Advice from a Professor for College-Bound Freshmen in 2020

If you’re starting college this fall, you probably just finished high school. Congrats! If you will begin attending a college or university in the fall, you have some major changes on the horizon. I have enormous sympathy for all of you who graduated high school this year. You got screwed: screwed out of what was supposed to be the most carefree period of high school, screwed out of prom, screwed out of graduation. Let me join all the other adults you know in saying that I’m sorry for what you’ve lost from COVID-19.

But I’m not only sad for your class—I’m worried about you.

Academically speaking, college will demand much more from you than high school did. High school seniors often don’t give their full effort in the final year, but all of you have been “going” to school online for the last two months, and I’m concerned that this will make your college transition even more difficult (if we are able to get back to in-person class meetings by the fall). 

You should begin mentally preparing yourselves now for the work of your freshman year. Most of your professors will be eager to help you succeed. I’m a 42-year-old professor and I’ve been working or studying at a college or university since I was 18. Below is some bold advice. I know you didn’t ask for any advice, but please don’t hit me with the “OK, Boomer” thing. As a young member of Generation X, it wasn’t that long ago that I was a student. I hope the suggestions below help you make a smooth transition.

Ask Yourself: What Am I Doing Here?

Contrary to what your guidance counselor told you, college is not the only option.

When I was 17, one of my friends told me he would not attend college. I didn’t say it, but I thought to myself “Man, you are making a huge mistake.” I was wrong.

That summer, I went to the College of Charleston. He started apprenticing in a cabinetry shop. Four years later, my tuition had added up to $75,000. I had a degree in English and no clear path to a career. My friend had spent zero dollars on tuition. And by that time, he was working independently making cabinets—and earning about $65,000 a year at the age of 22. For comparison, I ended up going to school for a total of 11 years until I finally earned my Ph.D. I ended up with about $80,000 in loan debt. Now, as a professor of English, I make about $70,000 per year—and that’s in 2020 dollars. This means, adjusted for inflation, I am making less than my friend made 20 years ago.

Who made the mistake? Neither of us. I have a job I love. I find it fulfilling. I always valued my time more than money and my job gives me a very flexible schedule. My buddy was never really into school. He was more interested in learning a skill and starting a business, and it worked out well for him.

Ask yourself: Why am I going to college? Is it to learn more about the world I live in? To please mom and dad? Because my guidance counselor scared me into it? So that I can get a particular job? Because I have a genuine intellectual curiosity? Because I don’t know what else to do?

Make a habit of asking yourself why you are at college. Ask it routinely. Your answers will change over time. But recognize that there are some things that college can’t do for you. And if it seems that higher education might not help you to meet your goals, at least consider whether there is another path that would be more beneficial.

One more thing: if you don’t have a genuine intellectual curiosity, I’d advise against going to college. You’ll enjoy the social aspects, but you’ll probably dislike the rest of it. And if that’s true, you, your professors, and your would-be classmates will be better off without your attendance.

Think of College as a BetOn Yourself

Too many people are going to college in America. Way too many.

Many students are not prepared for college-level work and others don’t even want to be there. As more and more Americans are awarded college degrees, the white-collar job market grows increasingly competitive. It is no longer true that an undergraduate degree “guarantees” you a “good” job.

But what is a “good” job anyway? A bachelor’s degree is probably less valuable in economic terms today than it ever has been. And yet, the cost of college is going up rapidly. This means that you should do regular cost-benefit analyses of your college enrollment. At what point do the costs of college (money, time, and opportunity) come to outweigh the potential gains?

Remember: nothing is guaranteed. College is a gamble. You are literally betting on yourself.

Is that a smart bet? If so, that means that you believe you can use the opportunities that college presents you to attain future goals that are more valuable than the cost of college.

Not everyone bets wisely. It is easy to make the bet recklessly because the house will give you the money upfront (in the form of loans). But the day will come when you have to pay it back—often with interest. My student loan payment is about $550 per month.

The good news is this: College is a bet you make where your behavior influences your odds of winning. If you love learning and if you follow the advice I am giving you, the odds are increased that the benefits of your college degree will outweigh its costs. But you can also make the odds worse. More on that below.

Assume You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About

If you know everything, there is no reason for you to attend college. Many of you have been trained to believe that your personal experience gives you access to knowledge—and since no one else has lived your life, no one else has any grounds to question your beliefs. But that is false. And if you don’t like having your beliefs questioned, it is going to be a long four (five? six?) years of school. If your beliefs are premised entirely on your experience, they are probably wrong. You’ve only lived for 18 years.

So rather than inhabit the classroom as though you already have all the answers, it might be more productive to always assume that you don’t have the answers.

If you are sure that you have the answers, stay away from my class. I have nothing to give you.

Your professors do know more than you. That’s only partly because they have spent much of their lives learning. It’s also because they have lived longer than you have.

