As a psychologist, I have counseled students at six different university counseling centers across the country, and continue to see college students in my private practice today. I listen to them question their choices, cry over breakups, worry about their grades, and shake their fists at real and imagined forces out to kill their buzz. Over the years I've noticed that certain struggles are common among college students regardless of the location or size of the school they attend. And since different kinds of students on different kinds of campuses have responded positively to the same bits of advice I've given, I decided to put them all in one place for students everywhere to access anytime. So here is my compilation of suggestions for how to make the best of your college experience, and not let it get the best of you!
Tip 1: Have Realistic Expectations
It’s good to think positively about how life in college should feel. But believing your time in college should absolutely be “the best years of your life” can be a real set-up for feeling disappointed in the moment. College is not a magic fairyland where you are protected from experiencing the normal ups and downs of life. Accept the fact that there may be times in college when you don’t feel particularly happy – perhaps due to some circumstance, or due to something you are wrestling with inside yourself. You may have some really great times, but don’t forget that everyday day life in college often feels like…everyday life. It may sound backwards, but taking the pressure off of yourself to be “having the best time” ALL the time may actually help you feel more genuine happiness from time to time.
Tip 2: Take Risks - But Be Smart About It!
College is generally a good time in life to test yourself in new ways. It’s as if you are finding your adult “legs” to stand on, which usually involves some running and jumping, and occasionally tripping and falling. Taking risks is a great way to learn things and have fun, but don’t forget to be smart and sensible. I’m not saying you need to spoil anyone’s fun, especially not your own. But doing something crazy without at least considering safety issues is pretty stupid and can create large amounts of unhappiness. At the same time, if you are afraid to take any chances and get out of your comfort zone a little bit, you could miss out on some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. So go for it! But don't forget to buckle your seatbelt.
Tip 3: Get Some Perspective
When you're in college, often your whole life happens within a very small radius. You may, for example, go from class to the residence hall to the library to the dining hall to the frat house, and soon "forget" that there's a whole big world outside of this less-than-a-mile wide bubble. It can be easy to start thinking that what's happening in the bubble is all that matters in the world, which can sometimes feel comfortable, but sometimes...not. Try getting off campus now and then, or if that's not feasible, explore some parts of campus you don't know very well. When the drama of your campus life starts to take up all the space in your head, read up on some international news, or simply take a different route to class. A little perspective can go a long way in keeping you grounded.
Tip 4: Take Ownership of Your Choices
As a college student, you will make lots of choices - your major, your classes, your activities, your friends - to name a few. Amidst all the demands on you, don't forget that you actually have some control over your life. If you're unhappy, it's possible that changing some circumstance, or even changing the college you attend, might make you happier. However, it's also possible that simply changing your attitude toward a particular circumstances can help you feel happier. Sometimes students get stuck trying to decide between 2 choices. Keep in mind that there may be a third choice you haven't considered, or you may just need a little more time or information to make a decision. Not every choice is yours to make when you are in college, but some of them are; so control what you can control, choose what you can choose, and know that sometimes you may even have the freedom to change your mind.
Tip 5: Think Before You Act (Crazy)
Sometimes college students can feel overwhelmed by their emotions. It's important to remember that thoughts, feelings, and actions are three different things. Often you have little control over how you feel or what thoughts pop into your head, but you have a great deal of control over how you act. Some thoughts or feelings that make you uncomfortable might be normal and will eventually pass. However, acting or behaving impulsively or dramatically can result in permanent consequences for yourself or other people that you may regret. So if you're having a strong emotion, slow down and think before you act. Don't deny your feelings, just be smart about how and when and where and why you express or act on them. And if some of the thoughts or feelings you have are confusing or bothersome to you, talk to a counselor or some other trusted confidant about what's up.
Tip 6: When it Seems Like No One is There for You, Be There for You
College students often spend a lot of time thinking and analyzing their relationships with other people. Don't forget to pay some attention to the most important relationship of all; that is, your relationship with yourself! How do you generally talk to yourself? Are you critical and impatient? Are you supportive and encouraging? Do you give yourself reasons to slack off and be irresponsible? When the going gets tough, it's great to be able to get help from other people, but it's also great to be able to access the wisdom you have inside yourself. There is a difference between feeling lonely and being alone. Feeling lonely usually means you feel disconnected from yourself and others, whereas being alone can feel just fine if you have healthy connections with yourself and other people. Be a good friend to other people, and be a good friend to yourself!
Tip 7: Don't Let Your Pendulum Swing Too Far
Sometimes coming to college gives you an opportunity to break out of some situation or circumstance that hampered you in high school. For example, maybe your parents were over-protective, maybe you had no social life, maybe you played it really safe. When you get to college, sometimes it's tempting to swing really far in some opposite direction of where you were in high school. Going to some extreme (like partying all the time, never spending time alone, or taking haphazard risks just because you can) often leads to unhappiness. In the push to get away from where you've been, you go too far in the other direction and wind up out of whack. Think of your tendencies and patterns and habits as things that should swing like a pendulum. You want to keep the swinging steady and manageable - near the center - or you risk taking yourself on a wild ride that you'll soon want to get off.
Tip 8: Have a "Thing" You Do and Do It
Once you immerse yourself in college life, it can be easy to feel like you've actually lost yourself in the process. You might get busy (or not busy enough) with new classes, new friends, and new activities and then wake up one day and wonder, "Where am I?" It's important to have at least one thing you do that keeps you grounded and centered - something that keeps you connected to yourself. It doesn't have to be anything fancy; maybe it's an activity, a place, a ritual, or a hobby. It could be something that relaxes you, or something that amps you up. Sometimes when you feel lost or forget who you really are, it's helpful to "lose" yourself in something familiar to find yourself again.
Tip 9: Let Technology Be a Good Friend, Not a Bad One
The widespread use of computers, laptops and mobile devices has revolutionized the way college students communicate. Email, texting, and the internet allows for information to be shared efficiently and at lightening speed. Let theses advances in communication work for you, not against you. Periodically check in with yourself about HOW you use texting, Facebook, MySpace, online games, blogs, etc. Are you letting these things be your friends or your foes? Are you spending so much time on them that you are slacking off on your responsibilities? Are you being reckless with what you share about yourself online? Are you missing out on life that's happening away from the screen in front of you? Ultimately it's best to use technology in ways that enhance your life and your relationships with other people.
Tip 10: Take Advantage of Campus Services and Resources
College campuses today have a myriad of offices and centers and advisors available for students, and often students are completely oblivious that these things even exist for them. For example, your tuition is probably paying for things like a Fitness Center, Career Center, Counseling Center, and a Health Center. You also probably have a Student Activities Office, Student Affairs Office, Office of Residential Life, and any number of academic advisors, tutors, student group leaders, campus ministry staff, and administrators of all sorts who would be happy to talk with you. College is one of the few times in life when you'll be surrounded by so many resources and services just short walk away. Utilize who and what is there for you!
About the Author: Laurel Lippert Fox, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist currently in private practice in the Los Angeles area. She has counseled students at the University of Denver, The University of Texas at Austin, Southwestern University, Loyola Marymount University, and the University of California - Los Angeles. Laurel was a Resident Assistant and a Residence Hall Coordinator during her undergraduate years at Northwestern University. She is also a former adjunct faculty member in Pepperdine University's Graduate School of Education and Psychology. Laurel is available for workshops, seminars, and speaking engagements. You may contact Laurel by calling 323.252.3081 or emailing Laurel@ LAshrink.com
Please visit www.LAshrink.com for more information.