Dear College-Bound Kids: What I’ve Learned From Five Years At University [On Uni Life]

Hi friends! With a lot of people returning or starting their first year at university (some of you call it college) around this time, I thought I would write a post about the lessons I’ve learned from my five years at university. (I know five years isn’t long for some of you; don’t look at me like that, med students.)

I’ve decided to split this post, Dear College-Bounds Kids up into three – I didn’t realize how much I had written until I checked the word count! Today’s post is on Uni Life – or, the more general advice I have to offer about making the most of university. I’ll be doing two other posts, which I’ve already lined up; one will cover On Studying & Assignments, and the other will be Writing Essays (because, I have to say, I write pretty heckin’ good essays).

I wanted to keep this post fairly short and simple. There are a plethora of other articles that tackle this topic that cover the usual advice (eat well, get work/volunteering experience, make the most of it, blah blah) so I narrowed it down to my top five pieces of advice. I want to acknowledge, however, that I write this piece with a position of privilege, so what works for me will not work for everyone, and not everyone shares my goals or values when it comes to tertiary education. Furthermore, I’m based in New Zealand, so I’m not sure if my advice had generalizability to other countries. So, take what works for you, and if something doesn’t, that’s okay. This is not intended to be a end-all-be-all sort of post; rather, I just wanted to share my own perspective. 🌻

Regardless, I hope that my advice today will be helpful in some way. Enjoy!


MAKE FRIENDS. 

Okay, if I told undergraduate-me this seven years ago, I would’ve rolled my eyes at postgraduate-me. But I cannot emphasize the importance of making friends. I told myself, at the beginning of my postgraduate year, that I wouldn’t make friends. Not because I didn’t want to – I always want to make new friends! – but because I felt like I couldn’t. I get anxious talking to new people and new environments make my heart race. I understand how scary it can be to make new friends. What if they don’t like you? What if they stop being my friend by the end of the year? These are anxieties I felt at the beginning of the year, and they’re valid. But, don’t let that fear of things that haven’t happened yet stop you from trying. It may not work out, sure, and that’s a very valid concern, but give it a go – you might make a friend for life, and it starts with hello.

Friends and having a support system, particularly people who are going through the same assignments, same troubles, and same burdens as you, will make such a difference. Not only can you help each other in times of need or have someone to complain to (which honestly helps a ton), but it’s just… nice to have friends. I actually ended up making a lot of friends this year, and if it weren’t for them, I probably would’ve quit Honours by now. 🤷

I’m no friend-making guru, but, these are the things that I did that helped me make friends:

  • Go to your classes early. Sit next to someone and just say hi. For one, they are probably just as nervous as you are, and two, it’s likely they want to make new friends too. People who come to class late miss out on that opportunity to make conversation with someone.
  • Start with your name. Give them a smile, even if it’s a nervous one. Ask them what their name is. I usually ask people what they study, and how their holidays were – did they do anything cool or exciting? If they’re new in town or you’re new in town, ask what are some cool places around. I like to bring up food – everyone loves food.
  • If you’re a postgrad student, the way I made conversation was asking them about their research. Postgrad students love talking about their research! We spend so many hours on this and, generally speaking, we want to tell the whole damn world about it.
  • If you’re nervous, ask people about themselves. People generally like to talk about themselves. (But don’t turn it into an interrogation session either.)
  • If you get the vibes someone isn’t interested in talking, move on and talk to someone else! Don’t take it personally – not everyone wants to talk or make friends, and that’s okay.
  • If you recognize someone from your class, especially if it’s a small class, there is a good chance that they recognize you too.

MAKE TIME FOR PEOPLE WHO VALUE YOUR COMPANY.

I know. It can be super hard to make time for others, especially when you have so much on your plate. University can feel like you’re juggling a million things at once, but trust me, make time for those people who value your company and for people you enjoy being with. Studying your brains out is exhausting, but it is also very lonely and alienating. Reach out to people who care about you – more often than not, they’re there for you. Positive social interaction is really healthy for our wellbeing; it encourages better behaviours, it decreases stress, and it gives us greater resilience.

