Everybody always talks about how great college is. They never say anything bad. But if you go in with the wrong attitude, or worse, go to the wrong university, life can be miserable. There are few shames greater than graduating late, but it’s a trap many people fall into. But there’s hope: Thanks to economic turmoil, drastic austerity measures and increased fees, fewer and fewer people are attending college. This means that a college degree is more valuable than it’s been in years; and if you have the means and will, getting through on time can be easy. All you have to do is follow these simple steps:
1. Push Yourself
Senior year of High School is often a mess. Your mind’s all over the place; there’s the secret fear of not getting into any universities, the equally common but less mundane fear of graduating a virgin. You have a job and your boss is creepy, and you expect to be fired any day. There’s the awkward position of feeling irrelevant in your own social circle, of being there but not really having anything to offer. This problem is only compounded if you’re the competitive type, and any move you make could hurt your academic position.
So you’ve made it to University orientation, and you’re picking classes. You choose a handful of core classes and maybe a major course on the fly. Take mine for example: Geology, Statistics, Critical Thinking, First Year English, and, hell, a Film Focus on Hitchcock. The attending administrator told you not to take more than twelve units this first semester, but Hitchcock’s just an extra two units and it’s on Saturday, so who cares?
The twist: You are right, and the administrator is wrong.
In the semester system, fifteen units– normally five classes– constitutes a full load for the semester. The administrator doesn’t want to start you off on more then twelve because she thinks it will be too much for you, and having been through so much shit this past year, you’re inclined to agree. After all, you’ll just make it up in the summer!
But you are a human being and don’t really work like that. If you start out taking fifteen units, it won’t seem any more difficult than twelve, but if you start with twelve and move up, it will be unbearable. Challenging yourself like that is necessary. You say you’ll make up the lost time in the summer, but what if you need that time to repeat a class you failed? And what if you can’t go in the summer? You can’t put these considerations off because you’ll fall further and further behind. I know it’s tough, but everybody else seems to be doing it and it’s not the high-jump. Consider the fact that some people are taking eighteen units a semester and acing every one.
2. Ask for Help
College classes can often be such a bore, you’re happy just to get out. I wasn’t doing great in Second Year English and my professor knew it. It was a morning class, so every time it was over, I got into that classic Mike Birbiglia situation:
“Maybe I should go ask him to clarify this stuff– or maybe I should get lunch.”
I’d regressed. Way back in freshman year of high school I learned that focusing on lunch= bad grades. We are human beings; our need for food always trumps our need to comprehend James Weldon Johnsons Diary of an Ex-Colored Man. So eat a good breakfast and ask for help.
3. Don’t Fool Yourself
At some point in High School, I convinced myself I could understand French. My Spanish at this point was competent, despite my performance in class, and because of the similarity I could easily read the online bulletins posted by Ramona girls online. Unfortunately, this didn’t translate into real French at SF State– the professor was Parisian, and spoke far faster than I could comprehend. My final performance was dreadful; so a year later I took Spanish and did great.
Don’t get me wrong, expanding your mind is great, but when it’s a core class, and it’s worth five semester units, better play it safe.
4. Take Every Class Seriously
There was no reason for me to take Dean Suzuki’s Origins of Rock class except that I thought I’d enjoy it and there weren’t any core or major classes available to me. For a while, it was the perfect blowoff class. You could sit in a huge, empty wood-paneled auditorium, listen to old music, and the guy’s enthusiasm was terrific– clearly this was his dream class. And it was the perfect morning class: no pressure, but there’s a sense you’re getting things done.
Then came the final.
“Okay, Berry Gordy, Hitsville USA, Stax/Volt, what am I forgetting? Why did I take this class!?”
It was not a blowoff class.
5. Get Out of the Dorms
There are few places as depressing as college dorms. When you signed up for them, you were anticipating something along the lines of Lowell House, a leatherbound palace to sit around the fire and discuss Apartheid. Instead, it’s a cold, faceless building where every drug addict is having sex and yet you are sitting alone watching The Venture Bros. and eating pumpkin pie with your combative roommate. Which is okay on its own, but unacceptable under these circumstances.
Though it’s tempting to think of a dorm as a proto-home, it’s a mistake to consider it anything other than a place to sleep. In high school, one’s time alone was restricted to empty classrooms, libraries, and secret club hangouts cannibalized from a teacher’s office. If you must have some free time during the day, it is best spent out in the open. You’ll meet people and you might even get some work done.
6. Get Involved
Extracurricular activities can be intimidating for the typical student– especially state schools where each activity seems tinged with liberal agitation. That kind of thinking has a ripple effect. For example, once at SF State I was watching some hippies occupy a block of classrooms, on the eve of finals week no less! I wandered over, sensing that I could at least get some footage out of it, when I noticed a cute girl leading the counter-protest, the head of the SF State College Republicans. As she explained the rather nefarious goals of the leading occupiers (namely that they were masking their poor academic performance), I took an interest in joining her cause, but she refused to give me any information on the suspicion that I was a Democratic spy sent to “get her.”
The lesson you might get from this is not to go to SF State, and that would be correct, but one also shouldn’t get into these kinds of political fights. A simple club organized around your major and a nice quiet religious organization should be acceptable. You should also join any honors society willing to have you. Personally, I had a great time taking part in comedy and storytelling on campus, so being in a club isn’t the only way to get involved.
I was also disappointed to discover that Cal State LA does not have a Hillel. Get on it, guys.
7. Prepare for the Education You Have, Not the One You Want
Everybody wants to go to Harvard when they’re ten, but that isn’t the reality. There are some places you simply shouldn’t go to, but wherever you end up, you have to adapt, and if you aren’t happy with the way things are, you can try to change things from the inside. But you have to start with yourself. If all you do is focus on everything around you, it will only end up hurting you and your grades.
That is all.