My baby brother graduated from high-school in May and will be a college freshman on Monday. It’s taken me a few months to come to terms with the fact that the fat baby formerly dragged all over this Earth into perilous situations by well-intentioned older siblings is done with high-school.
Nick is a classic middle-child and one of the friendliest guys you will ever meet. His smile warms up the room. His enthusiasm for life and music and fun and golf (a game which he pretty regularly rocks) is apparent to anyone who has known him for five minutes.
Nick was the self-appointed DJ at our wedding. His decision to switch the playlist half-way through the reception, though still undergoing extensive examination by certain parties in management, kicked off what may go down in history as the greatest dance-party our little Michigan town has ever seen.
And on Monday, he’s going to start college. So, with all of the sagely knowledge that my role as Nick’s oldest sister grants me, I have 20 tidbits of advice for him and, by extension, for all of the other happy-go-lucky college freshmen starting out in the next couple of weeks.
1. Meet people.
Lots of people. As many people as you can find. Learn their names, learn about their intended major, learn about their favorite sport.
2. Read ahead.
This is so lame, I know. Within the first ten days of class, glance through all of your syllabi and at least skim through the first two or three weeks of material. You will feel accomplished before there is anything to feel accomplished about and you will walk into your first couple of classes feeling confident instead of lost.
3. Buy a planner and use it.
The first part of this is easy. The second part of this takes discipline. You may work best with a big calendar on your markerboard or a little cute blue moleskine in your pocket. Find the system that works and use it. As soon as you get your syllabi, write down every single important date that you can identify. Forgetting a midterm is not cool.
4. Sign up for a physical extra-curricular activity.
Join an intramural team or the ping-pong league. Take music lessons or join the choir. You’ll burn out and spend your life feeling stressed if you do nothing but homework, so take something that makes you think with a different part of your brain.
5. Don’t try to find “The One” during your freshman year.
Seriously. This may be my most contentious piece of advice, but that fun sparkly relationship with that adorable freshman that blossoms during your first three weeks on campus? It probably isn’t going anywhere, sweetie. Spend your first nine months on campus building friendships, learning how to live and interact with 4000 + people your own age, and growing emotionally and spiritually instead of frantically looking for love. You’ll be glad you did.
6. Build friendships based on important things.
Freshmen are often like high-school students, but worse. The cool kids are so much cooler; the hot kids are oh-so-much hotter; the stupid pranks achieve a whole new level of stupidity. Get to know a lot of people and laugh a lot but develop a base of strong friends that you trust.
Find friends that can keep a secret, that tell the truth, that show up on time, that call when they say they will, that know what faithfulness means. Then be a faithful friend back.
7. Join a ministry group and find a local church.
There are several wonderful cross-campus ministry groups. I was part of RUF in college and I loved it, but you might have the option of joining InterVarsity, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or a smaller ministry group that is unique to your campus. Whatever the group is, join them, attend, and get involved. The connection you’ll form with other Christian students on your campus will be an important support network for you over the next 4 years.
You also need the support and the encouragement of a strong local church. An added bonus? Many of the churches in college-towns have great college ministries and have families that are more than enthusiastic to open up their homes and lives to stressed-out college kids. Find a church; don’t be that kid that shows up once a semester on the Free Dinner for College Kids Night. Spend time with people that aren’t your age or that have done something besides attend class all day. It’ll give you some perspective, spiritual encouragement that you need and a much-needed break from the rush of campus life.
8. Maintain perspective.
College has some really really good days in store for you. It also has some really really bad ones waiting just around the bend. There will be successes and failures, moments of glowing achievement and moments of total embarrassing failure. Just remember that your life will go on beyond the next four years. Your life holds more than that big ugly D; it also holds more than that Chemistry award.
No, really. Although it might seem really fun to just hang out in the same pair of pajamas for the entire semester, and although people in college don’t care quite as much about your appearance as they do in the professional world, this is your chance to practice looking like a professional and a chance to develop your taste and style. Love your pjs. But when you need to go meet with your professor, dress like you care.
10. Read something besides your textbook.
Even if you don’t enjoy reading for fun, use this opportunity and the time you have available to explore the world of books. Check out historical non-fiction, check out self-development books, read some Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin. Read some novels.
Your brain is rapidly taking in information and forming a view of the world, so feed it as much information and as many stories as you can and learn as much about people and business and the world as you are able.
