In another life, I was a counselor for a group of teenage boys at a summer camp. I spent four magical summers with the same eight or so blessings and had the pleasure of watching their development from raging adolescents to (semi-)real human beings. This past fall, they matriculated into their respective freshman classes, and so I shared with them some of the wisdom I had managed to acquire in my four years as an undergraduate. The following is a version of that letter.
It has been some time since I last wrote to you. Some of you I have not seen or spoken to since then. Regardless of how much or little we have kept in contact, I want to begin by letting you know that I still think about you frequently, and I hope our time apart has been as good to you as it has been to me. Now that you have all graduated and are leaving your precious childhood homes, I felt compelled to share with you some of the knowledge and experience I was fortunate enough to accumulate during my tenure as a college man. Most of this wisdom is advice you have already heard in one form or another, but because I know what sort of attention spans you have (huh?), I will tell you again simply and directly here. The following is an account of the things I wish someone had told me prior to going to college.
I confess that I have been drafting this letter in my head for some time now. It isn’t an easy letter to begin, because you guys have absolutely no idea how radically your lives are about to be forever altered. Everything that you know and everything that you think that you know about yourselves and your world is going to be challenged, time and time again, over the next four years. Within a month, you will all be different people, and by the end of the year, some of you will hardly recognize the peers you once claimed as your buddies from high school.
That is the point. College is a time to expose you to as many new worlds and ideas as you have the fortitude to conquer. You are in college to learn. Note well: learning takes many forms, and I will go so far as to say 75% of the learning you are going to do will take place outside of the classroom environment.
To begin, congratulations on getting into a college. Perhaps you were admitted early decision. Perhaps you were rejected outright from everywhere you wanted to go, and were forced to hop on that safety school acceptance like the last drunk girl at a party, because, well, it’s not like you aren’t going to go to college/ suck face with some fatty. Regardless, let me tell you: NONE OF THAT MATTERS ANYMORE. It does not matter where your school is ranked by any website or guidebook. It does not matter whether you graduated first or last in your high school class. It does not matter how cool you were, how many girls you slept with (or didn’t), or whether you used to be that fat kid who pooped his pants in gym class while he was getting pummeled by dodge balls. No one cares. The only thing that matters from day one out is what you do with your time. You have four years that will pass by like a dream; a drunken, marijuana-laced daze of a dream, because you will spend most of your time with your head buried in books/beers and fail to realize that your life, your college experience, is happening.
Freshman orientation week will be the craziest 1-3 weeks of your life. Every single little boy and girl in America who just graduated from high school and decided to go to college is suddenly going to have access to booze, girls, and drugs within arm’s reach, and there won’t be a single parent around to care. Every one of you will show up eager to impress, find the coolest friends, hook up with the hottest girl. There is a great potential to be overwhelmed here. The friends you make during this period will be friends of circumstance and convenience, and probably will not end of being the people you are hanging out with three years from now. Every Tony Jabroni on the block is going to be going into day one with the same mindset as you (“LET’S FUCK SHIT UP!”), and will be hopping on any opportunity to publically impress by whatever means necessary. Play it cool. There will be a lot of opportunities to look like an asshole. People will always be able to tell when you are putting on an act to impress them. True- no one has any idea who you are and so you now have the once (twice?) in a lifetime opportunity to reinvent yourself, but no one will be dumb enough to buy into whatever persona you try to fake. Think of today as chance to wipe your slate clean, not to create a new slate (that will come with time, and much deliberate effort). Be yourself for yourself, and the guys and girls that are interested in you for you will be drawn to you naturally.
One of the greatest parts about summer camp is it affords little kids the privilege of running around like schmucks in the woods to discover what they love in both the world and themselves. College is the same way. There are countless ways to LIVE college and no two of you will have the same experience. If there is anything you have ever had a modicum of interest in, look into it. I liked music, so I ended up hosting a radio show, starting a band (“ALL BICEPS”- we played two epic shows), and becoming a director of an a capella group. Go to the student activity fair and check out a few booths. Sign up for as many email lists you may or may not care about next weekend, because most don’t expect you to come anyway so who really cares if you don’t ever show up. Take chances, find out what gets you excited, and throw yourself into it like nothing else matters. Most kids you go to school with won’t have the confidence you guys gained at camp from learning to take chances, and this difference gives you a huge advantage. Take on leadership roles. In my experience, it is more meaningful to become significantly invested in a few activities than it is to become marginally invested in many activities.