Don’t misunderstand: my answers might not work for you, and that’s OK. I might even be dead wrong. If I am, don’t be shy about proving it to me (politely). But if you aren’t interested in an encounter with the possibility of your own ignorance, there really aren’t grounds on which learning can begin. And if you aren’t learning, what’s the point?

College Is Not a Personal Voyage of Self-Discovery

I am amazed at how many students come to school thinking that “finding yourself” is one of the major tasks of college.

I was one of them. I spent much of my freshman year smoking marijuana, playing chess, and listening to Jane’s Addiction, and that played a major role in my earning a C average. After the grades arrived, mom and dad put me on notice: I had to start putting in the work or come back home. The irony, of course, is that sitting around playing chess in a daze was not conducive to “finding myself” at all.

In America today, the concept of the self operates in much the same way as the concept of God did only centuries ago. The self and its satisfaction, we are told, are the things of highest value. Its desires and aspirations must be fulfilled—and if they can’t be fulfilled, then we are at least obligated to try.

This is a terrible idea with awful consequences. Putting in the necessary work to succeed academically will require some self-sacrifice. Those sacrifices will be even harder because our culture constantly suggests that college is a time for self-indulgence. Don’t be fooled.

The belief that it is even possible to “find yourself” is kind of dumb to begin with. Did you lose yourself? When? Where? How? Is there some undiscovered truth about “who you are” that is hidden from you?

If college is part of a process where you become who you are, then that happens naturally as a result of your choices and actions. You don’t need to go looking for yourself. When students start trying to “find themselves” it usually leads to trouble. Oddly, they never seem to look for themselves in their assigned reading, or in community service, or in their work.

Over two decades of observation, it seems students usually pursue “self-discovery” in two ways: casual sex and reckless intake of drugs and alcohol. And you will learn a few things that way. What you won’t learn is any essential “truth” about “who you are.” Those activities ultimately have absolutely nothing to do with college, and if that’s the only reason you want to attend, you might consider other options. There are cheaper ways to get drunk and laid.

Get Over Yourself

One of the reasons that a university is called a university is because the studying that happens there is a search for the universal values and experiences of living in this world. We are searching for the truths that unite us.

In recent decades, many professors have perverted this mission, fetishizing the differences between people and asserting that these differences are the primary reasons that we, as individuals, are valuable to society and culture. That’s wrong. Your “culture” is not the sum of the things that are unique about you.

Emphasizing our differences is destructive to culture. Your professors who prioritize our differences are counter-cultural—but not in the way they think they are. What culture is is the collection of ideas, beliefs, behaviors, practices, and values that we all share. The universal ones.

You are not a unique and beautiful flower. You are a person with much in common with others in your community—even with those who have lived lives very different from your own, in places and times that are very different from ours.

A prerequisite to discovering the universal truths is looking beyond the self: you must look beyond your narrow, limited experiences and desires. That’s hard. But that is the way that we truly come to value other people—not by recognizing their insurmountable difference, but by understanding our common humanity and the way that it manifests in a universal experience. Don’t let Dr. Microaggression in Gender Studies 202 convince you otherwise.

Expect to Be Offended and Learn to Live with It

Somehow, many people on campus have come to believe that they have a right not to be offended. There is no such right.

The world is often an offensive place: our common experience of its ugliness is one of those universal truths that I was talking about. College is an environment where you move toward a broader encounter with the world—in all of its ugliness and beauty. If you somehow make it through your undergraduate studies without ever being offended in a classroom or lecture hall, then you got ripped off

Intellectual exploration is a kind of risk-taking. If you are doing it right, you will encounter some offensive ideas. Even worse, some of those ideas will be true.

What this means is that if you are offended, that says something about you—not about the idea and not the person who gave it voice. Are you still committed to that unwinnable project of self-discovery? If so, when you find yourself offended, ask yourself why you are offended. Then, start thinking about ways to interact with offensive ideas and offensive people, because you will encounter them. And further: what do you do about offensive truths?

Don’t ask university officials to protect you from offense. They can’t. And it’s not their job anyway. The world doesn’t conform to your idealistic expectations of it. No amount of rules can change that.

Don’t silence the offensive idea. Don’t isolate the offensive people. Respond to those ideas and talk to those people: if they’re right, you might learn something; if they’re wrong, you can’t correct them by running away. Consider this your trigger warning.

Decide Whether You Are an Adult (or Not)And Act Accordingly

If you’re around 18, you are close to another achievement that is even easier than completing high school: you are nearing the end of puberty. Congrats! Like most people, you probably find the word puberty to be disgusting. It is. But the word has an interesting history. It comes from a Latin word that means “becoming public.” Public, not pubic.

What does adolescence have to do with becoming public? Well, the process of turning into an adult is a process of becoming involved in society at large. As you near adulthood, you progressively enter various types of relationships with people and entities outside the home and outside the confines of your family. You start dating. Maybe you get a job. You start reading the news. You become responsible for your behavior. 

This is a big change—before your becoming public, before your adolescence, you never really had to live with the consequences of your choices. When you were a child, the adults around you had a moral obligation to protect you from the negative effects of your behavior. But that ends in adulthood. It ends with your becoming a public person.

