Everything you think you know about college is wrong. Or if not wrong, at least not entirely right.

If you haven’t experienced college yourself, everything you know about college must have come from other people. It doesn’t matter who these other people are – they can be movies or newspapers or campus tours or your sketchy neighbor down the street – they’re creating expectations for college that may not match your own experiences.

So before you get too worried (or excited) about what you think you know, maybe take a minute to disregard it entirely.

The Truth and Lies of Stereotypes

We all know the stereotypical college experience: four years of learning and discovery and too much alcohol, surrounded by sprawling quads and crawling ivy (with perhaps a healthy dose of frats and football thrown in). It’s the scene Animal House laid out nearly forty years ago, and it perseveres today.

Stereotypes work (and are so pervasive) because at some level, they’re based on truth. Millions of students attend large state schools with strong football programs and active Greek Life – so these elements become hallmarks of the typical college experience. But at the same time, there’s a huge variety of colleges out there, and many have neither football programs nor Greek Life.

When people talk about colleges, it’s easy to fall back on this stereotype. You can play it for laughs or use it to write hand-wringing college think pieces. And while many people have these sorts of stereotypical experiences, they’re by no means the only ones. Real life is so much more complex than any stereotype.

In other words, stereotypes are sometimes true. They’re also sometimes false. Don’t worry about them.

Ditch the Labels

Disregard institution-specific stereotypes as well. If you go to a party school, a lot of people may party – but not everyone will. If you go to an academically rigorous school, a lot of people will study hard – but not everyone will. You can find all sorts of people anywhere you go. Colleges contain multitudes; it’s just a matter of finding them. (Which, to be fair, is easier said than done. But as always, we have you covered.)

I’m not saying you shouldn’t research the schools you’re applying to (that is most definitely a good idea), but I am saying you should keep an open mind. Especially if you find yourself reluctantly attending your safety school, or disliking your current school enough to consider a transfer, it can be helpful to remember that your experience does not have to be the experience you see everyone else having.

Earn Your Experience

Quite simply, college is what you make of it. We’re not consumers of a prepackaged college experience; rather, we’re the authors of our own fate. If you’re worried about some element of the college experience, chances are, you can work to change it. Maybe that means finding the right friends, or starting a club, or working in student government. Here the advice of Mahatma Ghandi, however cliche, holds true: you should be the change you wish to see in the world.

Over 20 million Americans are attending degree-granting institutions in the United States. 20 million students with 20 million experiences. Even if you talked to every one, you wouldn’t know for sure how your own college experience would go. Forget what you think you know. Go out and experience it for yourself.

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