Around one year ago, I packed up my bags and moved from a small suburb in the coast of California to the bustling city of New York. I was eighteen years old then, eager to start my first year of college at the university of my dreams. I got off the airplane at JFK International Airport, managing to lug four suitcases stuffed to the brim with the sole remnants of my old life. I headed out the sliding glass doors of the airport and into the loud summer city air, and the rest is all a blur. My first year of college was quite a learning experience, one that introduced me to my first real taste of adulthood, independence, and accountability. Over the course of my first year, my choices and their results have repeatedly shown me what I did right and where I went wrong. From this past year alone, I’ve gained some knowledge to share about being successful in college that I myself will strive to remember for at least the next three years of my life. My experience is based on a traditional four year university, but can also apply to other paths post-high school, or at pretty much any point in your career.
Don’t Let Fear Hold you Back
Entering college is all about trying new things, but an unfortunate side effect of that is fear and apprehension. If you’re just entering college, you’re most likely entering a new territory with new people, places, and things. It will be your first taste of independence and a test of your self-sufficiency. Especially in the beginning, it is important to keep in mind that if you let fear hold you back, you will never get to where you want to be. I’m usually a “never say never” kind of person, but in this case I think that the goals that are truly important to us must also evoke a sense of fear as it requires us to take a step out of our comfort zone. If we never take that brave first step outside of our comfort zones, then we will simply never grow. Here is an example of this from my experience: back at the start of the year, I signed up for several A-Capella club auditions despite getting incredibly nervous singing in front of crowds. Now, let me first tell you bluntly that this story might not end the way you think. I didn’t make the club (any of them)— in fact I didn’t even do well in my audition, but in this case, the results are less important than the experience of forcing myself to try something that scared me. I already knew that the A-Capella groups at New York University, a school known for talented performers and stars, were of a much higher caliber than my singing was fit for, but I showed up for multiple auditions to get used to trying things outside of my comfort zone. This is a habit that I highly recommend to college students: to take every opportunity and never turn things down for the sake of comfort. This is crucial at the beginning of the college because everyone enters with a blank slate and must establish themselves over time. As for dealing with nerves and fear, sometimes it’s best to just look yourself in the eye and tell yourself that there's nothing to be afraid of, to look yourself in the mirror with sweaty palms and convince yourself that it’s no big deal. One thing to avoid at all costs is dwelling in your thoughts— overthinking will only escalate the fear and pressure you to back away from what’s scaring you. Instead, maintain a light, “nothing to lose” kind of attitude and you will come out the other end proud of yourself and more experienced.
Remember Who You Are
This phrase may sound really cliche, but that’s because this message is crucial and is something everyone needs to hear: remember who you are, or if you’re not sure, then use your time in college to find out. The unique thing about high school and college is that they are very defining points of our lives. That’s why I think it’s really important to develop self awareness. As we grow older, situations tend to get more complicated and our options do tend to shrink. That’s why it’s incredibly important to prioritize understanding more about yourself— what are your interests, what are your values, how do you want to spend your time here in college and beyond? What are you happy with in your life, and alternatively, what do you hope to change? While these questions may not often come up in the jam-packed day to day schedule of exams, classes, social obligations, and busy work, these are important questions to consider and keep in the back of your mind. Speaking from my experience in high school, I’ve observed that my life was often influenced by several external factors that were at first disguised as my own. For example, I went to high school in the heart of Silicon Valley— a place where many people are grown up to study STEM subjects and proceed to work at tech companies such as Apple, Google and facebook. A traditional four year college is where over 80% of students go after graduating. In high school, I often let the societal norm of success guide me. I assumed that this too was the path that I wanted to pursue, instead of realizing that I was being swayed by the success of my peers and family friends in these fields. Time flies, and that’s why mindfulness towards your individual interests— independent of external factors and influences—is something worth paying attention to. You don’t want to graduate college and realize that you don’t like your job, your industry, or where you’re headed. Moreover, don’t feel as if it’s too late to change paths and pursue your true dreams and interests— there is always a way and the sooner you realize the better. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize that our lives are being steered by external influences that may end up misguiding us. Make sure you open your eyes to those possibilities, and try to ensure that you’re being influenced by the right things instead— your values, your passions, your goals.
