Everyone’s college experience is unique—and probably not quite what they were expecting, but here are some tried and true tips on how to get through it.
1. Get involved.
This point may be the most overhyped, but it’s still valid. Go to your school’s activities fair if they have one; otherwise, keep your eyes open for opportunities to join different clubs or teams. Joining a club or team can often provide a much-needed relief from your everyday classes or responsibilities, and it’s a great way to meet new people or to try something new! Many schools even have niche groups such as unicycle clubs, quidditch teams (of Harry Potter fame), and virtual reality clubs. If you don’t find a club that aligns with your interests, you can always start your own!
2. Learn how to network.
Networking is something that can seem foreign for high school students (at least that’s how it felt for me). We go to college and are suddenly expected to know how to make professional contacts without any real training. To be successful at networking throughout college, you have to put yourself in settings where you’ll have the opportunity to meet professionals in the field you’re interested in. Look for local networking opportunities or events that are catered to the industry you’re in or the skills you’d like to master. For example, you might find an event that teaches individuals how to run for office, or a training on using LinkedIn to your advantage, or a class that helps you learn photography skills. All of these events will put you in contact with people who can help propel you into a career later in life.
3. Prepare for the cost of college.
If you need to take out student loans to pay for college, borrow ONLY what you need. Many people accept less than what’s offered (myself included!). Borrowing an extra $4,000 now may turn into repaying an extra $7,000 in the future. (Remember, anything you borrow now must be paid back with interest later.) Consider getting a job to help defray costs. College campuses usually have lots of fun jobs to choose from (for example, I was a driver for my campus’s safe ride program). Finally, remember to continue to apply for scholarships, as many can be given only to current students or to students in a certain major.
4. Get an internship.
Paid or unpaid. Local, national, or abroad. Find an internship that caters to your interests or career goals. Internships can help you figure out if you truly want to go into a certain field, and they can make you more marketable to future employers. Completing an internship also gives you professional contacts and references that you can call on for years to come. You can find internship opportunities through your school, an online search, or by attending career fairs.
5. Know where to go for academic (and financial aid) help.
Your school wants you to succeed. Take advantage of their services, especially if they’re free. Some colleges and universities have exceptional one-on-one tutoring programs that can help you pass that seemingly-impossible class. Others have group study sessions with teaching assistants. Attending tutoring sessions like the ones I’ve described has helped me stay on track in my classes. Also, be sure to stay on top of your financial aid situation. Familiarize yourself with the financial aid office. They’re always there to help you navigate the (sometimes complicated) financial aid process.
6. Your major doesn’t determine your future.
College is the time to find yourself and truly discover your own interests. You will have to be intrinsically motivated in order to meet your goals—if you don’t want to do it, nobody can make you, so you might as well choose a major you truly enjoy. However, on that note, a major is just an area of study, not a career path. If you want to study dance and go to medical school, go for it! If you want to study psychology and become an elementary teacher (this is what I’m doing), go for it! Just make sure you know the required prerequisites for obtaining any higher degree/certification/licensure required by your field and be sure to meet those requirements in a timely manner, because classes are not free.
7. Don’t compare your college experience to someone else’s.
Everyone’s experience is different. Remember that what you see on social media isn’t always the full truth. For a lot of people, college is simultaneously the best and busiest time of their life. Remember, it’s okay to not be having fun 100% of the time. College isn’t all Instagram posts of parties, spring break trips, and football games in a VSCO filter. It’s okay not to be having fun 100% of the time—college is about learning, finding your passions, and building relationships. Your college experience is whatever you make it.
8. Learn how to combat stress.
College can be a challenge. It’s not just the schoolwork that’s difficult; it’s balancing schoolwork, a social life, a job or two, housing, grocery shopping, budgeting, and anything else life throws at you. Self-care can help you balance these stressors to improve your overall well-being. Some self-care activities that work for me include deep breathing, coloring geometric patterns, and going on walks. Other people like to go to the gym, listen to music, or watch videos online. Whatever you do, make sure it’s the right thing for you so that you get the most out of this incredible period of your life.
Katie Hannestad is a junior at the University of Minnesota. She is an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.