Unless you have a truly undying passion for a particular subject matter, I suggest you do not jump straight into your major, but take the first few semesters to shop around and learn what you enjoy learning about. I went into college declared a Computer Science major, didn’t take a single class, and came out with Bachelor’s degrees in Neuroscience and English. My path was not linear and I am all the better for it. Don’t take classes for easy A’s unless you really need them because you won’t get anything out of them. Make sure your grades are good enough that your parents are happy to continue investing in your education (you are, after all, investments), but don’t be that guy who wanders into the library during first semester and doesn’t emerge until Commencement Day. This idea may come as a surprise to you, but there are actually people in this world who only go to college to take class. Never forget that every night you spend in the library is a night that you could have been out LIVING with your boys. So study your ass off during the day. Get up in the morning, kill your hangover with a quick lift, then get a coffee and go study. People will begin to assume that you are just naturally way smarter than everyone else when they see you going out all the time and making dean’s list.
In a word, the key to success in college is prioritizing. There will always be at least a dozen things that will be vying for your attention at any given moment. There will always be girls to be chased, bros to go drinking, and Star Fox 64. There will ALWAYS be coursework you should be doing. The choices you make, consciously or not, will make you or break you. “Social norming” is a big ole’ psychology word that refers to the gradual decent you are about to take into a world where you will find it normal to wake up in a stranger’s bed, stumble to class still drunk, and then resume drinking immediately after studying your ass off at the library 3-5 days of the week, applying sleep only as needed.
The danger arises from the influences you surround yourself with. You may find that you and your friends are now blazing or putting things up your nose multiple times a day. Perspective is key here. Think of it this way: “binge drinking” is a medical term that refers to drinking five or more drinks in one sitting (four if you are female). I’m sure you guys would have a hard time thinking of a night you drank beer where you didn’t “binge drink.” However, if you went out to dinner with our your friend and his parents, and your buddy’s mom knocked back five wine coolers before you could polish off your ribeye, you’d be like…what the fuck? Things that once seemed dangerous and downright insane to you are going to very quickly become normal when everyone around you is doing them. Be careful if you start hanging around dudes whose extracurricular activities include regular drug usage. Hard drugs should not be taken lightly. If you are confused, hard drugs are anything that aren’t pot or beer (not that these don’t also have a high potential for abuse). If you decide to experiment with anything heavier, you cannot blackout. You know how when you drink too much beer and you black out, it’s like, bad for you? It’s unforgivably worse when the substance isn’t beer and you have too much of it. If you decide to participate, you MUST be able to maintain an honest enough grasp on reality that you will know if you are starting to go too hard. Girls, grades, fun, and sleep. You can’t have them all, all the time. You will learn to prioritize or college will break you.
I am certain many of you have thought about rushing a fraternity if not already decided what house you will be pledging. Two disclaimers on my thoughts: I went into college being very anti-Greek life, and I emerged as the president of my fraternity. I had a truly wonderful Greek experience that is an absolutely essential part of the man I am today. However, I can only speak for my experience, which is not necessarily typical of the experience you might have. There are a lot of wonderful things about Greek life. There are just as many terrible things about Greek life. People who build their identities around which house they are in and what sororities they are mixing with and the image they are projecting to the incoming rush class are not joining for the right reasons. If you find a house that seems like they only throw sick parties and get bitches and smoke fools/ crack on the b-ball court, there will be a price to that lifestyle (reference: the previous two paragraphs). The only reason you should ever join a fraternity is for you. Do not join a fraternity because you think that it will make you cooler. Join a fraternity because you can’t imagine spending four years at school without one. Check out a few parties, go to the rush week BBQs, and shake as many hands as you can. If you find a house where it seems like the guys not only want to be friends with you, but you want to be friends with them, then you’ve found the right house. Greek life is a more integral component of some campus experiences than others. I promise you that you will be able to find your niche somewhere, and it doesn’t have to be in a fraternity basement.
