You’d think we would have been over it by the time we got there. My university orientation class was already so intellectually, academically, athletically and artistically accomplished. We had friends we were close to, families we cared about. Put together, we’d performed thousands and thousands of hours of service to church and community. This, you would think, was an emotionally and socially mature group of people. We’d long since ditched the status-conscious clusterings and hierarchies of high school freshmen. We were ready to meet each other on common ground, to be real.
The first evening of the program concluded with a pool party and barbecue. I sat at a round plastic table and listened to a senior fraternity brother explain to a group of wide-eyed girls that in college, you could do stupid things with impunity; all you had to do was be smart about it. I watched them tilt their heads, smile and nod, flattering. I watched other students across the courtyard, pretending they could hear each other over the thumping speakers, grinning and nodding voraciously to who knew what. I saw certain people kissed up to, others systematically ignored, still others clinging to each other desperately, as though this were not a pool party but a shipwreck. I noticed the tense, mask-like strain on their faces – and suddenly, I felt it on my own.
Something had gone awry. Why wasn’t this as enjoyable as it should have been? Where was my real community, my common ground? Where was these people’s reality? What was wrong? I got up and walked around, out of sight of all the others – and automatically relaxed. Then I realized it. I was, we almost all were, too conscious of looking good and not really trying to be good. We weren’t thinking about the other students so much as about how they thought of us. We weren’t even thinking about having plain old fun. We all wanted – hungrily, desperately, and in that moment, exclusively – to be accepted.
The story ends well; that artificial night ended, real college experience began and I met truly amazing people who lived up to the vision we’d shared and challenged me to do the same. In the process, though, I lapsed back into fake mode more than once; I also made some real mistakes. Now, toward the end of my undergraduate years, I’m still every bit as aware of what I’ve done wrong as of what I’ve done right. I’d like to help you avoid doing the same things wrong, if I can.
This list of eight mistakes could be much longer. People commit scads of stupidity using “Well, it’s freshman year” as their excuse or as an excuse for others. Here I’ll stick to idiotic acts for which I’ve personally pulled this lame line of justification. I leave the rest to your imagination – and I challenge you to defy the low expectations that would give you a pass on any of it. Avoid these things; avoid anything that sounds like them. Of course you’re free to make your own mistakes, but I think I can pretty safely recommend that you not:
I’m not talking about the odd, idle hour or three spent chatting, playing Frisbee, reading magazines or staring at clouds. Time like that is necessary for sanity, not to mention learning, and having it is one of the grand pleasures of college. But if it regularly happens to you, as it happened to me, that it’s 11:30 P.M. and you don’t know where your day went, you may need to re-think your schedule. Otherwise, you may end up pulling frequent, ultra-caffeinated all-nighters (see below).
Pull frequent all-nighters
You may need to do one every now and then. It would be better if you didn’t; you should try to manage your time so that you don’t have to (see above). If you must, though, there are ways to make the best of it:
- Eat something sugary.
- Drink lots of water and apple juice or tea, not coffee; loads of caffeine actually make you sleepier in the long run because they dehydrate you, eventually slowing down your body’s processes, leaving you jittery and strung-out.
- Find an all-nighting buddy on Instant Messenger and make a pact to keep each other awake; some great bonding can be done this way.
Just don’t make a habit of it the way I did. Your natural sleep patterns will be scrambled, your schoolwork quality and class attendance will decline, your friends will wonder why you nap so much and hang out with them so little and your immune system will falter and may fail. I’m pretty sure the miserable, flu-ridden week I spent in bed my freshman year could have been avoided if I’d just slept more.
Be passive about class
I didn’t take a very challenging first semester my freshman year. I designed it that way on purpose, partly to give myself time to adjust and partly because I was feeling burned out from the stress of senior year. I wanted to take it easy. There was nothing wrong with any of this – for a little while.
“Easy,” however, soon translated into treating my college classes the same way I had treated high school ones, even AP ones: show up, sit down, shut up, wait fifty minutes, walk out, read the book, get an A. It worked (mostly) in high school. It worked mostly in college, too – except for the “get an A” part.
Long story short, I wasn’t reading closely, taking notes, keeping up with the syllabus, turning in assignments on time, paying attention, asking questions and such—until it was too late. I ended up wasting time, pulling frequent all-nighters and taking a completely unnecessary drop in my first-semester average. I could have worked a little harder and done a lot better. Now that it comes time to apply for more competitive internships and jobs, I wish I had.
