You have an image in your head of what college life looks like, right? Chances are it’s one of two extremes.
1) If you’re a fan of movies like With Honors, Love Story, or Good Will Hunting, you imagine college as a priggish place of higher learning, where bombastic students and snooty professors speak with vaguely British accents.
2) If Animal House and Van Wilder are more your speed, then college is a place where classes are optional, but partying is mandatory. TOGA!
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Well… actually, it’s not in the middle at all. It’s completely separate from both of the above scenarios, which are equally wacky. (If Joe Pesci stole my thesis, I’d let him keep it.)
Here’s a crash course on college living, the kind that happens in real life.
Dorm living… an incredibly unique experience
Dorms come in all shapes and sizes. Some are institutional, all boxy and chock full of cinderblocks. Others are gothic on the outside, cozy on the inside. Still others defy categorization, like the awesome Simmons Hall at MIT (pictured below).
No matter what a dorm looks like, the act of actually living in one is a unique experience. At first you might feel overwhelmed sharing your space with strangers. Dorms can also be noisy, so light sleepers should prepare accordingly (earplugs!).
But once you get over the initial transition, you’ll realize that dorm life is one of the most unique experiences you’ll ever have. Where proximity once bothered you, it will soon become exactly what you look forward to.
Want to take a study break for an impromptu game of Call of Duty? You’ll find half a dozen dorm-mates itching to do the same. Looking for someone to go with you on a late-night pizza run? It’s guaranteed that at least one neighbor (if not more) will accompany you. Living in a dorm, hanging out takes on a whole new, awesome meaning—one where the bonds you form can last a lifetime.
Living with roommates
Chances are if you live on campus freshman year—and odds are that you will—you’ll have at least one roommate. It can be a pretty awkward situation, moving into a place with a complete stranger. So what usually happens for first-semester freshman is that they become BFFs with their roomies, bonding over whatever they can just to avoid the bitter twang of loneliness.
This is fun for a while…
“We have so much in common! We both eat food, drink liquids, and breathe air! We’re like twins!”
Most times, it doesn’t last. The initial excitement wears off as the roommates realize they don’t get along as well as they’d anticipated. In fact, they may downright hate each other. Nevertheless, you have to make the best of any rooming situation!
Even if you despise your roommate and his snoring that sounds like industrial drilling equipment, you still need to get along with him. The good news is that by the end of freshman year, you’ll likely get to pick next year’s roommates. Just be tactful when breaking the news to your former-BFF/current-living partner. We’ve seen countless tears shed in this awkward situation, and trust us, it ain’t pretty.
A very shared bathroom experience
Yeah, we know that shared bathrooms are part of living in a dorm, but they merit their own category. There are a few key pieces of advice we must bestow upon you here. First, shower sandals. Always—because you don’t want athlete’s foot or ringworm. Second, courtesy flush. It’s common decency.
Finally, clean up after yourself. Remember the shaving cream you left smeared all over the sink or shower, or your toenail clippings that aren’t anywhere near the garbage? They’re not going anywhere. Your mom isn’t around to clean up after you, so have some respect for the people who are lucky enough to share a bathroom with you.
The wonder and majesty of communal dining
Growing up re-watching my favorite movies a million times, I found myself wanting a college dining experience just like this. When I finally got to college, I realized that, what communal dining lacked in neon green Jell-O and John Belushi’s comedic timing, it more than made up for with good food and the shared experience of eating with friends. University dining has stepped up its game in recent years, catering to a variety of specialized diets—Kosher, Halal, vegan, gluten-free—while still having plenty of options for regular old omnivores.
Oftentimes when you make the decision to live in a dorm, you take on the cost of a meal plan. The term “Room & Board” really means “Dorm & Meals.” When you live off campus, you generally don’t purchase a meal plan, opting to cook for yourself. But you can get spoiled easily by dining halls because other people do the cooking for you, and then your dirty tray gets magically transported away on an enchanted conveyor belt. Seriously, it’s the closest that most of us will ever come to royalty.