  • Make a date ahead of time. For one, this allows you to prepare (do extra work before the date), and two, this gives you something to look forward to. Having something to look forward to will help get you through those really tough weeks.
  • My general life philosophy: Time spent on your friends is never time wasted.

DON’T TURN DOWN THAT OPPORTUNITY TO DISCOVER WHAT YOU LOVE.

As someone who volunteers at a place where the average age of volunteers is 50 years old, a lot of parents and grandparents ask me advice on how to advise their children on what subjects to take, what majors to pursue, etc. – and something I always tell them is this: ‘tell your teen to pursue what they love and enjoy.’ 

Look, I know it’s such a damn cliche. ‘Do what you love.’ Yes, it’s important to be realistic about our goals and the realities of our situation. But I think, the first step is pursuing what you genuinely enjoy, and the rest will follow. Learning about things that you love will get you up in the morning, and it will give you the energy to explore and try different opportunities and avenues.

1. Unless you are going into a field that requires a specific skill, then employability is 50% your major and 50% how you sell yourself to employers. When choosing a major, there’s always the concern of employability, and that is a very genuine concern. One of my passions is art, but I also know that I won’t get employed with art – not at this point of time, at least- so I compromised and chose something that ‘interested’ me – and that was Psychology. People throw shit around the idea that some majors are not employable, and it is a load of horsepoop.

2. If you pursue a major just for the prestige but you hate it, there’s a high chance you’re going to just quit and do something else. Chose to pursue medicine because you thought it’d be prestigious and you don’t actually care about helping people? Those vigorous application and interview processes will weed you out, so think about what you really want to do. Of my high school cohort, more than 75% of them ended up either a. changed majors, or b. doing a postgraduate degree in a field completely different to their undergraduate degree.

3. Yes, university is a time for learning and studying, but there is no better environment than university where you will have opportunity upon opportunity to discover your passions. You’ll never get an opportunity like university to figure out who you are and what your passions are – take it from someone who worked full-time for almost three years. University is a cornucopia of new opportunities and new pathways.

4. On seeking help or advice: For a lot of us, the opinions of our family and parents matter a lot, but in my experience, although they mean well, they are not always the best people to talk to or seek advice from. Many parents that I have talked to still believe that: getting a degree is a foolproof way of getting a job (100% false); anything that is not a doctor, engineer, or lawyer have no value (we can’t all be doctors, engineers, or lawyers); without university education, you won’t get anywhere in life (not true.) That’s not to say that you shouldn’t listen to your parents or undermine them completely, but I advise talking to and getting advice from multiple sources. Talk to older students, friends who have recently graduated, student advisers (they actually know what they are talking about), lecturers, or people who run clubs.

On discovering your ‘passion’, whatever it may be, I advise:

  • Approach your classes less as something you need to study and get a good grade in and more as a class that will teach you something important about the world we live in.
  • Join clubs, particularly ones that interest you. Clubs are a great way to make new friends, but it’s also a great way to see if you’re passionate about something. If it doesn’t work out, for whatever reason, that’s okay! Move on, join another club, and try different things each year.
  • Take a diversity of classes, and do the classes that sound interesting to you.
  • If you want to change majors, change early. Don’t wait until your penultimate year and decide you can’t take it anymore and just change it on a whim – that would be very, very expensive, and it happens far more often than people like to talk about.

‘I’LL REMEMBER THAT LATER!’ IS THE BIGGEST AND MOST FREQUENT LIE YOU’LL TELL YOURSELF.

This can be from ‘I’ll remember to do this!’ to ‘Ah, I’ll just write this super vague sentence, I’ll remember what I meant later!’ Listen, both are bullpoop. Chances are, you won’t remember, so write it down.

If it’s a reminder to do something, set reminders for yourself so you don’t forget. If it’s writing a vague sentence and you’re in a rush because the lecturer is in the next slide or oh my god everyone is packing up already and I’m still writing this, write it down. Taking a few minutes to remind yourself what you mean is far better than agonising over it a week later and wondering what in the world you meant by ‘center the variables at time 1 and all the other variables’. Center which variables CW? What are ‘all the other variables’?? 