Friends Play a Larger Role in your Life than you Might Think
In my experience, my friends in college were actually a big determinant of my overall college experience so far. Remember that who your closest friends are likely also a reflection of yourself, as you and your close friends are highly prone to influence each other for the worse or better. Besides school or career responsibilities and personal hobbies and duties, the rest of your time will probably be spent with your friends. Friendships in college can really blossom and offer so much for an entire lifetime, but if you don’t pay attention to who your company is, they can end up becoming a huge time suck and a distraction from becoming the person you want to be. Friendships in college are unique because they are your primary source of community; in college you may not have family or relatives nearby. Therefore, in college, there are virtually no restrictions or limitations on the time you spend with friends unless you yourself enforce them. Always remember to evaluate your close friendships and relationships because they play a bigger role in your life than you think. Make sure that you and your closest friends have a mutually beneficial relationship and nothing less.
Work Smarter, not Harder
What I realized in high school that applies just as much to college, is that hard work must be incorporated at the right times and in the right ways in order to take full effect. Being a harder worker is important of course, but being a smart worker can conserve your energy while producing even better results. In order to work smarter, try to identify and prioritize your most important goals and action items and put most of your effort into those instead of other tasks. The same goes for slacking off— you can have room to slack off occasionally and still be successful only if your timing is right. The specifics of becoming strategic varies greatly on the type of work you need to accomplish, but once you figure those out it will take you further in your success than simply working hard continuously and possibly experiencing early burnout.
Make Sure your Health comes First
Simply put, you can not take care of responsibilities to the best of your ability if your body isn’t properly taken care of. The takeaway of this point is to make sure your health (both mental and physical) come before your work or at least alongside it. In my opinion, this should be applied for the most part, as sometimes you may need to sacrifice a little bit of your health to meet your demands as a student. Keep in mind that when you enter college, you will experience a huge boost of freedom that you learn to manage and balance sooner than later. You will have a hundred temptations to stay up later than you should— whether it’s hanging out with friends or staying up to finish your homework—but it’s important to prioritize your health by getting adequate sleep. It’s also important to dedicate enough time in your schedule for exercise, healthy eating, and self care. At the start of college, I prioritize my schoolwork and social life over my health, and it wasn’t long before my body started to feel the consequences. I would often feel sluggish and unable to keep myself awake throughout the day and soon this started impacting my productivity as well. However once I started enforcing stricter rules to maintain a healthy lifestyle– exercising at least three times a week, getting at least eight hours of sleep, taking vitamins and eating healthy— I started to feel more in control of my life and my responsibilities. So before you set off to achieve those lofty goals, make sure that you’re taking good care of yourself first!
Be Open minded— you never know what will happen
While having a plan is important to giving your life a sense of organization and direction, I also think it’s hugely beneficial to keep an open mind in your younger years. Keeping an open mind can prevent you from unknowingly closing doors of possibility for your future. I’ve noticed in college that it is common for students to feel pressured to pursue certain careers and be closed minded when it comes to jobs and how much money they can earn. I’ll be the first to admit that money is crucial, not at the cost of entirely hating the work it takes to earn it. In the long run, I think it’s important to pick a career that you somewhat enjoy and are interested in because it’s what the majority of your time will go into, and your time is almost (if not more) a precious resource in your life than money. At the end of the day you’re not just a money making machine and you don’t have to lead a very formulaic life that is thought of as “successful”— you can raise and or change the bar completely. So keep an open mind about these things and work hard to pursue your dreams.
College is a time of new beginnings and vast experiences. Navigating the ropes of college takes time. You’re not the only one who feels like you don’t know what’s going on sometimes— trust me on that one. I guarantee that if you take the opportunity to expand your horizons, you will come out of these four years as a changed person. It’s fine to let life take the reins sometimes and guide you whichever way the wind blows, but remember the points in this article as few ways to keep yourself grounded as you grow.