When I went off to college in the mid 60s, I had one suitcase of clothes and toiletries, a box of bedding, a few pens and a couple of notebooks and a huge hair dryer. Now lists you’ll find on the Internet of “what to bring” include everything from a coffee maker to other “essentials” like a mini-fridge and microwave, a mattress topper, a rug, wall hangings, a TV and DVD player, video games, and a plethora of electronic devices. What? Are you packing for school or setting up a room with a miniature kitchen and endless entertainment so you won’t have to leave it for days.
Some things haven’t changed since my day: You will still need sheets, towels and a blanket. Clothes for the season to come and some basic toiletries are a good idea. School supplies like pens and paper haven’t gone entirely out of fashion. Now a computer is not really optional. But the lists that are urging you to decorate and stock your dorm room like a 4-star hotel room on steroids are missing the point. It’s not what’s in the trunk of your parents’ car when you arrive that will determine your success in school. It’s what’s in your head and your heart.
If you want to be successful in college, ignore the department store-driven “must have” lists that require lottery winnings to fulfill. Keep your boxes of belongings to a minimum and pack up the following essentials instead:
- An open mind: Whether you are going to college down the street or across the country, you will have the opportunity to meet people who are different from your high school classmates. Your professors, other students and the people on your dorm hall may challenge your values and ideas.
Stay open. An important part of college is the opportunity to expand your thinking and your ability to understand and appreciate people who come from many different cultures. One of my students told me, “Growing up in a liberal college town in the Northeast didn’t prepare me at all for my conservative roommate from the deep South. It was culture shock for us both! But she got me laughing so often that we became friends. We’ll never agree on some things but I’ve learned a lot from being around her.”
- Curiosity: Curiosity is your new very best friend. When confronted with an idea or position that is unfamiliar, ask respectful questions. Don’t settle for glib or easy answers. Really explore what is being said without defending your own point of view. You will learn more about the subject, other people and, most important, about yourself.
As a professor, I’m grateful to the students who ask hard questions and push for good answers. They show me where perhaps I haven’t been clear and they make classes more vibrant and relevant. The truth is, those curious students are also the most memorable and the most likely to get a good recommendation from teachers when the time comes to apply for grad school or jobs.
- Courage: It takes some courage to raise your hand in class. It takes some courage to say hello to people sitting around you in the auditorium and to make small talk before class begins. It takes a little more bravery to approach the person who asked a really interesting question to join you for a coffee to pursue the topic. And, yes, it takes courage to flirt with the cute person who seems to always sit near you at lunch.
Shy? Ask yourself: “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Okay, you might make a mistake. You might be rejected. Neither will kill you. Take it with a sense of humor and everyone else will let it go. You might, on the other hand, reach a new understanding of class material or make a new best friend. It’s worth the risk.
- Positive Attitude: It’s cool in some groups to be cynical and sarcastic and to always look for the cloud around the silver lining. Some people really believe that to be positive means you aren’t paying attention to the stark realities of life. But paying attention doesn’t require becoming a “Debbie Downer.” In fact, if you want to be one of those people who are making a difference, minimize the negative and emphasize the positive. Research shows that people who identify, acknowledge and create positive to negative experiences on a 3:1 ratio are happier, more successful, and better liked.
- Self-direction: The biggest challenge in college for many students is the lack of external structure. Teachers give out assignments but, especially in big classes, they aren’t going to chase you if you don’t do them. No one is going to tell you to eat right, to get some sleep or to get going on that project that is due in two weeks. It’s up to you what you do with your time and your life. It is freeing. But can also be disorienting and a bit scary. You have no one to blame or credit with how things are going except yourself.
Bill got a 3.8 his first semester. When asked how he managed it, he replied, “I figured this out pretty quick. If I went to the library between classes instead of back to my room, I got things done. By giving myself the full time “job” of doing my class work, I was always prepared and never late with assignments. Best of all, I had my evenings and weekends free to hang out and to go to concerts and events without sacrificing my grades.”
- Optional: A personality transplant: If you don’t like who you were in high school or the group you hung with, now’s your chance. No one at your new school knows who you’ve been. No one expects you to join this or that clique. No one has expectations that you fulfill the role that you always had in your group. Think carefully about how you want to present yourself in this new life.
Act “as if” it’s who you are and you may be surprised that it is who you become. “I was always shy in high school”, said one of my students. “When I came to college, I decided to be outgoing. Really. I made myself talk to people I would never have dared talk to at home. I didn’t become the life of the party but I did get less shy and I made a ton of friends.”