As I know the only reason you have read this far is in hope of some advice on how to score some tail, I will share what I have learned about girls. I am going to speak in generalities here, and not everything I say is going to apply equally to every individual. No two girls are the same, and anyone who tells you that any one approach will work on all of them is lying. There will never, ever be another period of your life where you have the number of opportunities to score on a daily basis as you do in college. Over these four years, getting girls is really only a question of whether or not you are man enough to put yourself in a position to take chances and be judged. Rejection is your friend. The sooner you realize that the better. Fuck the acts, the gimmicks, the lines: if you have the confidence to talk to a girl as yourself, she will be instantly attracted to you if you have any chemistry, or she will get the hell out of there because she finds your antics off-putting. Be polarizing! There is no single guy on this planet that all girls will find attractive, but in general the more attractive guys are the ones that are willing to stand up and be themselves. When you learn to speak to girls openly and honestly about the things that YOU want to talk about, you will naturally screen for the ones who you share interests with, and you scare away the ones with whom you do not. Once you truly learn to stop giving a fuck whether or not the Kappa you are hitting on thinks you are good enough for her and instead start worrying about whether or not she is good enough for you, then and only then do you become desirable. Learn to tell which girls are more concerned with what their friends think of you than what they think themselves. I would suggest avoiding these types, but if you must have them, you must win over their friends (reference: that Spice Girls song). Regardless, the question is always: what are you offering her that Johnny Fratpants down the hall isn’t?
Different girls will respond to different sorts of approaches. How and where you approach girls will determine how they respond to you. The game you spit at a sorority mixer is not going to be appropriate for the library queen in your study group. One thing I have found to be certain: don’t pick up girls by trying to act like a douche. Most girls will see you for the asshole you are, and the ones who don’t aren’t the ones you want. Figure out what your interests are (NB: interests includes going out with your boys), and then figure out where girls who share that interests are hanging out. If you like drinking beer and getting rowdy, fraternity basements and club sports are you friends. If you prefer singing /dancing/ Japanese, join a club and make friends with the girls there. The girls there already know that you share interests, and they will be more comfortable around you after you have interacted in a sober setting. Every club will get together and host some degree of social event, and even girls who aren’t big drinkers will come down once in a while to these to unwind from all the hours they’ve been putting in at the library and have a little fun.
Tread carefully if you are going to attempt to sleep with girls in the same friend group/ sorority. Girls gossip all the time and you do NOT want to fashion a reputation for yourself as “one of those guys” early on. Worse, do not get to the point where you are only going out at night with the purpose of hooking up. I made both of these mistakes, and as a result, had a lot of meaningless, drunken sex with the wrong people. The point of having sex is not to get near-blackout and find someone you hardly remember (not that there isn’t ever a time for this); the point of sex is to enjoy the act of sex itself, and the body and essence of the person you are sharing it with. Don’t get to the point where you are only interacting with girls drunk, because at that point, you are already an asshole, and it may be too late for you. College is great time to experiment with both dating and being single. I recommend you try both.
Whatever you do: come to terms with the reality that you are graduating before Commencement Day.
If you play your cards right, college will be one hell of a ride that will get better with each of the four falls that you return to campus. Some (extroverts) will have an easier time with this transition than others. If you really think you have reached a point of irreconcilability with your school, transfer before the start of Sophomore year. Any later and you will be missing out. If you aren’t having the time of your life, you probably aren’t at the right place. Get your grades together and get the fuck out of there. I was deferred, waitlisted, and rejected from my top three schools and never saw myself ending up where I did, but I am grateful every day that things played out at as they did. I had an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life, and I would not trade it for anything.
It is entirely up to YOU what you do with the four years of college you are fortunate enough to be blessed with, and only YOU get to decide what to make of yourself during this period. At the end of the day, you have no one to blame, or to thank, but yourself.
I wish you more than luck.