A word of warning: you’ve heard of the Freshman Fifteen, but we’ve seen (and maybe even experienced) the Freshman Fifty. The best part of communal dining is that food is available almost all the time. The worst part of communal dining is that food is available almost all the time. When you’re stressed and tired and starving, it might feel like the only meal able to satisfy you is a triple chickwich with extra bacon and ranch dressing. Resist! One bad choice in college can open up the door to a dozen others.
Getting around campus
This may seem fairly obvious but it’s actually surprising when you first get to college: there are a lot of buildings on campus, and some of them aren’t that close together. Unless you went to a prep school on a sprawling estate, we’re betting that all of your classes and activities in high school took place within the same building. In college, you need to be prepared to navigate a sizeable campus, and here are a few tips on how to do that:
- Always leave adequate time to walk to class.
- Leave a little more time in the winter months, when conditions can be treacherous (unless you go to UC-Santa Barbara… hey, don’t rub it in).
- Memorize shuttle/transportation schedules.
- A bike can be a convenient, timesaving investment. There’s no better way to combat that Frosh Fifteen than cruising around campus on a sweet bike. Just be safe and wear a helmet! You need that noggin for thinking ‘n stuff.
- If you’re worried that you can’t afford some wheels of your own, many major American cities and at least 33 universities have bike share programs.
Learning how to study
As weird as it may sound, a lot of people have to ‘learn’ to study in college. This is because you have more free time and less structure than in high school, so it’s up to you to create a schedule that works. Whereas studying in high school usually equals a ton of memorization, studying in college usually means reading. Most courses, even the sciences, have hefty reading lists. You won’t have to do book reports or anything, but you’re expected to know the material from the readings.
Here’s a pro tip: nobody (except for the most hardcore students) does 100% of all the required readings in college.
It’s virtually impossible. But the best students do a good chunk of the reading and quickly learn how to discern what’s most important. Being able to absorb through skimming is an art. (Here are a couple resources).
The question of where to study is one that you’ll also need to figure out once you’re in college. You probably did most of your studying somewhere in your house during high school, but a dorm room is probably one of the worst places to focus. There are way too many distractions within communal living. It’s best to find a quiet corner of the library, but be careful – libraries can also become social gathering places, like nightclubs with less music and more whispering.
Managing the “cash money”
College will probably be the first time in your life where it’s up to you to manage your personal expenses. If your default mode is to pay for stuff without ever checking your account balance or credit card statements, you’re going to have to get over that real quick. Everything in college that you don’t pay for upfront—meaning everything except tuition, room, and board—costs extra money, sometimes a lot of extra money. It’s not unusual for books from a single course to run you a couple hundred bucks, even if you buy digital versions. Of course, there are always options. There are a few companies out there trying to disrupt the textbook industry and make things cheaper for you:
- Here’s a company called Packback that was on Sharktank a while back.
- Here are a few general money saving tips to keep in mind when it comes time to buy your college textbooks.
After that, you’ve got to account for costs that don’t have to do with academics. You might not have to go food shopping, but you’ll still need to pick up essentials like toiletries, which can be expensive especially if you go to school in a big city. You’ll also want to have a budget for entertainment: movies, live music, and even on-campus extracurricular activities (believe it or not, being part of a campus social organization can be pricey). Finally, you should expect to spend some dough on food, whether it’s a burrito on the fly or a fancy sit-down dinner. Dining hall menus can get tiresome, so a meal at a real restaurant can be a welcome departure.
One final tip: NEVER sign up for a credit card on campus. Banks and credit card companies will usually set up attractive on-campus booths or inundate your school mailbox with dozens of cards just itching to be activated. They’ll promise you sweet perks and awesome rewards—a cruise to Antarctica you say?!—but these cards often have super high interest rates designed to make you go into debt and stay there. We’d recommend doing your own research and finding a simple, low-interest rate card that you pay off monthly. Better yet, stick with a debit card that’s linked to your bank account. This way, you’ll never spend money you don’t have.
Doesn’t it feel wonderful to have a realistic view of what college is really like? We apologize if we ruined your dreams of endless toga parties and Matt Damon solving impossible math problems on hallway chalkboards. But we promise that real-life college is infinitely more rewarding. If you’re ready for the next step, check out our 10 Tips to Ace Your Freshman Year.
Need some help with a college application? That’s what we’re here for!