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One truth about life at a large university that I feel isn’t admitted often enough is just how hard your first semester there can be. Everyone seems to realize that their first year of college at a big school will be their most challenging – after all, they’re in a gigantic new place with new people and have completely different expectations thrust upon them than they had in high school – but for some reason, a lot of first-year students (my former self included) don’t anticipate the frustration, loneliness, and general terror that can accompany their first year. So here are five lessons I wish I had up my sleeve in my first semester at my large university.

1. You are entitled to nothing

Okay, this is a blunt way to begin, but this is the piece of advice I really wish someone would have driven home for me before I started my first year of college. Every high school student has heard the platitude a million times: “in college, you’re not the big fish in a small pond anymore.” But I think that advice is a bit oversimplified, which is why I (and so many other students) ignored it when I was a first-year.

I thought “well, if anyone is going to have a rough time in their first year of college, it’s not going to be me. I mean, I write for a college advice website. I’ve got this” – not because I had off-the-charts confidence, but because it simply made sense to me at the time. I had gotten accepted to top-ten schools, so I should have no problem hacking it at my state school. Sure, I may not be president of every club, but I’ll at least get into every club, right? Wrong. Very, very wrong. In hindsight, I realize how full of myself I was, and how that cycle of thought led to a very difficult first semester for me – as well as anyone who shared my line of thinking.

A lot of college students are in for a bit of a shock their first semester when they discover how competitive collegiate extracurricular activities can be. It’s terrifying to learn that those a cappella groups you wrote about in your “Why Brown?” or “Why Duke?” essay only take two new members a semester. Or the literary and debating team that made your nerdy heart sing also happens to be the most elite organization your school offers. So many first-years get excited for being in a thousand and one clubs off the bat, and are stunned when they get into only one – or maybe none at all. I’m not saying this to scare you – it’s just that when you’re cut off from some of the very reasons you chose a college in the first place, it’s easy to feel a bit betrayed. It was really hard for me to see my friends at smaller colleges getting really involved their first semester, while I was sitting alone in my dorm room with rejection emails from every club I tried out for.

Because here’s the thing: playing Romeo twice in high school doesn’t even guarantee you’ll get to play Benvolio in college and starting all four years for your high school’s field hockey team doesn’t even qualify you to be the water girl for your college’s club team. It’s important to realize early that your high school résumé isn’t going to fling open doors for you like it once did, and that as a first-year, you’re starting from the bottom. This is why it is so, so vital that you learn to develop your sense self worth outside of your success in classes and extracurricular activities. You are not what you do – you are yourself, and if you’re not hitting your first semester completely out of the park, you’re not a failure. Everyone in your shoes is struggling too, whether they decide to admit it or not.

2. You can’t always afford to be picky

Because it can be difficult to get auditors, directors, and coaches to take a chance on you as a new student, you can’t limit yourself to auditioning for the very best improv groups, literary journal staffs, and debate teams. Instead, you have to keep an open mind and spread a wide net. Try out for absolutely anything that seems even remotely up your alley, no matter how non-prestigious it is. While it would be fantastic to only try out for projects you’re enamored with, it’s just not a wise practice when you’re desperate for a résumé boost, an outlet for your passion, or for a circle of friends. Believe me when I say that you’d rather be dancing in the ensemble of Oklahoma! than sitting alone in your dorm watching yet another rerun of Friends.

I realize it sounds cynical to say “learn to content yourself with less” and I’m definitely not saying that you should sacrifice any of your high ambitions – just recognize that as a first-year student at a large school, you’re going to have to work a lot harder to make a name for yourself. For example, I auditioned for a drama department show this semester and didn’t get cast at all; instead, the part I was called back for went to a grad student. Before this year, the thought of not being cast in a show would have destroyed me, but here’s the deal: I appreciated that callback at my large university more than if I had actually gotten the part in a less competitive environment. I promise, success – even just a little taste of it – is so much sweeter when you know the competition is fierce and that you truly worked hard for it.

