Once, an incoming freshman asked me this question, "Should I bring my own pillow?"
I've also spent much of the last two weeks on the phone -- or on Skype -- with a set of incoming first-year college students armed with an array of questions both profoundly intellectual and suitably quotidian. The entirety of these conversations suggests a series of tips for students during that last summer before college.
1) Say goodbye to your friends. You'll see them again, sure! And, of course, you will never forget the great time you had together at the shore and at the amusement park and partying in the woods and under the bleachers and at prom and at homecoming and of course who will ever forget senior skip day and those funny gambits at chess club and logging long hours on the best darn school newspaper this county's ever read and at the big senior food fight where everyone else walked away relatively unscathed except for you, the victim of a seemingly well-planned attack, covered in rice-like foodstuffs.
These friendships will be forever. Or until Winter or Thanksgiving Break.
Or until the first day of college orientation where you meet your new gang of BFFs who will stand up at your wedding or collect bail money for you that other time. You see, college changes you.
This happens if you come from a family or community where you are the only college-bound person and this happens if every person in your town goes to a different Ivy League school presaged by their positions as nursery school valedictorians. (Look how many alphabet blocks these kids can stack... oh future captains of industry!)
You are going to be overcome by new stimuli, enticed by new ways of thinking, seduced by Ayn Rand for five minutes when a cute classmate in upper-level philosophy tries to pass you a copy of Atlas Shrugged, until you realize neither the book nor the student are particularly attractive. It's not uncommon to enter college with one set of beliefs and exit with another, with the healthy adoption of numerous in-between and contrary positions along the way. Break out the grill this Memorial Day. Go vegan next year.
Somewhere in these changes grows the root of that old canard: colleges are hotbeds of liberal indoctrination. Take it from my years of teaching all sorts of students. It's not that college turns people into left-leaning liberals (and yes, I have seen many conservative thinkers find their inner Matt Drudge), it's that college gives you a chance to think about things you might not otherwise.
2. Live in the now that is soon-to-be: Where else will you have the opportunity to read Nietzsche or dig into the implications of multilingualism in post-colonial Africa or study the misfolding and aggregation of the protein α-synuclein as it applies to Parkinson's Disease -- all in the same semester? Bonus: this is your "job." Everyone expects you to spend your time doing these activities.
Fast-forward a few years. Sure, you can engage in these studies on your own, but I doubt your cubicle-mates are going to want to critique your latest poetic epic, read it twice, mark it up with helpful suggestions, offer a written critique, and then hang out with you at the local bar to talk about how everything in the world is a big con-job. Will your boss at the trading firm care to know what you think of Balkan politics or the ancient Vedic tradition?
3. Play to your strengths. Do you laugh in the face of differential calculus? Are Shakespeare's sonnets too familiar after so many years of recitation and study, you literary stud, you? Time to explore. Scour the web pages of the departments and programs at your university before arriving on campus. Yes, you might know what Biology entails. But what about Neuroscience? History may seem familiar, but what about Medieval and Renaissance Studies? Colleges and universities, and especially liberal arts colleges like Lake Forest College, offer interdisciplinary programs that connect economics to philosophy to physics and back again. You may love poetry, but you may love environmental poetics in the Environmental Studies program even more. Bonus: you'll take many more camping trips in ES.
4. Know your, ahem, weaknesses. The students I have advised over the years fall roughly into two camps, with a few hanging in the middle:
A) You love data and math and science so much that your writing skills are much less important than the discovery of the Higgs-Boson "God" particle. You perhaps write in fragments. Sentence fragments. Lots of them.
B) You are so totally majoring in studio art and creative writing that anything quantitative may as well be Ebola. You don't want to touch it. Unless it's for a cool bio-art project.
Well, students of both oversimplified groups, you have some reevaluation to do. Both quantitative and writing skills are essential to your success. Since my home is in the humanities, let me tell you what will happen, student of the first group, in my first-year writing course. You will write papers and drafts and revisions even though you will either be indignant or dismissive when I direct you toward endless resources about topic sentences and thesis statements and common grammar usage. You will struggle. You may even resent the amount of time I suggest you spend at the on-campus Writing Center, working feverishly on those sentence fragments, while I keep telling you, in a thousand different ways, that your ability to write will be critical to your future. You may not get into medical school without a killer entrance essay, and if your organization-wide emails are rife with misspellings and malapropisms, etc., well, you may hit your own glass ceiling, without ever realizing how language is directly obstructing your progress.
4. Learn to read. Phonics. Check. Subject-verb-predicate. Check again. Your challenge won't be the simple arrangement of words into sentences, but the ability to quickly process masses of different information -- much of it staggeringly unfamiliar -- in a short amount of time. When your long-hair Philosophy professor drops Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness on your desk and says "go," the worst thing you can do is open to page one and start.
You need context, and lots of it. Time to read meta-cognitively. Google "Metacognition." You're reading for structure now. Step One: Pre-Read -- check the length, the publisher, the copyright page, the chapter titles, the sub-titles, the exercises, the study questions, the next paper assignment in your syllabus, Wikipedia, web-summaries and notes (yes, I approve!).
Learn as much as you can before you read. Then, write the assumptions you have made based upon this contextual information: What are the main points of the reading? In what ways will your professor use the text?
Time to read -- finally -- with pen or e-book-highlighting finger at the ready, and test those assumptions.
Here's an assumption to test: Even if your college would indeed provide a pillow for you, would you want one that's already lived in the dorms?
(I'll come back before the semester starts with additional suggestions, and here are some counterintuitive tips from last year. Have any of your own to share? Please comment below or email me directly at email@example.com).
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