Dubious Advice For College Freshmen

Flickr / Joey Gannon
Flickr / Joey Gannon

As I prepared to leave for college, my father sat me down for a heart-to-heart chat.

“Josh,” he said, “I’m going to tell you the most important thing about going away to school.” My dad’s own university experience had been a little turbulent, so I was curious what his words of wisdom might entail.

“Make sure all your laundry is clean when you get there. Otherwise, you’ve got no clothes to wear, and you’ve got to waste time washing your stuff right away, and before you know it, you’re out of quarters.” Then he placed a small orange pill bottle in my hand, stood up, and left the room. When I opened the bottle, I saw that my father had filled it to the top with quarters. I still follow his advice every time I move, and the bottle of quarters is one of the most thoughtful, specific gifts I’ve ever received.

Most of the “wisdom” bestowed upon me as I left for school was less helpful. As an 18-year-old leaving home, often for the first time, you hear a lot of platitudes. Maxims handed down from generation to generation. You get the feeling that some of them don’t apply anymore, and others were never relevant in the first place. Here are some of my favorite dubious pieces of advice college freshman get:

1. Take Your Time Picking a Major

You’ve spent the last year and a half preparing for this moment. You have visited campus after campus, or at least website after website to narrow your choice down from a vast landscape of possibility. You’ve analyzed based on location, class size, faculty, extracurricular activities, and myriad other metrics. You’re locked in for four years and tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars. But for some reason, you’re supposed to be clueless as to what you actually want to learn when you get there.

If you know what you’re passionate about, jump on it right away. You can get a head start finding cool internships and knocking out prerequisites right off the bat. If you don’t know what you want to do, don’t freak out, but if you do, don’t let someone talk you out of your dreams.

On the flip side, definitely explore beyond your area of expertise. College is a time to broaden your horizons. If you’re a computer science major, check out a South Asian dance performance (kudos for making it off the internet!). If you are a poetry major, take an econ class. Also, get a job at your campus coffee shop. It’ll be good work experience for your future career. (Relax, poets. I was a creative writing major. We’re the same, you and I.)

2. You’ve Got to Make Your Own Mistakes

No you don’t.

While you certainly have the option of making your own mistakes, you can also learn from other peoples’ foibles. I’ve never done heroin, but I’ve got a pretty solid notion what it would be like. Because books and other people exist.

My freshman year, I didn’t drink at all. One of my best friends got blackout drunk on his way to a theme party, to which he was wearing a leather skirt and no underwear. He passed out and had to be taken to the hospital. The EMTs refused to move him until his roommate wrangled him into some boxers. Is his life richer and more nuanced for having that experience? Probably not. He has a story now, but you know who else also has that story? Everyone else. And we don’t have pictures on Facebook of us dressed in drag making a “metal” face and throwing devil horns in the air.

Just saying, don’t live in fear, but some mistakes you can leave for other people to make. You don’t have to be as wimpy as I was as a freshman, but you certainly don’t have to be a total disaster to learn about what life is.

3. Don’t Do Anything I Wouldn’t Do

This one is usually delivered by the “Cool Uncle” type. He leans in and pats you on the shoulder: “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” It’s often accompanied by a knowing wink. There are lots of things this guy wouldn’t do that are perfectly reasonable ideas. What exactly shouldn’t I do? Stay married to my first wife? Listen to music made after 1987 (New U2 albums do not count as new music!)? Trust Muslims? You wouldn’t do any of those, but they seem fine to me.

Plus, the realm of things you have done probably includes a ton of things I would never want to do. Like seeing Crosby Stills and Nash in concert. Or having a kid in my early 20’s.

Has this advice ever been given helpfully/sincerely? Maybe from one twin to another if they were trying to pull off some sort of identity swap and didn’t want to get caught.

4. These Are Going to be the Best Years of Your Life

Oh man, I hope not. College was great. I made friendships that (I assume) will last my whole life. I got to pursue my intellectual interests and passions. I interacted with people from all over the world and learned about different cultures.

You know when else I get to do that? The entire rest of my life. Plus, now I’ve got work force experience and financial autonomy. I (sort of) have a career, which in casual conversation sounds way cooler than a “major.” Since I graduated, I’ve done more traveling, writing, and girl-kissing than I did when I was in school.

If future-me had come back in a time machine to tell 18-year-old me that my life peaked by age twenty-two, I would have freaked out and spent the next four years doing all of the available drugs and having unprotected cake (that means no sit-ups), leaving my life in shambles. But maybe that would have just fulfilled the prophecy. Time travel is confusing! You learn that if you’re a philosophy major. Or if you ever sit anywhere near a philosophy major. (In fairness, some of my friends took the drugs and cakes route and are now in med school, so…)

I’m hoping college isn’t the best part of my life, insofar as I would, at some point, like to live in a place without roommates.

So there you have it, freshmen (or “first-years” on gender-conscious campuses). Pick your major whenever you want, but take time to explore. Don’t make any mistakes you don’t want to. Do things your uncle might not. And for goodness sake, please realize that your best days can still be in front of you.

But remember, kids. Bring plenty of quarters. TC mark


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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=612928768 Samie Rose

    I hope all of the writing on TC starts being on this level. Loved it. Endearing, sweet, and makes me want to meet your dad (not in a creepy way, more like a small talk while we’re both waiting in a long line kind of way).

    • Josh Gondelman

      Aww, thanks! My dad’s super friendly. He would probably talk to you in line at the store.

