This summer, I’ve been training sled dogs in Alaska—and getting paid $12 an hour! My coworkers are older than me; most of them finished college several years ago. It’s been great to spend the summer hanging out with people in their twenties, because they constantly remind me of an important fact: college will be over soon.
That having been said, you might assume that I’m a regretful senior looking back on my misspent college years. Not so; I’ll be a sophomore in September. I took a gap year before coming to Stanford, and I grew so much during that year. Still, I found freshman year challenging. I’ve reflected a lot this summer on what I learned from the first year of college. Here are my nine biggest lessons:
1. Work Stanford to extract the benefits you want.
A recent Stanford grad pointed out to me the distinction between “working” and “being worked.” When you get overwhelmed by academics, you’re no longer working; you’re being worked. On a similar note, you should view the Stanford campus, with all its resources, as the raw material which you must shape and knead to meet your specific needs. The important point is to actively design your college experience, instead of passively expecting this place to hand you happiness. That shiny Stanford brand is nothing more than a name until you “work” Stanford to extract the benefits you want.
2. Mold the Stanford campus to fit you, instead of trying to change yourself to fit Stanford.
There are many “Stanfords,” not just one. You might even say that each student attends a slightly different university. So don’t feel pressured to drastically change yourself in order to fit in. Chances are you can find at least one person like you here; there really are many different types of students on campus. Focus on fitting Stanford to you, not fitting yourself to Stanford. Go ahead and change yourself all you want, but do it for the right reasons—not because you feel like you have to.
3. If at first you don’t succeed, find another way.
My dad is a musician, so I grew up surrounded by art. But as a freshman, I didn’t get into any of the performance groups I auditioned for. I should have tried harder to find some way to participate in the arts, but those auditions discouraged me. So I spent much of the year feeling like no one at Stanford cared about what I love—that if I wasn’t an engineer or computer scientist or entrepreneur, then I was at the wrong place.
I can’t tell you how wrong that conclusion was. Remember, even if you can’t get involved directly in something you love, there’s always a need for people to work behind the scenes. The bottom line is, you need to be proactive. Don’t wait for the opportunities to find you.
4. Apply, apply, apply.
If cars run on gas, then Stanford runs on applications. There are a lot of interesting opportunities at Stanford and elsewhere, but most will require you to put together some sort of application. Get in the habit of applying to every program, position, or opportunity that intrigues you. It might seem like a lot of work, but taking this step will help you get the most out of college. Even if you don’t think you’ll get accepted, apply anyway. Never sell yourself short.
Think about this way: college is simply a dense concentration of resources. It’s a pipeline of money and opportunities, and you’re hooked up to it for the next four years. Lucky you! Just be sure to extract as much as you can.
5. Explore possible careers.
I just finished the book “What Color Is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers.” But I really should have read it sooner. It’s natural to feel some anxiety about what kind of job you’ll get after college, but don’t let this feeling overwhelm you. If you find yourself wishing that you liked computers (so you could major in Computer Science) or business (so you could major in Economics), or convincing yourself that you need to go to law school (since you’re not interested in medicine or business), fight back. Take the time to do some thorough self-reflection, and figure out what’s really important to you. Recognize that there are always alternatives—you are never obligated to follow the well-marked path. A great resource during your search is a Slate.com article about career guides.
6. You can’t overprepare for college…
…so read some advice books on college before you start. There are a lot of general guides to college life, while other books focus on the larger goal of getting an education. Also be sure to check out Cal Newport’s books and his blog, Study Hacks.
7. Don’t let setbacks blow your confidence.
The truth is that it’s very hard to be the best at Stanford. In my case, I found my confidence a little dented after a few months on campus. You’ll probably encounter some setbacks of your own, but don’t let them bring you down. Never underestimate your own intelligence or ability, and don’t overestimate the intelligence or ability of the people around you.
On the bright side, there’s not a lot of cut-throat competition at Stanford. If you do feel any competitive pressure, chances are that it’s self-imposed. I can honestly say that high school was much more competitive than college.
8. Every morning, think of three things for which you’re grateful.
A friend of mine got this tip from a fitness elective called “Happiness.” Give it a try—it will definitely help you get out of bed on rough days.
9. Don’t listen to all the advice people give you.
Sometimes people give you bad advice; sometimes their advice just doesn’t apply to you. Take what fits your unique situation and discard the rest.
What have you learned about succeeding at Stanford? Leave a comment and share your wisdom with the incoming freshmen.