20 Things I’d Have Told Myself Before College

When I first arrived at the University of Chicago, I remember coming across Ted Gonder’s 31 Things I’d Have Told Myself Before College blog post. It resonated with me so much that I printed it in its entirety and taped it to my freshman dorm room’s door.

In 3 months, I’ll be done with my time at the University of Chicago. It’s been a wild ride, and I figured it was time to make my own list. It would mean so much to me if a fellow student found this helpful—if you do, I’d love to know. Here are the twenty things I’d have told my freshman self before college.

  1. Our memories are biased towards experiences documented and shared. The only college nights I vividly remember are the ones I captured in pictures or shared with friends.
  2. Exploration alleviates imposter syndrome. If you’re going to college far from home, the more you explore your surroundings the more at home you’ll feel.
  3. Live on a low salary for a summer (including rent and other expenses). Living on a minimum wage or low salary will likely be somewhere between extremely uncomfortable to just barely tolerable. However once you’ve done it, you’ll be better informed on how much of a salary you can reasonably live on after college. This will factor into whatever career path you choose to follow.
  4. Pick classes based on the professor, not the subject material. You can find interesting things to self study long after college has ended, but you mostly only have these four years to find inspiring academic mentors who will take office hours with you.
  5. Brand names are only as good as the people who adore them. Whether you attend an elite brand name school, or are gunning for an exclusive student club, or would like to join a household name company after college—that brand is simply a carefully curated image bolstered by those who buy into it. Optimize to work for (and with) people you admire instead of brands others admire.
  6. If you skip working out or sleeping to study, you’re sacrificing long-term well-being for short-term gain. This is amenable if the short-term gain does not become a long-term habit.
  7. Take a whole week off for Thanksgiving. Even if it’s only a four day break, find a way to make it a week. Spend that week with family. At the end of your four years, you will have missed precisely twelve days of college, and gained one month with your family.
  8. Being memorable only requires caring. As you progress through college, the most memorable people will be the ones who cared about your well-being for some reason. Similarly, your impact on others is mostly measured by how much you care about them.
  9. Read David Foster Wallace’s ‘This is Water’ until it makes sense to you.
  10. If you are never rejected, you’ve never really pushed the boundaries of what you can accomplish.
  11. All those days that came and went, little did I know they were life. If something toxic like anxiety or depression brings you down daily, you need to work to minimize its influence on your life, and there are absolutely times when you need professional help to do so. The most courageous and difficult bit is the same step: seeking help.
  12. Small steps forward will always beat indecisiveness with time. I think of the future like driving down a really foggy highway. The exit signs are opportunities. As long as you keep driving, even if you’re not sure what the next opportunity is, it’ll definitely come your way. But if you stop moving forward, you’ll never reach it.
  13. When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.
  14. Write essays that are powerful. Your professor has probably assigned this prompt many a time over, and year after year students use the same textual evidence to support the similar theses. Draw on your own personal experience to approach the assignment in a unique and creative way. End it with a mic drop. Make it fun. Make it humorous. Just don’t make it boring. If you get a poor grade, so be it. But never let anyone take away the fun of articulating your thoughts.
  15. Read fiction outside your classes. Non-fiction is like photography—it’s the art of selecting. Non-fiction authors select a biography, a research paper, an era of history, etc. Fiction is like painting—it’s the art of creating a universe from a blank canvas inspired by human truths that undergird our everyday lives. Nonfiction can endow intelligence, but fiction is unrivalled in building empathy.
  16. Be charismatic to a fault. One of the most inspiring people I’ve met could be described this way. Err on the side of being an open book rather than being indecipherable. Vulnerability can be endearing.
  17. Outbound leads tend to beat inbound leads. The opportunities that arrive on your doorstep are the ones you are well qualified for—whether you capitalize on them or not. The opportunities you have to actively seek and fight for are the ones that tend to result in the most personal growth.
  18. If you don’t know anyone, no one knows you. If you’re at a party and you don’t know any of the people there, the inverse also tends to be true—no one knows you. You get a completely blank slate to build a reputation, meet new people, and experience new things. Not knowing anyone at a get-together is a blessing in disguise.
  19. ‘Follow your passion’ is not necessarily good career advice. Read Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You early on when choosing your major and intended career path.
  20. Live a story worth telling. At the end of your four years of college, I promise no one is going to ask you about that time you studied all night.

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