Ah, academia. As someone who has spent almost my entire adult life as a student, I understand it presents thrills along with its fair share of spills. When I first started college, I imagined leisurely strolling through ivy-clad buildings while sipping coffee from my university mug discussing existential philosophy. The reality involved a lot more panic, stress, and subsisting on sad desk lunches while trying to crank out papers at 2 a.m.
But you can get through it and succeed! And maybe even craft moments of leisure and fascinating discourse if you play your cards right. Below I’ll share some hard-won insights on how to make your academic journey, while still challenge, more smooth sailing than sinking ship.
First, know it’s okay not to have it all together. Despite what your batch of overachieving peers may showcase or what images of scholarly perfection you have seen portrayed in media, no one has it all figured out. I for one used to look put together on the outside—clad in hipster scholar garb while waving around my hefty textbooks—but on the inside I constantly grappled with imposter syndrome and anxiety over whether I really belonged at such a prestigious institution. I’ve since learned nearly everyone wore a mask to some degree as they navigated new waters educationally and developmentally.
Which leads me to my second point—make plenty of room for self-care! Between classes, activities, internships and possibly even a job, your university years pack a heavy schedule. Don’t overlook your wellbeing amongst the hustle. Whether it’s hitting an exercise class, calling your parent or friend back home, grabbing coffee with your roommate, getting lost in a favorite novel, or just relaxing with some nice tunes, be intentional about taking mental health breaks. I wish I had done better with this instead of running myself ragged junior year and ending up with near burnout and a nasty cold that took weeks from which to recover.
Speaking of recovery, know that you can bounce back from pretty much anything academically—a bad test score, difficult semester, even occasionally skipping class (though I don’t necessarily recommend making a habit of that last one—yikes). But beating yourself up accomplishes little. Assess what went awry, develop a plan to improve, then move forward. I earned a deeply humbling D+ on my first college calculus exam. After wallowing briefly in despair and self-pity, I met with my professor, asked for help from a TA, doubled down on practice problems, and kept pushing. I ended up passing the class and surviving to thrive another day academically, albeit still traumatized by integrals.
But know when and how to ask for help, which leads me to my fourth point. College provides you resources—use them! Meet with your advisor to clarify program requirements or talk through academic goals. Attend professors’ office hours to gain clarification or simply make those influential connections. Get tutoring if you struggle with a subject. Universities want students to succeed, so take advantage of the support available rather than convincing yourself you must solve every problem solo. I learned this lesson late in college but ended up forging great mentor relationships and unlocking academic insights through one-on-one meetings I previously avoided due to pride or shyness.
Which brings me to my final point—step outside your comfort zone. While academics provide structure, don’t let them box you in. Join an intriguing club, volunteer for a cause you care about, attend campus events that pique your interest, talk to peers outside your discipline. This expands your perspectives, stands out on resumes, enables you to unwind and meet great people. Some of my most impactful college experiences stemmed from philosophizing over coffee at one am in my dorm lounge, rallying for social justice causes with inspiring classmates from diverse backgrounds, or attending obscure film screenings simply due to intrigue even if unrelated to my major.
The college years brim with challenge and change, but also connection and self-discovery. With determined resilience, self-care, resourcefulness and a splash of daring, you will not only survive but truly thrive on this winding journey of insight and achievement. Expect peaks and pitfalls, but enjoy the view along the way. You’ve got this! Just don’t skip leg day—especially if your campus has a lot of hills. Trust me on that one.