Tilly Sanson, one of my former college photography students, asked if I could contribute some college advice for her younger sister, Kara, who will be a freshman this fall. Tilly has collected a great range of contributions from current undergrads, college alumni, and current or former professors. I decided to also share my contribution here. Your mileage or experiences may vary, but these are some things I gleamed through my stages of undergrad, grad school, and academia.

The best advice I received during undergrad was from a psychology professor, Dr. Lamar Wilkinson. He said “Truth is relative and reality is an illusion.” There are so many ways that can be interpreted and appreciated. I’ve often put new experiences within this filter to process the information.

I lead with his advice, and then offer my observations for navigating college…

Enjoy the moment
Ideally, college won’t be the best or the worst time in your life, but it is a unique experience. Don’t forget to pause and acknowledge each day for what it is. It’s good to always be thinking of your future, but 5 minutes from “now” is also your future. Enjoy it. Make the most of it. And give yourself a chance to take in the experience.

Be engaged
During a lecture, if your classmates seem bored, there’s a good chance your professor is bored, too. One can influence the other. If there’s a topic in class you’re excited about, speak up! Interact. It will make the subject way more interesting to yourself, it will inspire your professor because he/she will realize someone is actually giving a shit, and it has a direct influence on the quality of the lecture because more passion comes out. Teacher/student is a collaborative dance.

Work hard
It depends upon what you major in, but sometimes the actual grade doesn’t matter long term. But what you produce and how you develop from an essay/project/lecture will have a much larger impact on your future successes. I made a short film in a random psychology course in undergrad because I had a spark of creativity. The class never asked for a film, but I worked it into my project. The teacher wasn’t impressed, I ended up with a B in the course, but by following that passion, it started the pathway to graduate school and a career in visual imagery.

Know yourself and what you believe in
You’re going to be introduced to a lot of opinions or different ways of thinking. Not all are bad. You might find that a new perspective inspires you more than a previous opinion you had. It’s fine to evolve. But it’s also fine to validate some of your current opinions. There’s no one absolute correct way for anything in life. College will challenge your beliefs. It will either make your current opinions stronger, or it will give you newer, better opinions. No conclusion is inherently right or wrong. It all depends upon you. So again, process new information with a good sense of who you are as a person and what you believe. Look at both sides to every issue. Be wary of people who only seem to have agendas. Think critically.

Explore the catalog
If your schedule allows it but your major doesn’t require it, still take that oddball course that has struck your curiosity. More education in diverse subjects is always a good thing.

Be aware of emotional drains
No one has the right to be an asshole to you. Not a fellow student, a professor, or an administrator. Same goes for you to others. Note the distinction between a disagreement and/or constructive criticism, compared to simply being antagonistic. It’s certainly possible to disagree on something while still maintaining mutual respect. The whole “treat others like you’d like to be treated” has a lot of truth. If someone else isn’t holding up their end of this bargain, you have the right to address this to the appropriate authority people.

Have fun
Go to a party, hang out with friends. Work hard and be passionate, but know when to let yourself have a break. Note: don’t party in place of working. Think of it as the reward for the completion of your current goals.

Use e-discretion
Social media is a tool, but it is not your friend. If you add your teachers, they will, by default, see any statements you’re making about their class. They will also see your funny/silly/ridiculous posted photos, social rants, public relationships and breakups, petty drama, idle thoughts, and etc. Because this stuff is kept in a database for your timeline, so will your future employers. Be mindful of what you post, and use discretion. Social media can be wonderful in networking, but is definitely a double-edged sword.

Go outside
Go for a run. Play a random game of ultimate frisbee with folks on the grass. Make friends with people from completely different majors, backgrounds, and outlooks. Interact with those who you might not otherwise get to meet. Plus, you’ll be active and it’ll help with your cardio. Win win.

Use a professor’s office hours
They’re there for your benefit. Most professors will appreciate your interest in the subject. If there’s a great rapport with the professor, this could grow organically into a great opportunity where you might find yourself conducting part of his/her research focus, directly assisting in art projects, or at the very least, it will become a great contact for the eventual letters of recommendation you’ll need after college.

Remember that college is a bubble
When you can, get outside of it occasionally to keep yourself grounded. Go on weekend trips to other cities. Study abroad, if possible. Go somewhere random. Put this new collegiate adventure you’re on in context with the world happening outside of the campus.

Fail at things
This may seem counter-productive, but if you always succeed at everything, you’re not pushing yourself enough and you’re not learning to your full potential. Great learning comes from realizing every way something doesn’t work. This can only happen if you try something crazy enough to fail at it, and then figure out a way to actually succeed.

Take initiative
Don’t rely on your professor to lead every step of the way for you. If you’re doing that, it’s just rote memorization. You’ve invested nothing. Instead, step out and go for things. You’ll fail sometimes, but you’ll also succeed sometimes. You will also be the most proud of whatever it is you accomplish.

Professors are just normal people
Some professors are good teachers. Some are not. Don’t be afraid to ask around for others’ opinions or experiences with a teacher, especially if you have options. It’s better to have an 8 AM (or 6 PM) class for a good teacher, rather than take the comfy schedule with a shitty one.

College is a 4-year all you can eat buffet
(That is quite literal in the campus cafeteria) Want to watch a play? It’s happening. Want to learn about abolitionist political debate? There’s a course containing it. Want to play guitar? Take a course! Want to play tennis or go swimming? It’s just down the walkway. College is going to be whatever you put into it, and will become whatever you make of it. Enjoy it, learn, work hard, play hard, go all in.

Find your passion
It doesn’t matter what you major in, if you’re not absolutely passionate about it, you will fail after college. That passion is going to be what keeps you progressing. Life is a filter. Only a certain percentage of people graduate high school. A percentage of those go onto college. A percentage of those will be able to work in the field they majored in. What separates those who succeed from those who don’t is how dedicated they are to succeeding. Start having that mindset now so when you graduate, it’s already natural instinct. Some majors lead to more abundant job markets than others, obviously. But anyone who can do a basic Google search also knows this, so competition will still be fierce, even in the “safe majors.” Whatever you do, do it well. Do it awesome. Be a badass.

  1. Andy, you give the best advice!

  2. Denise, thanks! 9 years of being in college, with another 4 teaching it. Some experiences and opinions manage to survive the shuffle.

  3. A couple of things to add (from my humble experience…) First – don’t trust your advisor. YOU are responsible for tracking your own progress and the classes you sign up for. Also, the university catalog you started with is your BIBLE. Things may change, but the catalog you started with is the LAW. One other thing, don’t be afraid to ask for an exception to policy(on a course) to get it to count toward graduation. Sometimes it even works – if you did screw up. As Andy said above, take your academic preparation serious, because it is. There are no guarantees (for a job) but you put yourself in a much more marketable position than someone who didn’t. And lastly, go to class. Some professors say they don’t take roll, but they do know if you are there or not. If you’re looking for a break when close to a higher grade an appearance of “trying” makes all the difference in the world. While this may be your first time away from home with no one looking over your shoulder, you are responsible. The “probation” lists are filled with those that sleep in, party too much and don’t go to class/lab.

  4. I second everything Jan just said! Especially concerning the catalog… you should receive a copy of it when you start. Keep it for the entire four years. If your major has a curriculum change, you still go by your original catalog. If no one else on campus has a copy left in existence, you will still have a record of your course requirements.

  5. Great advice.

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