For cultural purposes, we disagree on when you become an adult. You can vote at 18 and drink at 21, but some people are now saying that adulthood doesn’t start until as late as 26. So, are you an adult at 18 or 19? I don’t know. But you need to decide whether you are or not. Either choice is fine, but stick with your decision: don’t be an adult when you go out drinking the night before your English exam and then decide you are a child and stay in bed when the alarm sounds the next morning.

If you are an adult—if you are a public person—then act like one. Learn about what is going on in the world. Vote. Hold down a job. Pay your bills on time. Drive responsibly. Study. Show up to class on time. Accept the consequences of your choices.

Consider the possible risks of your behavior. If you are joining a fraternity, don’t let anyone force you to drink a quart of liquor in 20 minutes. If you are meeting a date for the first time at a frat party, consider bringing a friend along, wear something attractive but not salacious, and don’t drink immoderately. Adulthood isn’t always fun. But it allows for more freedom, and you get the pleasure of self-governance.

But there is another choice—you can be a kid. You can decide not to complete puberty. You can resist becoming public. You can sit in your dorm by yourself, playing video games, watching pornography, and sleeping until noon. But if that’s the choice you make, don’t arbitrarily decide you are an adult when desire strikes.

Remember, you are a child: stay away from booze and cigarettes, don’t date, don’t have sex, don’t vote, and don’t register for an 8 a.m. class. You aren’t mature enough to fulfill your responsibilities in those activities. And you aren’t accountable for your actions. That makes you dangerous—to others and to yourself.

If you want, you can probably delay adulthood until your late 20s. But bear in mind: there is something unattractive and pitiful about overgrown children. And that perception is magnified with each passing year. Choose wisely. And live accordingly.

Learn How Habits Are Made and Broken

As you prepare for college, make a list of what habits you currently have (both good and bad). Decide which ones you should keep, which ones you should break, and which ones you want to develop to replace the bad ones that you are eliminating. A big step towards breaking a bad habit is forcing yourself to be conscious of it.

Success in college depends on good habits. Developing good habits and breaking bad ones is one way you can improve your odds in the bet I mentioned earlier. Perhaps the most important habits for school are related to time. For most of your life, you have been in highly structured environments that forced you to make certain uses of your time. Maybe those environments helped you pick up some good habits. Don’t lose them when you get to college: your new freedom to determine how you spend your time occurs at exactly the moment when time management will be more important than ever.

When will you sleep? When will you eat? When will you study? It is important that you create a routine.

Look for the Value in Every Experience

Occasionally, I hear a student tell me that some class he took “sucked” and that he “learned nothing.” I tell him that the class may have sucked, but if he learned nothing that is his own fault. You need to learn how to find the beneficial aspects of every experience—even bad ones.

If nothing else, a terrible course with a terrible professor teaches you something about what makes for a good course. It teaches you about what types of teaching are not productive for you. It teaches you how to engage meaningfully in apparently meaningless activities (and that is an essential skill for succeeding in many jobs).

Another example: Students often seem eager to know how my courses will help them succeed in a job. I have had these same students tell me (after getting a poor grade on an essay) that they could have performed better if I had allowed them to write on a topic that interested them. What a strange thing to say! Are these supposedly career-driven students convinced that they will never have a writing task in their careers that they will find uninteresting? Do they believe that any boss in the world will accept the claim that the task was “uninteresting” as a valid excuse for shoddy work? Of course not.

Don’t like the assignment? Think it is pointless? Then your aim should be to learn how to complete a stupid, pointless task to the best of your ability. That is a valuable skill.

The world doesn’t announce how events will benefit you up front. You have to figure out how to derive value from everything the world throws at you. College is a great place to do that, if for no other reason than that some of your classes will suck, and this advice might help you salvage those experiences.

Don’t Turn Down an Opportunity

Part of the problem with seizing opportunities is that they don’t always present themselves as opportunities—they usually just look like regular old activities. Success beyond college might look like luck, but people who routinely seek out opportunities (a habit that you must develop) are often more successful.

College is a great place to seek opportunity—it is everywhere. Opportunities of all kinds. But you don’t know anyone yet. Try to meet people. Different kinds of people. The sorority girls and the athletes, the stoners and preps, the artists, the religious students—even the boring people. Be friendly to everyone. You never know how a particular relationship might benefit you or enrich your life (until it does).

You need to build a network to increase the chances that you will encounter opportunity. And I’m not talking about social media. So, accept every invitation to go somewhere (unless it interferes with your study). Apply to lots of different jobs. Attend lots of different campus events. Take a variety of courses. Opportunity doesn’t find you. You find it.

That’s it! It will be an interesting few years for you. I hope some of this advice helps you make the adjustment. If it does, if it doesn’t, or if you have something to add, feel free to contact me! Welcome to college! Enjoy it! And don’t forget to call your mom—she will be missing you.

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About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

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