TAKE A SOCIAL SCIENCE PAPER, SERIOUSLY.

If your university permits it, take a social science paper (I’m looking at you, engineering and medicine students). I do write this with a little bit of bias, because I am a social science student, but I think enhancing your knowledge about how people and society functions is really important, eye-opening, and beneficial. Furthermore, in this day and age where everything feels tumultuous, this is the time to be socially, politically, and culturally aware. So many people let their political ideologies stop them from taking a subject that challenges those ideologies (and this is not limited to people who are politically right; people who are politically left get things wrong too). Though Tumblr and Twitter and other social media can feel like a fill-in for anything social issues/justice-related, from my experience, taking a class will give you the foundation, structure, and vocabulary to make sense of what is going on in the world.

Classes I would recommend taking:

  • Anything that’s about diversity – whether it’s ethnic studies (I took an Asian studies class which enabled me to make sense of my diaspora experiences), modern history, or studies about your indigenous groups (I can promise you that you will learn a lot if you take an indigenous course; be prepared to find out how standardized education has colonized your knowledge of history).
  • Ethics papers, or legal philosophy.
  • Sociology – and yes, I write this with bias because I’m a Sociology major (and I loved it!), but Sociology will give you so much vocabulary and knowledge to make sense of the world around you.
  • Political psychology – this is pretty specialized and in my university, it’s only offered as a postgraduate course, but if you can take a political psychology course, you won’t regret it. (Be prepared to find out why people suck.)
  • STATISTICS. It’s not a Social Science paper, but I was told that Calculus was the ‘superior’ maths paper in high school. Unless it’s relevant to your degree, this is such a big lie. Having statistical knowledge and knowing how to run statistical analyses is such a big asset.

University is a challenging time, but if you are like me and you enjoy learning, it’s one of the most rewarding times of your life as well. (Which is probably why I made the decision to return to do my postgraduate after working for awhile.)

Most importantly though, have fun. And not just the partying type (there’s a time to be serious and there’s a time to be fun, as I believe), but have fun learning too. Not everyone has the opportunity to go to university or complete their degree (let alone even have an education in the first place), so never take your experience and your time there for granted. Make the most of it, learn as much as you can, be curious and inquisitive, and take every opportunity that comes your way. 💛

Let’s discuss!

  • Do you have any advice for fellow college-bound/university-bound students?
  • What is something that you wished high school-you knew about university?
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28 thoughts on “Dear College-Bound Kids: What I’ve Learned From Five Years At University [On Uni Life]

  1. I wish you had written this 3 years ago—before I entered university because everything rings true! I could totally relate to this post, CW jie.

    Sound advice and you’ve definitely highlighted tips that would really help those in uni.

  2. If everything goes according to my plan, I’ll get into Uni in September. I’m not sure what I’ll study just yet (again, it depends on how things go. where I live, students make a list with a maximum of 6 courses and they usually get in the first they’re accepted into – it depends on our grades and the grades of the other students applying for the same course and it changes every year). Nevertheless, I’m both scared and excited. It’s a new experience, however, I have no idea how I’ll deal with it. I love learning, but I’m someone who’s constantly stressed over everything.
    I loved your post, that’s really great advice! I’m really excited to read the next ones :)

    • Hi Marta! I’m so sorry for my late reply!
      Wow, that does sound a little scary! I hope everything goes well for you and that it all works out the way you want! New experiences are always scary, but I’m certain that you’ll do great. 💛 Stress is inevitable so make sure you take good care of yourself. 😊

  3. I remember the first time I got to my preparation course for a subject I’ve forgotten about, I brightly said “HI!!!” to another student. A few years later, I learnt that I scared her with how enthusiastic my HI!!! was and she was really intimidated. BUT we still regularly talk.

    I think one advice that is really important is that even if you do change your major or do a second degree at the same level as another, it doesn’t mean the first was a waste. I’m starting a second Master’s degree in September, and while I keep thinking it means that my first Master’s degree was a waste, I know that I totally enjoyed the subject and it wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t get a job and I can still use my knowledge from the first degree in my daily life and as a supplement to the second.