11. Call home.
Yes, it’s time to sprout some wings and learn how to conduct yourself like a responsible adult. But your parents actually do miss you. And, more likely than not, they’re probably footing at least part of the bill for your everyday life still. So don’t forget to call and update them on your life. Tell them about your friends; assure them that you’re learning and growing. And remember to tell them “I love you.”
12. Don’t live in a dungeon.
You don’t have to spend $1000 on your dorm room like Target encourages you to do. But most people work better in a clean, colorful environment. That’s why Google has great work-spaces for it’s employees. So buy a trash-can and use it. Decorate the walls with some inspirational quotes or pictures. Make sure your workspace is comfortable and usable for you. A few hours put into refining your living environment at the beginning of the semester will pay big dividends.
Try to figure out what your best sleep-window is (Hint: For most people, it’s not 3:00 am to 11:00 am). If your body can’t function on less than 8 hours of sleep, then don’t deprive it. You don’t actually have to stay up until 4:00 a.m. every night for the world to keep spinning. Most people aren’t really that productive (or that fun) after midnight. So go to bed. And then wake up in time to get a jump on the day. Your body and grades will thank you.
14. Listen to something besides your favorite band.
This is related to #10. There is a wealth of information out there contained on podcasts and radio shows. Use this opportunity to explore the options out there. Check out new bands and other kinds of music. Fill your background noise with classical music or jazz. This is your chance to explore the world, so take advantage of it.
15. Eat like you want to live past 45.
Most college kids (I was no exception) eat the worst food imaginable. Stuff that most adults don’t eat once a month are on the daily diet. So try to avoid massive amounts of sugar and huge doses of greasy foods. Avoid soda and that shady pizza joint in the alley behind the fitness center. Try to eat fruits and vegetables every day; drink a lot of water; eat meat (no, beef jerky doesn’t count). Another hint? Alcohol has a lot more calories in it than anyone will admit. A good diet will give you more energy, help keep you healthy, and keep you from gaining the freshman pounds.
16. Exercise regularly.
Your mind and body need to get active time outside. Figure out what you like to do (run, jog, walk, play volleyball) and then make time for it. Even when you’re stressed out and studying for a final, make time to take a break, refresh your mind, and burn off some of that stress with physical activity. You’ll be able to focus better and you’ll be healthier.
17. Live generously.
Learn to share. College is a great time to practice giving of your time, resources, and energy. You’re not really that pressed for time. Don’t let yourself become a crutch for other people, but be a good friend in your actions. Does a friend need help understanding a math concept? Grab some coffee and sit down with them. Does someone have to unexpectedly move? Help them drag their stuff down three flights of stairs. Living generously is a skill that few have and a habit that will pay enormous dividends.
18. Learn to appreciate silence and rest.
A college campus is probably the most chaotic, loudest environment you will ever participate in again unless you go on to teach high-school. Find a silent place on campus – the library, a park – and make time to rest your ears and mind. Take a break from the rush and try to just enjoy the sound of chirping birds every now and then.
19. Never under-estimate the power of food.
If you can cook, friends will follow. Seriously. Find a stove-top and learn how to scramble eggs or bake muffins from a box. If you can make something more complicated, all the better. These simple things are pure magic to lonely college freshman who are sick of pizza and whatever the cafeteria serves on Friday nights. Even if your skills are at the most basic level, use them to draw people in. It’s never too early to start building community around your stove-top.
20. Remember that you have a purpose and that you’re a part of a story.
Nick, you are enormously talented. You have a role to fill in this world that no one else can replace. Fill every second with the stuff that matters, with good things. Make good memories. Hike to a waterfall. Borrow some kayaks and find the nearest river. Have a barbecue with friends. Take pictures.
Live like you’re going somewhere and like what you do and say matters. Make sure the story you’re living is one that you want to tell later.
There will be times when you feel like no one cares; there will be days when you don’t have the energy or the emotion to keep living a good story; there will also be days when you screw up and think that you’ve messed everything up beyond repair. So I’m going to tell you now something that I hope you remember when that day comes: you matter and you are loved.
The world needs everything you have to offer. You can’t mess up God’s story for you. When you feel like you’ve failed, do what you can to make it right, let it go, and keep pushing forward. You’re going to do great things.