09/09/2014 04:39 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

10 Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Left for College

Leaving for college is almost always a world-rocking experience for those who go away to school. The other day, after reading this list of 25 things a mom wishes she had taught her daughter before she left for home, I began thinking about all of the things I wish I'd known prior to heading off for college.

Our lists are different. I've always known cellphones are not conducive to conversation at a dinner table. (I'm guessing you know that, too.) Also, as far as I'm concerned, you don't need to do laundry once a week. And, lest you feel guilty for re-wearing your favorite jeans, keep in mind that some people recommend that you never wash your jeans.

That said, here are ten things I do wish I'd known before I left for college. I encourage you to start practicing these skills now. Just like in test prep, the more you practice something, the better you'll become at it. And, the sooner you begin, the sooner you'll see positive results.

1. People want to be your friend. Having the right pair of jeans (and keeping them clean) has little to do with being alone. On the other hand, my number of friends has increased as I've continued to be the kind of warm, funny, interesting, and interested person that we all like to be friends with and as I've recognized that people want to be friends with me for having those very qualities. Recognizing that people want to be friends with you makes the next item a lot easier.

2. Invite people to do things. ...including the people you wouldn't usually invite to do things. That's how friendships begin. Don't wait for others to invite you somewhere. They may not have read this list.

3. Friendships take time to build. You can still be friendly even if you don't feel totally secure in a friendship. See how the relationship unfolds.

4. You aren't alone in feeling lonely. Most people feel alone, to some extent, even though it doesn't look like it from the outside.

5. How to use a needle and thread. Mending holes. Adding buttons. I can do these things badly. I wish I could do them well.

6. How to iron. Every time I visit home, I ask my mom to teach me how. Unfortunately, ironing a few shirts every six months does not a habit make.

7. When you get oil on a shirt, baking soda or baby powder will soak it up, and may save you from an oil stain. Hooray!

8. Never let your lack of an electric mixer stop you from baking. For the first two years of college, I didn't attempt to bake my mom's secret-recipe banana bread because I didn't have an electric mixer. In the fall of my junior year, I threw caution to the wind and made a couple loaves with only a fork, measuring cups and spoons, and a mixing bowl. Much to my surprise, I discovered banana bread tastes even better when the batter is hand-stirred.

9. After high school, no one will know (or care) if you were voted best smile, most likely to succeed, or best sense of humor. But, foster these qualities because they pay off in dividends, and it feels good to smile, set yourself up for success, and laugh.

10. How to manage time, anxiety, and attention. Seriously. I wish I'd known certain mindfulness-cultivating techniques and experienced the benefit they would have on my life. Often, when I tell people about my work, they say, "Wow, I wish you'd been around when I was in high school." You know what I reply? "I do, too."

Even though high-school-me looked successful from the outside, I felt fearful on the inside. I would have loved to have someone like test-prep-coach-me around to guide me in the test prep process.

The truth is, much of what I teach has been cultivated out of necessity and out of observing life--with all its moments of joy, suffering, and compassion--in order to give students a sense of confidence that I didn't have when I was in high school. Confidence translates to efficacy: efficacy at handling stress, jitters, and distractions. It fosters a sense of purpose, curiosity, and engagement. It makes life better.

Like many things in life, you have to experience confidence to know it. You can wait for life to be your teacher, or you can take advantage of the teachers already in front of you.

I'm curious:
--What are the things you wish you'd known five years ago?
--What learning opportunities can you take advantage of right now?

Let me know your answers in the comments section!


Erika Oppenheimer is an SAT and ACT test prep coach. She works with students from across the country on a mindful approach to test prep.

For a limited time, Erika is offering students free introductory SAT and ACT coaching sessions. Find out more at