Go on a date with a significantly older upperclassman
Obviously, this is not bad in every circumstance. In fact, my own wonderful fiancé will graduate a year before I do. Bigger age differences in dating can be trouble, though, especially for first-semester freshmen.
Case in point: the Friday afternoon of my very first week at school, I got a call from someone I’ll refer to as “Joe.” Joe was a senior major in my academic department who took it upon himself to be kind and welcoming to freshmen. I’d already had some conversations with him, and he seemed intelligent and caring. Well, he had an extra ticket to a Shakespeare play, and would I like to go? After all, it’d be a shame to waste the ticket, and besides, I could see some of the city that way. And, after the play, wouldn’t it be a cool idea to wander around the campus and see things together, from the bridge over the stream and the gardens, to the empty art classrooms?
Now, I wholeheartedly reject the notion that male-female relationships are about power struggle. Yet, even I should have recognized that something was rotten in Denmark. Lonely, scared, naïve young woman agrees to go to strange, secluded place with connected, confident, knowledgeable upperclassman who is setting himself up as her protector and guide, but about whom she knows nothing. Does this sound like the beginning of a beautiful romance?
In case you’re still wondering, the answer is: no, this sounds stupid. In an empty art classroom, Joe pretty soon, as my grandmother might put it, “forgot he was a gentleman.” I told him to stop it and walk me back to my own room. Luckily for me, he did. It was only later that I found out this was the same Joe all the freshman girls in the department were warned not to trust, and with good reason. Had I waited even a few weeks to get to know him – and the school – better, I could have spared myself an uncomfortable night, not to mention potential danger.
Attend a party where people are getting falling-down drunk
You’ve heard all the warnings by now; you’re aware of the risks (and if you’re not, you should read up on them). I’ll just say that in the end, the only way these parties are really “fun” is if you are interested in getting trashed – and trashed is not a fun way to be. Think vomit; think sweaty hair, smelly mouth and miserable facial expression. I haven’t done that part of it, but I’ve seen it done. It ain’t attractive. Not to mention legal penalties at such partiesm, which vary from state to state, but won’t be nice no matter where you are and can extend even to non-drinkers.
When you do decide to drink, be responsible. As a new member of the over-21 class, I can tell you it’s possible to enjoy alcohol, even in reasonable quantities, without getting stupid or carried away. Other, less commonly noticed incentives not to overindulge: alcohol is expensive, it’s calorie-filled, and if you have too much, you won’t remember the good (or bad) time you had last night in the morning.
Over- or under-achieve
Are you catching a theme here? Think Philosophical Foundations 101, Aristotle: “moderation in all things.” Studying and partying are both good, but too much of either will not a happy collegian make. Don’t pack your days so full you can’t stand it; don’t leave yourself too often with nothing to do. Extracurriculars are where I fell down in this area. Freshman year I took on practically nothing; by the end of sophomore year I had tried to make up for it by taking on way, way too much, and spent junior year burning myself out. Neither extreme is good. If you take on an obligation, be aware of the time it will demand from you. Figure out what you’re willing and reasonably able to give, and then give it.
Fail to speak up about your views
One of the most exciting things about college is the intellectual interchange. You may come searching, or you may come with convictions you’re ready to stand up and fight for – either way, even some combination, is acceptable. Either way, be humble and gracious. Browbeating your opponent is not the most likely way to get him to see it your way. Patient explanation and listening are much better-respected. It’s true what Grandma kept saying about the flies, the honey and the vinegar: sweetness will catch more. Sweetness, though, doesn’t mean backing down if you’re right. Strike a balance and learn to hold it.
Forget who you really are
Every time I made one of these mistakes, in a large or small way, it was because I made excuses for myself. I wasn’t thinking of becoming the person I wanted to be, the person who, in my few but finer moments, I really am.
Sometimes, I’m sure, only the good Lord knows what I was thinking: “I can try this for the sake of experience;” “No one will care what I do;” “I don’t need to be responsible yet—I’m just a kid;” “Of course I’ll be safe;” and that ultimate disaster of a reason, “So-and-so did it, so I can too.” I am not So-and-so. Neither are you. You have a name, a life, a past, a personality. You have a body, mind and soul that are unique and worthy of respect—your own as well as others’. Earn that respect by living as though you believe in it. Soon you may find that instead of being supposedly cool, you actually are.
*The title of this essay is adapted from a book of essays called “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” by David Foster Wallace. Thanks to the author for his coinage of an apt phrase; apologies for my giving it free publicity.
This article originally appeared on Making It Count.