  • Whitney

    I think my FAVORITE BIT about this is “unprotected cake.” 

  • Rachel B

    Wear. Sunscreen.

  • Keriann Gannon

    You are one of my favorite writers on here.  You’ve got a perfect style of humor and seriousness that mesh well.  “Unprotected cake” was my favorite line.  College is a difficult time and it’s more romanticized than necessary, making it all the more confusing, especially for first years.  I completely agree about disagreeing that college is the best time of our lives.  Please continue writing articles like these.

  • MM

    Very nice article! As a now college freshman going through orientation, I am worried about my time here, because this college is definitely going to be an experience (i guess every liberal arts college is) 

  • Guest

    The missing ingredient in the high school/college being the best years of your life thing is that it would be if you were somehow able to be the person you are at 30 or whenever but go through it again with added wisdom/intelligence/emotional maturity. Outside of crazy changing places comedies that doesn’t happen. Not that it couldn’t be the best years of your life anyway.

  • Anonymous

    i think you’re the only person on TC who isn’t obsessed with drugs. 

    loved this.

  • Guest

    So you were that kid that didn’t drink for no reason freshman year…dubious information.

  • http://dirtyyoungmen.wordpress.com Maxwell Chance

    College was totally the best time of my life. Responsibility and work were at an all time low (and I majored in electrical engineering).

    • http://dirtyyoungmen.wordpress.com Maxwell Chance

      Although, I have done most of my writing/girl kissing/traveling after college as well.

      • klaus

        when i read the first part, I was like, oh!

        and then when i read the last part I was all like, awww!

        glad you got it in.

    • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

      were you happy with your major? did your parents play an influence in it?
      very limited time before i have to choose mine, not fully sure..

      • http://dirtyyoungmen.wordpress.com Maxwell Chance

        The last couple of semesters I almost changed majors to zoology, classical painting, creative writing… etc. I’m happy I didn’t now: The job market is good, challenging work, lots of opportunities to learn and do cool shit. I don’t love it. I don’t wake up and kick my footsies while squealing in joy. 

        But I definitely like it. Although, It can be stressful and frustrating. My father is an electrical engineer, although he didn’t influence me. I didn’t really have any drive or care about anything; I was good in math and science and I liked the concept of job security, a competitive market and money. Plus I figured my father could help me if I needed it. Sometimes I want to quit, sell my house, move to Australia, and become a bike courier. I probably won’t, but at least I have the option to. Getting an engineer degree gives you a butt-load of options. 

      • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

        nice information.
        wondering how far i’d get in any job-secure field without being great at math.
        idt ‘good’ is going to cut it.

        you’re right though, many options for you.
        i’ll probably end up in finance instead of computer science like my dad wants.

      • http://dirtyyoungmen.wordpress.com Maxwell Chance

        Just so you know, I haven’t done any serious math at any of my engineer jobs. None. I couldn’t do an integral to save my life. And if I needed to, there’s Google. So, don’t worry about being ‘great’. Engineering is about taking science and turning it into things. Like Legos. Really, really complex and expensive Legos. And finance is way more math dependent.

      • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

        That changes the way I was thinking. A lot. Not sure if it’s better to figure this out within a month or 2 or apply undecided, but that seems like such a waste to apply undecided.

      • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

        That changes the way I was thinking. A lot. Not sure if it’s better to figure this out within a month or 2 or apply undecided, but that seems like such a waste to apply undecided.

  • http://twitter.com/tannnyaya Tanya Salyers

    Where was this article five years ago, when I started school? 

  • best guest

    I would love to see Crosby, Stills and Nash in concert. 

  • Mary

    This was adorable. I enjoyed myself.

    But I must disagree with the idea that one should be taking their time to choose a major. You should take your time, but you shouldn’t waste your money while doing it. If you don’t know what you want to do, go to community college first. You can get gen ed courses out of the way without going in to crippling debt. Often times people who don’t decide right away end up spending MORE time in school and therefore more money.  And you should pick a school FIRST AND FOREMOST because it is the best of what you want in an EDUCATION not “based on location, class size, extracurricular activities, and a myriad other metrics.” Those things are important (kind of), but not as important at the actual knowledge you will be acquiring. That’s why colleges exist, not so we can socialize.

    But I loved the article. Well written!

    • Anonymous

      dude calm down

  • Mina B.

    And I read this after two years of suffering in this hell hole. I failed as early as #1.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

    Considering I have to have my college applications in by November 1, anything relating to college is making me nervous.
    Except this, actually.
    I like the part relating to the majors. Helps a little, since I’m caught between two of them.

    • Josh Gondelman

      Good luck! You’ll be okay!

  • Viktoria Berlamuda

    hey im a freshman in HIgh school lol. SO it’s still a while but thanks. I was getting really worried about HS but it seems okay i guess?

    • Josh Gondelman

      Totally! There are times where it will probably be not great, but if you pursue things you like and care about, it will make all the other stuff not as bad!

  • Sahar

    my sister is starting college this month, gonna let her read this. thanks man!

  • Sahar

    my sister is starting college this month, gonna let her read this. thanks man!

  • ali

    Thank god. College has been fun, but I’ve been itching for this final year to end and to be on with my life. I’m excited for the “financially autonomous” phase. That being said,  I’m also NOT making the mistake my recently-graduated friend made, where I mentally “check out”. I’m gonna enjoy this last year, make new friends, treat every day here like it’s my last, because I’ll be graduated and pining before I know it.

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