Your time is valuable
When I first entered university, the thought of skipping class was unthinkable. I would sit through boring lectures that were just regurgitations of our readings or dictations of PowerPoint slides that would be posted online anyways. Half the time I wouldn’t even be paying attention or I’d be trying to beat 2048, and I’d walk out of class feeling like I’d just wasted 50–120 minutes of my time. The decision to start skipping (boring) classes was one of the best choices I’ve ever made. That suddenly freed up more time for me to do things I wanted to do (and I’m not talking about watching more Netflix). I realized that if classes were unhelpful, there were better ways of spending my time, like reviewing the material on my own, working on assignments for my other classes, or making progress on other school-related or personal projects.
Now, I’m not advocating for skipping classes. But I think that there should be an evaluation of everything that you commit time to — the classes you take, the friends you make, the jobs you have, the clubs you join, the activities you participate in, etc. In college, it often feels like there are never enough hours in the day for all that you have to do. There are always things you could be doing. The older you get, the more responsibilities you will have. If you have a lot of meetings for student organizations or projects, ensure that they run efficiently. Make sure that the people in your life are the ones who make the effort to be there.
To avoid being stretched too thin, it’s worth taking a step back and assessing whether or not your commitments are actually meaningful, important, and enjoyable. If they aren’t at least one of the three, chances are you can either cut down on your time spent doing that activity or cut it out of your life altogether.
I went to an academically intense high school where every time we got back a quiz or test, people would whip out their TI-84’s to recalculate their GPA. I was one of those kids. To me, an A- was an Asian Fail. My incredibly chill Asian parents told me I should try getting a few B’s (how I should have taken their advice). When I took a college-level math class my freshman year, I got a 68 on the first midterm. I freaked out. I’m an English major! What am I doing thinking that I could declare a computer science major? But after a sobering phone call with my sister and understanding the beautiful concept of curves (the academic kind), I realized how dramatic I was being and stuck with the class. And three years later, I’ve stuck with a computer science major.
Striving for perfection in everything all the time is setting yourself up for failure. Easy things may not be fulfilling and fulfilling things may not be easy. Some things will have to give. The launch of a personal project will probably be more important than an assignment. A lower-than-average grade on a test might be worth it because you spent more time preparing for a job interview or getting some desperately needed sleep. Reframing “success” to be on your own terms will ultimately help you keep the important things in perspective.
Never prioritize anything above your health
College may seem like an okay time to kill your liver, never exercise, run on caffeine and Five Hour Energy, eat wings and pizza at two in the morning, then procrastinate and post a self-deprecating status on Facebook as you cram last-minute in the library. Everyone does it, you tell yourself. But you’re a goddamn adult, not a lemming. Just because everyone else is testing their body’s limits doesn’t mean you have to. All those things can really end up taking a toll, both physically and mentally. Exercise regularly. Don’t be embarrassed if you’re used to getting 6+ hours of sleep. Eat vegetables even if it means routinely buying a bag of salad and eating it with your hands (this is what I do). Make time to self-soothe and reflect. Seek help if you need it. Nothing —and I really mean nothing — is worth your health.
Say no to things
I’ve always been a “yes” person. Yes to schoolwork, yes to extracurricular activities, yes to helping somebody on an assignment, yes to going to that frat party even though I’m exhausted and not looking to drink cheap beer while inching my way through a sweaty crowd. Learning to say no is a great thing. It may seem scary at first, but you’ll be surprised at how understanding people are (so long as you don’t have a history of being a flake). You don’t necessarily have to make it to every single class or every single meeting. Group projects can survive without you picking up the extra slack even though no one asked you to. Whole assing one thing is better than half-assing a lot of things.
Finding your niche is not the same as picking a major
Picking a major and choosing classes is stressful. But your course of study will not necessarily be your career. Take a wide range of classes — one of my favorite classes of all time was a history class (even though I study English and Computer Science) — because you might be surprised. Find opportunities to do interesting things outside of school, like joining a research lab or working on a side project. If those opportunities don’t exist, make them for yourself. I’ve realized I don’t have to compromise the different things I love. Chances are you can find a way to combine your interests, and often times those are the most unique and fulfilling ways of finding your niche.
Spend time building professional relationships
I used to think that so long as I was qualified for an internship or job, I would get it. That’s how it should work, right? I was staunchly against networking, partly because I thought it was uncomfortable and awkward, partly because I thought it felt like cutting corners. But I realize now that that’s a pretty naive way of thinking about it. It’s more important to make use of the opportunities you can get, and in the real world, someone putting in a good word for you is going to matter way more than a cover letter lost in a (metaphorical) stack of papers.
There are certainly various degrees of efficient networking. For example, speed dating alumni events and editing your LinkedIn profile may not yield the best results. But working on relevant projects, writing about your work, and just contacting people who you admire or are interested in working with can go a long way. I learned to send emails to professors I’ve never met asking to get in their class or do research with them — or better yet, I went and talked to them in-person during office hours. One email led me to a great two-year research opportunity with an incredibly supportive professor, and another meeting led to a part-time job that has expanded my horizons about the field of journalism and technology.
But making these kinds of connections with professors and professionals are a mixture of luck, timing, and effort. I’ve found that just by joining groups and getting involved in activities relevant to your interests can introduce you to your equally amazing peers and opportunities.
Belonging and contributing to a community is really valuable. Remember that building professional relationships also means building relationships.
Read about the real world
It’s really easy to get complacent in the college bubble, especially if you live in a nice insulated college town. University is not always representative of real life, so read widely about the world. Cobble together your own educational intake system from a variety of sources — books, essays, blogs, news sites, newsletters. Follow writers of color, female writers, and LGBT writers. Get different points of view on issues that aren’t covered in classrooms. Form your own opinions. Challenge existing ones. Don’t just click on the shit that Facebook Trending feeds you.
Read about race, technology, culture, business, gender, and politics. And if you don’t know where to look, ask your friends (I’m sure they’d love to talk about all of these things over a bottle of Charles Shaw). It’s so easy to think that going to college means you’re being educated, but in reality, a lot of the learning is left up to you.
There is no right way to do college
You do you. Take risks, but make sure you’re doing them for the right reasons.