volunteer organization and become the head of a tutoring committee that travels to after school outreach programs for impoverished youths across the city. See how close poverty and the undereducated live next to wealth and the highly educated. An eight-minute car ride to be exact.

Meet a girl from your freshman Calculus class during tutoring and watch her face light up when she talks about finally dropping Pre-Med.

Say: “But you already took so many of the requirements, why didn’t you just make it through the last ones?”

She says: “Because I realized how unhappy I was and that I needed to do something that wasn’t going to make me miserable every day.” She smiles at your baffled expression. “I wanted to find something I loved, that I could really see myself wanting to wake up for every morning. I love kids, and I love teaching. So I switched to education. No brainer.”

You stand amazed at how effortless she makes it sound. You’ve had similar feelings and have started to question whether you should stick it out or not.

Talk to your parents, who say you have to stick with it. Life’s not always about doing what we want to do in the moment, but about doing what we have to do now, in order to get what we want in the future.

Say: “But what if it’s not what I want anymore?”

They say: “But darling, it’s all you’ve ever wanted.”

Think: It’s all you’ve ever wanted.

Say nothing.

Talk to your friends, who tell you the end of junior year is pretty late to switch majors. They say: “You don’t have many Pre-Med requirements left, explore other classes but finish out your bio degree.” Consider this your only feasible plan, and decide to explore as much as possible until graduation.

Finish junior year with a healthy appearance and a calm mind.


Pull out all the stops senior year. Go out on dates, as many dates as you can get. Drink every weekend with your friends. Volunteer every other weekend. Take classes you never thought you’d be interested in, like “Ceramics” and “Intro to Poetry.” Realize you enjoy making things with your hands, you enjoy creating things with your mind.

Keep changing. Keep forming new friendships and trying to hold on to every second spent with them, because you know in less than year, you all will be scattered across the country like the spattered freckles across your face.

Write a poem on the back of a napkin to a friend at dinner that says,

Soon you will be gone
 My friend I’ll love you long—
Time wasn’t all for naught
Time will not be forgot.

The friend snorts into her water glass. “I’ll love you long time! I see what you did there!”

Purposefully miss the medical school deadlines and arrive at spring semester with zero backups. Try to find backups and apply to different service programs like AmeriCorps and Teach for America. Realize you might want to pursue non-profit work, but don’t worry about the logistics of it all.

Walk up to each of your professors on the last day of class and shake their hands. Say, “Thank you for teaching me something new this semester. I hope you managed to learn something new, as well.” They will nod politely, and you will know that was exactly the right thing to say.

Graduate with no plans and $50,000 in debt. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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