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Starting College? Here’s the Advice You Really Need

Take this college advice if you're an incoming freshman this upcoming semester.

Sitting in the back of my parents’ minivan, gazing out the window at the buildings of a campus I didn’t yet know, butterflies in my stomach — that’s how I remember arriving at my dorm at the start of my freshman year.

Since then, I’ve become a high school teacher and watched a number of graduating classes of my students go off to college, just as nervous and unsure as I was. Reflecting on my own experiences as well as those of friends and former students with whom I’ve stayed in touch, I’ve developed some advice I share with my graduating seniors on their last day of class. I tell them three pieces of bad advice they have heard a million times, and three better pieces of advice they should actually follow. 

1. “Don’t ever change” vs. “Change for the good”

“Don’t ever change!” How many times have I seen that cliche scribbled inside a yearbook? Not only is it terrible advice (who wants to stall their development at 18?), it’s not even possible. We are constantly changing and adapting. You don’t have a choice about whether to change or not. You will be different six months from now. It’s inevitable.

What you do have a choice about is HOW you change. Will you let it happen to you accidentally so that five years from now you barely recognize yourself? Or will you change for the good by making some simple choices to direct your growth toward becoming the best version of yourself?

You are old enough to have probably seen older students go off to college, immerse themselves in bad choices, and shortly wind up addicted, broke, lost, heartbroken, all of the above, or worse. You’ve probably also seen older students find their academic and professional passion, forge strong relationships, travel, grab opportunities, and blossom into young adults who are changing the world. The former situation always happens by accident. The latter situation never does.

How do you start your journey right? You will need some quiet alone time. Reflection, prayer, meditation — call it whatever you want, but turn off your phone, find a quiet, solitary place, and write out who you are, the good and the bad, what you love about yourself and what you wish you could change. Avoid reflecting on your physical characteristics and think deeper. Who is the REAL you? Try to be unflinchingly honest but also gentle with yourself. 

After you’ve done that, write out who you want to be — your vision for the best version of yourself (again, try to avoid physical characteristics). It can be helpful to think of times you were proud of yourself, or people you look up to and why. Who are you when you are at your best? Try to nail down 3-10 key characteristics you think define the best you. Write it down, read it over, take a breath, and commit/pray/resolve to become that person. That person is the real you. It won’t happen all at once. It may seem unachievable, but don’t worry about that right now. Decide in your heart to try.

It’s important to do this alone. If you want to discuss it with a wise friend or mentor afterward, that’s great, but let your initial reflection be your own. Don’t expect this to yield a crystal-clear, squeaky-clean vision someone could base a movie character on. It will probably be filled with contradictions and obscurity. That’s fine. The process is more important than the product. When you’re done you can keep it forever or throw it away immediately. It’s up to you. The important part is you’ve made a choice to try to change for the good and you have an idea of what that looks like for you.

Take this college advice if you're an incoming freshman this upcoming semester.

2. “Don’t follow the crowd” vs “Find your tribe”

“Don’t follow the crowd;” “Be your own person;” “Don’t give into peer-pressure.” You’ve probably heard some version of this before. Much like “don’t change,” this is pretty much impossible. We are social beings. We tend to talk, act, and think like the people we spend time with. This can’t be totally avoided, nor is it necessarily desirable. Sometimes following the crowd is wise. The trick is knowing when to go with the flow and when to go your own way. 

The good news is that you can hack peer-pressure: carefully choose the peers by whom you will inevitably be pressured. If you surround yourself with good people, you can generally trust your crowd to influence you well.

Your social circles are about to be thrown into chaos. You will spend much less time with your family and friends and much more time with new people of your choosing. So, as you begin to meet people at your new school, don’t just hang out with any old person. Choose your tribe.

I don’t mean a tribe in the sense of an exclusive clique, I mean a tribe in terms of a family away from family, who can bring you soup when you get sick, answer the late night text, and call you out when you need it. Spend time with people who inspire you and help you to be your best self. Involve yourself in activities where you are likely to find great people. 

For me, I found this in my college’s Catholic music ministry. I had basically been a jock in high school, but in college I got a guitar and decided I wanted to try something new. I put myself on an email list at an activity fair and soon I was playing music at least three nights a week. Not only did I grow as a musician, but I formed life-long friendships with amazing people. Ten years later, I met my wife while singing at our church. 

Nearly every fall, I get a message from a former student asking for advice because they are personally struggling in college. My first question is always, “Who are you hanging out with?” Commonly, the answer is, “No one, really;” “The people in my dorm;” or “People I know from parties.” I challenge them to put some work into finding people of character and join activities that enrich their experience. 

Take this college advice if you're an incoming freshman this upcoming semester.

3. “Keep in touch” vs. “Stay rooted”

I’m sorry to break it to you, but you won’t stay in touch with most people. Social media makes it possible in some ways (you can usually look someone up and stalk their pics if you want to see what they’ve been up to), but you won’t have the same day-to-day interaction you are used to. Pretty soon you will drift. 

Here’s what you can do. Choose a handful (three to five) old friends who help you stay rooted. These are the friends who remind you of where you’ve come from and what you’ve journeyed through. These don’t have to be the people you are closest to right now, but the ones you want to be close to long-term.

Again, this isn’t an exclusive clique. It doesn’t mean you will shut out other old friends. It means these are the friendships with top priority. Make time to chat or text them. Make sure you get together when you are home for breaks. Call them on their birthdays. 

Take this college advice if you're an incoming freshman this upcoming semester.

You Got This

So, I’m in my parents’ minivan, and we pull into the parking space, butterflies still aflutter in my stomach, and I saw another new freshman. I don’t remember his name, but his picture is burned in my memory: tall, buzzed blonde hair, gray basketball shorts, a baggy white t-shirt, and on his face I saw the same nervousness I felt. And I thought to myself: “He’s just like me. Oh, I got this. WE got this.”

And so do you.

Change for the good. Choose your tribe. Stay rooted. You’ll be fine.

You got this, kid. Now go show ‘em what you’re made of. 

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