    • Hi Sinead!
      Hahahah! That’s a great story. I’m glad that you and your friend still talk. It always feels like a feat, and there’s that ongoing question of: do your new friends still talk to you when the year ends? It’s really cool if they do but also sadly normal if they don’t.

      I totally agree with your advice. 💛 I think a lot of people feel like it’s a waste, but all the knowledge you learn is so valuable and not wasted. I’m glad that you’re pursuing something that you’re more interested in, almost like a second chance? I hope everything goes well for you. 💛

  4. This post <3 <3 <3 I'll be returning to school as a sophomore this year, so freshman year is still fresh in my mind, and all of your advice is spot-on and soooo useful. I was most worried about meeting people and making friends because I deal with being shy, introverted, and anxiety with new people. But I took a risk and started up conversations with people and it turned out really well. While they say you don't stay friends with people you meet during orientation or with your freshman roommate, I'm proof that it's not always the case!

    Also when it came to making friends, I was on my class Facebook group a lot before I left. I talked to people that way because I didn't feel as shy, and then when I got to campus I saw familiar faces, and people came up to ME to talk. For those that are quiet or nervous I really recommend FB groups because it takes a lot of the anxiety out of going up to someone that's a complete stranger to you.

    • Hello Emily!
      Aw, thank you! I’m glad that you liked the post. 💛
      I’m so glad that things turned out well for you, and you were able to make friends. I was more nervous about making friends than my classes! Which sounds so silly, but it was how I felt, haha.

      Oooh, totally agree with your advice about talking to new friends online. That’s what I’ve been doing too, and when I meet them for class, conversation feels more fluid and less difficult.

  5. I love this. My main advice is just appreciate that library. You have nooooo idea how much you’re going to miss it when you don’t have access anymore

    I have such bittersweet feelings about university. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about worrying that I somehow did the whole thing ‘wrong’. And I say this having come out with a good degree. Haha. It’s just not the experience that you see on TV. I think I went in with the idea that when I arrived I would somehow become a totally different person – not helped by the fact that I was coming in having moved away from a very chaotic and, at the time, toxic family situation thinking leaving meant all of my problems were solved (baby me was funny that way) – when in reality that isn’t how it goes. I went in with the idea that it would be the solution to all my problems, which, obviously it was not. It was pretty tough a lot of the time, but I came out knowing a lot more about myself and managed to have some fun along the way (I managed to get into a situation where most of my classes were about feminism in the nineteenth century which was as much fun as it sounds). On an optimistic day I would say is probably doing it right, albeit in a way that also involved being myself rather than the somebody else 19-year-old me hoped I was going to turn into.

    • Lydia!! 💛
      That’s really good advice – about the library. I should probably take your advice and check it out sometime – I only use it as a study space rather than something I browse.

      Ahhh… I understand what you mean. Now that I’m in postgrad, I feel like I have another chance at university and I feel like I wasted my 3.5 years in undergrad!
      I’m sorry to hear that it was a tough time for you. That sounds rough, but, I’m glad(?) that you have come out of it different and changed – and I think in a good way, right? 💛

      • Yes, I think in a good way. It’s one of those things that I have a different perspective about the farther that I get from it. University is one of those experiences you definitely come of as a stronger person, I think.

        • I’m glad that it’s in a good way!
          I completely agree. My perspective is always changing too, funnily enough. I think I’m starting to see my undergrad through rose-tinted glasses, though when I’m really happy with postgrad, I feel a twinge of regret for all these things I never did. Ah well, such is life. And yes! I came out of university much stronger and also a lot less ignorant, which I am infinitely grateful for.

  6. WHY ARE YOU CALLING ME OUT SO MUCH IN THIS POST CW??? Ahahah but seriously, I love it the advice <3 Some of it I had to learn the hard way, some I am learning from your post and some I'll pprobably learn on my own in the nest few years since I still have so many years to study *side eyes you*.
    I'm sure this will be helpful to so so many people because it's such valuable advice ! <3

    • HAHA Oh my gosh, I’m sorry Fadwa!! 💛 You know that I love you!
      I’m just salty af because all my ‘friends’ in high school who looked down on me for taking an Arts path were all med students. 😂 I know you’re not all the same though. 💛
      Hehehe I’m glad you think so!! Can’t wait to dive into my post about studying. Hah. Do I have a thing or two to say!