3. You have to create your own opportunities

In a large university, you’re definitely not coddled. No one will take you under their wing unless you explicitly ask for it, so if you need anything – tutoring, paper editing, career advice, life advice, or anything else – you need to reach out and grab it for yourself. No professor is going to approach you and ask if you’re interested in assisting her research, no choir director is going to lavish praise on you the first time you audition for him, and no professor is going to even know your name unless you attend her office hours. Now, college certainly isn’t “the real world,” but one way in which a large university mimics the real world is that, within it, you have to create your own opportunities, create your own connections, and stay hungry. When you’re trying to make a name for yourself at a big school, you have to be ready to put shyness aside and put yourself out there if you want to get involved.

4. You have to fail

As for failure, you want to experience as many rude awakenings as possible during the safety net that is your college career so that you’re not experiencing them in the months and years following graduation. You want to be made aware of your weaknesses – as a student, a performer, an artist, or an athlete – early on, so that you have four whole years to turn them into your strengths. Otherwise, you would graduate realizing that you were never properly pushed to develop more and better skills in whatever field you fancy. I understand how terrifying it is to realize in your first semester that you’re going to have to hold yourself to a higher standard in a lot of what you do, and that you’re going to have to work harder to get involved in your university community, but you’ll seriously grow to appreciate it.

So get out there, make some opportunities for yourself, and fail. Fail gloriously, and thank yourself for it later.

5. Make connections and be kind to everyone. Yes, that means everyone.

Before college, I used to cringe whenever I heard the word “connections” – my mind always turned to a creepy image of “Wolf of Wall Street”-type investment banker wannabes buying drinks for their superiors in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge attempt at climbing the business ladder. But after just a year at my large public university, I’ve realized that connections – really nothing more than a solid group of acquaintances – can make your collegiate experience much more pleasant and comfortable for you. College life is so much easier when you have the contact info of people who can help you along the way – a friend who’s a fabulous paper editor, a classmate who’s already gone through that really great biology internship you’re interested in, or an acquaintance who’s in that a cappella group you want to join. All of these people can throw a little advice and assistance your way, so that way you’re not wandering blind.

I realize all this sounds potentially manipulative, so let me clarify: I’m not suggesting that you shmooze your way through college by bribing people into being your friends and helping you get into better jobs or extracurricular activities. That’s just gross. What I am suggesting is that you be genuine. Be your fabulous, friendly, whip-smart self and introduce yourself to new people whenever you can. Organize a study group for your American literature class, bring cupcakes to your seminar on the French Revolution (after clearing it with your professor) – whatever you can do to create a friendlier, more comfortable environment for yourself at college, while at the same time, brightening other peoples’ days! Really try to get to know your fellow students and treat them well, because you never know how they might be able to have your back in the future, or how you might be able to have theirs in return.

And if you think you can get away with treating people badly because you go to a big university, you are completely and utterly wrong. You’ll be amazed at how often you run into random people from elective classes you took last semester, old TA’s, former roommates, and anyone else potentially unpleasant, even at a school with a population of 30,000 students. I promise that you cannot avoid anyone successfully in college, no matter how big your school is, so be nice. Be wary of burning bridges that don’t need to be burned and try – really, really try – to be civil to people who drive you up the wall. You never know when you might see them again, and you cannot risk developing a reputation for being a total jerk, even at a large school.

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the author

Elizabeth Watson (just call her Beth) is a senior at an itty-bitty private Catholic high school in Virginia. In addition to writing for The Prospect, she writes and performs sketch comedy with her improv troupe, rehearses like mad for school theatre productions, suits up for forensics competitions, and writes poetry for her school’s literary magazine. A brief rundown of Beth’s favorite people and things ever to exist in no particular order: hole-in-the-wall bookshops, sweaters, Jane Eyre, peppermint tea (in a Troy and Abed mug, of course), Broadway musicals, British period dramas, Neil Patrick Harris, and Hugh Jackman. Beth’s long-term goal in life to is to become Julie Andrews, but for now she’s focusing on surviving the final stretch of high school and getting into college–hopefully as an English major

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