Making the Right College Work for You

For four years of high school, dreams of college life kept me persevering through what seemed like unbearable times of teenage torment. So when I got to college, I felt a lot of pressure to make sure it was the best four years of my life. Although I made an excellent choice in Washington University in St. Louis, it was really the decisions I made once I arrived that made my college experience what I hoped it would be.

Freshman year was chaotic. I made friends in an instant, only to stop hanging out with them days later. I felt lonely without people who knew me well. But when I looked around my freshman floor, I wasn't sure what "group" I belonged to. The answer proved to be no group. So I didn't try to force a bad fit and, at the same time, tried not to panic. I wound up with an eclectic collection of interesting and fun people who didn't fit neatly into any group either.

Although I admit I sometimes forgot that education was the primary reason I was at college, I did learn that choosing my courses wisely was critical to my happiness. It was essential to check out the professors—read course evaluations, talk to former students—before committing, because it's the teacher who makes the course. I learned not to be seduced by clever course titles. If a boring prof teaches Guns, Gams, and Grass: The History of Violence, Sex, and Drugs in Pop Culture, the class will be little more than an opportunity to catch up on sleep. But if a great professor teaches History of Dirt, it's probably worth taking. A Human Evolution course that I reluctantly took to meet a science requirement proved to be an academic highlight because the professor was a compelling lecturer.

Wash U, like most colleges, offers its students hundreds of opportunities to hear speakers, to see films, plays, and art exhibitions, or to go on free or heavily discounted trips. I am glad I took advantage—from the St. Louis Art Fair to a lecture on the crisis in Rwanda to the second-largest Mardi Gras celebration in the country.

Extracurricular activities are one of the first things pushed on you when you arrive at college. Nearly everyone I know signed up for at least 10 clubs, and few kept up with more than one. Still, many did form close friendships or discovered an enduring passion. It doesn't, however, always work out smoothly. I joined the campus radio station as a DJ. After starting with a 2 a.m. Saturday show, I landed the Wednesday-at-4-p.m. slot, a time when people were actually listening. But two weeks into my new Plastic Fantastic Radio show, a student boss informed me that playing Janis Joplin revealed me as "too mainstream." I spent the next few weeks scouring stacks of indie garbage for appropriately obscure music before deciding that any radio station that failed to appreciate rock and roll was not for me.

Ultimately, it was the friendships that ensured my success at Wash U. To me, the key was finding a group that included a wide variety of tastes and temperaments. That requires being open to people with whom you might never have expected to get along. (Like, in my case, Republicans, a high-school homecoming queen, and a budding civil engineer.)

I certainly never believed I would become close friends with my freshman roommate. At first she spent all her spare time with her soccer teammates. We didn't have problems, but we barely spoke. Which was OK, because what does a big-city, East Coast girl like me have in common with a girl from the cornfields of Indiana?

To my surprise, it turned out to be quite a lot. One night, shortly after Thanksgiving break, we started sharing our high-school experiences and something clicked. From then on we were inseparable, and we remained roommates for the duration. Leaving Wash U proved a lot harder than starting there four years before.