  7. I wish someone had told me HOW to make friends at the start of my undergrad degree…making friends was so easy in high school, but in university, it was super hard for me, especially since I was entering into ‘second year’ for most students (I had accelerated my uni studies) and I was doing a Science degree which was really broad, and I rarely saw the same students every day. But I’ve picked it up…and I’d totally agree – just say hi! And accept that some people don’t want to talk much…and that’s not your fault, you’re not in the wrong! I remember the first time I plucked up the courage to try to talk to someone else in a lecture…she talked back for a bit, but then started playing around on her laptop, and her phone, and just show some anti-social behavior. At the end of the lecture I tried to say bye…but she just walked off, and I felt like there was something wrong with how I tried to approach her? But looking back now, I’m fairly sure she just wasn’t chatty. When I tried reapplying that technique a year later, I’ve found myself with two good friends, and I’m so happy I decided to take the jump.
    I totally agree with taking a social science course…as a pre-medicine student, I’m really glad that I took some subjects outside my required courses, because you’re right – not only did they broaden my interests and perspecitves, but they also helped me narrow down what my professional interests are.
    Great post, CW I LOVE IT <3 This has the Gerri stamp of approval!

    • Gerri! I’ve missed you. 💛
      I totally totally relate. High school was so easy because you saw the same people everyday, but in uni, it’s always a new face. I think I didn’t make any new friends in my first year – only did so in my last year, and now they’re friends that will stay with me for a long time.

      Aw, yeah it’s hard! It also stings when people don’t want to reciprocate, but I’m so so glad that you have made two new friends. 💛 That’s wonderful.

      Ahhhh I’m so glad that you’ve found your professional interests! That’s always so helpful and it really gives you more of a push and motivation. I’m glad that things have worked out for you, Gerri. 💛💛

  8. This is really good advice! I’m not the most outgoing person, but you have to put yourself out there a little in college in order to meet new people. I’d recommend bonding with people on your floor because some of them became really good friends. Also if you’re in a hard class find people to study with! It’ll make the class much easier, and you’ll have someone to bond with over the same pain.

    • Hey Amanda!
      Aw, I’m glad you liked it!
      Oh gosh, don’t worry, I totally understand. I’m really shy and anxious in new situations.
      Oh, that’s fantastic advice! Especially the hard class thing – that’s how I survived my research statistics class, haha!

  9. Great post, as always – although I had no problems making friends in my undergraduate course, I’m really nervous about making friends in postgrad! Will definitely be taking all of your advice <3 <3

    • Hey Wendy!
      You’ll do absolutely fine! It’ll actually be even easier to make friends in postgrad because your cohort will be significantly smaller and you’ll recognize everyone. I wish you all the best though – you’re gonna smash it. 💛

  10. This is an incredible, incredible post, CW, and if I’d read it before starting college, I would’ve definitely made more changes, and less mistakes. It’s so important to make friends, and try out new things (both socially and academically) in college, and we don’t often realize this until it’s too late. Your advice on taking a social science class is also bang-on. It doesn’t matter what you take, but it’s important to take a “people class.” In the US, at least, they’ve introduced the liberal core meaning that no matter what your major is, you need to take a few core classes. This includes science courses like Math, Bio, Physics and Chemistry, but you also need to take history, philosophy, cultural courses, a language, and other social science courses. It definitely rounded out my education a lot. :)

    • Hi Aimal!
      Aw, thanks so much! I’m glad that you liked the post! 💛
      Ugh, definitely. In comparison to my postgrad year right now and my undergrad years, I really missed out on a lot of things in undergrad. I’ve made sooo many friends this year and it has made my uni life so much happier.
      That’s awesome! I’m glad that you have liberal core classes – I think that’s so important. In NZ, we have a ‘general education’ where you can take a first year class that is outside your major. I think it’s great, but also not enough because the courses are usually very airy-fairy and don’t really have much meaning in the long run. Ah well!

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