Thoughts on Starting College

Fifteen years ago today, the dorms opened at the University of Texas at Austin for the Fall 1999 semester. Sometime that morning, I threw my crap in my car and drove the two hours from home to campus. I was 18 and fresh out of high school.

Today, I don’t really remember what the me of 1999 imagined she would be doing in 2014. I was more interested in playing video games and checking out the unlimited pizza in the cafeteria, some of which is still, no doubt, embedded in my waistline. Still, I’m feeling nostalgic today and I’m spending way too much time reflecting on what advice I would give that younger version of me if I had the chance.

But, of course, I’m not a time traveler, so the best I can do is blast those thoughts off into the intertubes at large and hope they find their way to someone who will find them useful.

Is that you or somebody you know? If so, read on, and I hope it helps a little.

Dear College Freshman From the Internet,

Congratulations on escaping from high school. Once, long ago, when people still got online by dialing through a land line, I did something similar to what you’re doing now. Your life’s probably completely different from mine back then, but even so, some things never change. One of those things is being nervous or unsure about this crazy-ass thing you just decided to do with your life.

So for what it’s worth, if you’re starting out this month as a brand new freshman, and if you’re trying to get all your bills and your books and your beliefs in order, here’s some free advice from an old hand. As with all such advice, it’s worth perhaps precisely what you paid for it, so take it with a grain of salt and, most of all, enjoy what lies ahead of you.

Chill out.

Deal with today—today. Tomorrow you can address tomorrow. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan ahead, but it does mean you should concern yourself only with the things you can control, when are where you can actually control them. Worry isn’t a time machine, so take a breath, look at what you can do right now, and deal with that. Rinse and repeat. Little by little, you’ll get things done.

Roll with the punches.

Life’s probably not going to turn out exactly like you expect. It may be similar, or it may be completely different, but your playbook is just an outline. Like all outlines, it’s not carved in stone. It’s an idea. A plan. A work in progress. Revise as necessary. This is not a crime or a sign of failure.

Buy your books, do your homework, and go to class.

Being prepared and showing up is the lion’s share of success in a college class. You’re not going to be constantly reminded to take care of things like you may have been in high school, and even though the professor may not take roll or directly penalize you for playing hooky, you’ll pay for it in grades. I’m serious. The only classes I ever failed were the ones I thought I could skip.

Make a budget and keep it.

As a brand new adult, you now have the ability to buy whatever you want, whenever you want it, with the possible legal exception of alcohol. This is pretty awesome. But you will also need to have money for necessities—oh, and emergencies, too, which you can never really predict, and which will bite off a sizable chunk of your ass if you’re not at least somewhat prepared to handle them. If you haven’t learned how to budget yet, start today. You won’t be perfect at it at first, but you’ll be better off than you would be flying by the seat of your financial pants—which brings me to my next point.

Stay the hell away from credit cards.

Credit card companies are not your friends. They view you as a source of revenue, and they will offer you all kinds of incentives to sign up for their “services,” knowing full well that you’ll probably overspend and end up paying them interest for years. You’ll probably tell yourself, “Oh, I’ll just use it for emergencies,” but if you’re anything like me, you’ll eventually manage to convince yourself that a bitchin’ leather jacket and a new video game and a shitpile of pizza constitutes an “emergency.” Don’t do it. You’ll be paying interest on those purchases long after you’ve graduated, and I don’t care how good the pizza is—it’s not that good.

Stay the hell away from private student loans.

I’d say to stay away from all student loans, but that wasn’t really possible even fifteen years ago, to say nothing of today. Still, keep your distance from private loans. It may seem like a great thing at first glance, but below the surface, that beautiful financial mermaid is really more like the tooth-encrusted, shark-jawed asshole of an angry elder god, and once you’re in its clutches, it’s damned hard to get loose. I know from experience: I will be paying on my private loans, to the non-deferrable, non-dischargeable tune of $200 a month, until 2030. By then, I will almost be 50, and I will have paid more in interest than I borrowed. Don’t do it. That way lies only suffering.

Apply for scholarships.

Student loans and grants aren’t the only way to get money for school. Keep an eye out for legitimate scholarships (not contests or giveaways masquerading as scholarships) and apply for them whenever you get the chance. You’d be surprised what you might qualify for. I mean, I got an entire year of study abroad expenses paid for just by virtue of filling out the paperwork correctly, politely, and on time. And these don’t have to be huge scholarships, either. Little awards add up. Do the legwork, put in the time, and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.

Go get help if you run into problems.

This applies to class for sure (your university or college is likely to have a tutoring center that is free to you, and you should use it), but it also applies to the other stuff you’re learning to do. Take care of your body, and in the name of whatever you value and/or worship, take care of your brain. You are a brand new, Level 1 Adult. All this stuff is new. You may not know to handle it yet, and that is normal. If life kicks your ass, go get some help so you can bounce back stronger.

Do what you love, and do it for your own reasons.

You know all those articles about the best college majors for making money? Wipe your ass with them and throw them away. The economy is a fickle beast, and what rakes in the money today might not tomorrow, and sometimes there’s no predicting that. If you want to study something because you love it, go for it. Pursue it with everything you’ve got—but don’t do it just because somebody promised you delicious cake at the end of four years.

Try new stuff.

Your experiences have probably been pretty limited up to now, and there’s a whole goddamned world of stuff you’ve never heard of, much less tried. Take a class you don’t need, make new friends, go check out a group or a club for something you’ve always wondered about but never had the chance to investigate. Hell, go try a food you’ve never tried before. You never know what you’ll stumble onto that will resonate with you. And if you try something and you don’t like it—well, so what? You tried it, which is a hell of a lot more than most people do.

Finally, take all advice with a grain of salt.

Yes, that includes my advice. People are going to tell you a bunch of shit they think is helpful. Maybe it will be, and maybe it won’t. Mostly, we old farts are just excited for you and hope you can avoid some of the mistakes we made. Still, the power to decide what you do with your life is yours, so don’t go handing that off to someone else, no matter who they are or what they promise you. Keep it close to you like a treasure, and weigh any suggestions carefully before you act on them. You’re the one who has to look at you in the mirror every morning, so if you can’t live with a choice someone tells you to make, don’t do it. Make the choice you can live with.

Most of all, though, have a badass time at college. May your books be cheap, may the parking be plentiful, and may the curve be ever in your favor.

Oh, and P.S.: Keep your bottled beverages away from your laptop!