When your attention is focused on getting into college it’s easy to forget about what happens after you’re admitted. The excitement of getting a “yes” easily blots out thoughts of how to be successful once you’re on campus. By all means, enjoy the moment, but when things die down and you’re making your final decision, remember that “success” in college has many facets.

Good grades, extracurricular activities, and making friends are important, but a really successful four years is more than the sum of these parts. It transforms you fundamentally. With the right outlook, you will graduate from college not only ready to take on your first job, but also eager to keep learning.

One principle above all can help you feel confident no matter what institution you choose: Be flexible and adaptive. Going through the college research process, we tend to idealize the institutions that catch our attention. The beautiful fall foliage photos, jazzy websites, and well-coordinated campus visit days put stars in our eyes. Everyone seems friendly, social life seems amazing, professors all give out their home phone numbers, and the career center helps land you a job when you graduate.

Reality, however, can be very different. It’s not that your eventual campus won’t have the qualities you want, it just won’t always be sunny and accommodating. There will be tough courses, rainy days, and gruff professors. Your roommate(s) will be cranky or noisy; you may not like your major as much as you thought you would. You’ll have days when you wonder why you chose it. (Years ago, one of my students wanted nothing more than to be a meteorologist. She found a school with that major and was accepted. A few months into her first semester, she was in my office begging me to help her find another major!)

All that is normal, though. It’s part of the transition from the familiar to the unfamiliar; from the security of home and high school to the adventure of being in a new community. You’re expected to make a lot more decisions on your own, and at eighteen, you’re considered an adult. That’s a lot of responsibility to take on all of a sudden. To avoid feeling let down, disappointed, or anxious, go to college assuming that everything will be different from what you expected. Not better or worse, just different.

When you get that first C, do poorly in a lab, or get cut from the team, you might feel frustrated and confused. Many students I’ve worked with have said they sometimes feel they don’t belong on their campus because everyone seems smarter and more talented than they are. Even many, many years later, I remember that feeling as a college freshman in a class with seniors. I wished I could just hide under the table when they casually discussed obscure details of European history. How was I ever going to know as much as they did?

But when I spoke with classmates, I realized nearly all of us felt the same way. We recognized that the whole point of going to college is to learn more, to take courses that challenged us, and to get better every time we wrote a paper or did an experiment. It’s humbling after being at the top of the heap in high school to have to start at the bottom again, but it’s also liberating. You can go in any direction, explore different ideas, and try new things.

Socrates himself said:

“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

That realization enabled him to keep asking questions of others and himself, challenging assumptions about the world and creating new knowledge in the process: Sometimes learning to ask the right questions is more important than getting the answers. (If you’re lucky, you’ll have professors who use the “Socratic method” as part of their teaching style.)

I’ve noticed over the years that the happiest students in college are those who allow themselves to be open to possibilities, who aren’t afraid to try a course outside their comfort zone or an activity they’d never tried in high school. For me, taking a vertebrate biology course was a leap. I didn’t consider myself a scientist, but I wanted to learn more about it, so I dove in. I didn’t get an A, but I remember the experience well. Even many years later, I feel it broadened my horizons even though I am very far from being a biologist.

On the extracurricular side, the college radio station was in the basement of my dorm. I had never been in or near one, but early in my freshman year I dropped in and got a tour. I later became a DJ, then the news and special projects director. This great experience came just from curiosity and a willingness to learn. If you’ve never acted, audition for a play; if you’ve never been political, join an advocacy group. You’ll never regret it.

As you look through the course catalogue of your chosen institution, don’t ignore offerings in departments outside your major. If you’re a biology major, take an art history or a classics course; if you’re an English major, take a geology or a physics lab. What might really surprise you are the connections you may find between seemingly disparate subjects. How does the language we use influence our sense of history? How have scientific discoveries changed not only our view of the world, but even the way artists portray it? Why do people behave differently in crowds than they do individually? With luck, like Socrates, you’ll see that “knowing nothing” can be the most valuable quality of all.

The luxury of college comes mainly from the ability to contemplate these questions free of outside pressures, while also exploring who you are and how you’ll address the world in the future. Being open and ready to dive in headfirst are the most exciting aspects of that experience. Good luck!

Will Dix has worked in nearly every facet of the college admission process. He wrote numerous recommendations as an English teacher at The Hill School; served as an associate dean of admission at Amherst; and was a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. He is currently a consultant to community organizations helping underserved youth apply to college. He also blogs about college admission issues at collegeculture.net and Forbes.com. He lives in Chicago.


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