After five and a half years of higher education, I’m finally set to graduate this upcoming fall. The thought of being projectile vomited into the world after relying on school to structure your world is a daunting thought for anyone, I’m sure. For me, it’s especially intimidating; the route I’ve taken towards my diploma has been longer than that most people option for. What happens when that official piece of paper is actually in my hands? Can it get retroactively rebuked once the college decides that taking Precalculus three times before passing invalidates my rights to call myself an educated adult in this world? Either way, now is the prime time for reflection, to look back on this journey I’ve taken—like many before me have and will continue to—and ask just what I’ve gotten out of my experience. Here are five lessons I’ve learned throughout the course of my undergraduate education.
1. Setting low expectations for yourself actually works out better in the end. In most cases, you’ll do much better than you initially planned on doing. You know how you’ll hear classmates freaking out over that test you just took or that test you’re about to take? “Oh my God, I’m going to fail!” should be the universal epithet of college students. I’m guilty of it myself. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve thoroughly convinced myself I failed an exam or handed in a sub-par essay with no fluidity between topics. Just a few weeks ago, I had an appointment with my therapist after taking my second Microeconomics exam of the semester. I scrunched up my face and ugly cried to her, “I failed my test! I’m going to fail Microeconomics and won’t be able to graduate in the fall!” A week later, I got back a 77 on my test. While it’s not the best grade I’ve ever received, I’ll take it (I care about the subject less than a vegan cares about being ripped off for overpriced kale salad at Whole Foods). This mindset isn’t just one of my weird neuroses, though. It’s literally how every college student I’ve ever come into contact with thinks. Seriously, what obese man sat on our shared educational morale and deflated it like a cheap plastic whoopee cushion? We stress for nothing most of the time and degrade our own intellectual capacities in the process. Although every once in a while I’m apt to believe my peers, like the girl who sat next to me all semester in Microeconomics and dressed up virtual dolls on her iPad instead of taking notes.
Ultimately, here’s my take on things: study as much as you can before you get bored. Boredom studying is absolutely pointless. Chances are that you already know the material and that’s why you’re bored from reading it. Or, the class just sucks and you’re actually bored out of your skull. But when you enter the classroom the next morning, don’t walk into your test distressed over the prospect of failing; walk in with your shoulders thrown back and head held high, exuding confidence over your imminent failure. Openly embrace your inevitable failure, make out with your ensured failure and slip it a little tongue while everyone else is watching. There’s an interesting relationship between expectations and reality, but how self-doubt plays into that is no grand mystery. If you genuinely think that you’ve done terribly wrong—really, truthfully believe it deep in the pits of your useless, stupid soul—then getting back a better grade than an F will, one hundred percent of the time, make your day. Then, little by little, you can begin to raise your expectations. Don’t shoot too far, though; anything above a C is just being cocky.
2. Bullshitting is an art form. Better yet, it’s a temperamental game that you will either win or monumentally lose at. There are some people who will throw themselves into the deep end of bullshitting and flail wildly until the last bubbles of oxygen in their lungs are popped, while otherwise will rise like cream to the top. Bullshitting can earn the praise of peers and the respect of professors if done correctly but can backfire like a wet cannon if the correct measures aren’t taken. For instance, let’s say you forget to do the reading for your American Literature class (hypothetical scenario, I promise). It was an honest mistake, just a syllabus change you didn’t know about because you were absent the last time class met. The book is a classic, one you already read and thoroughly enjoyed in high school, but the details are fuzzy after the passage of time and your professor guaranteed a quiz. What do you do? You go to SparkNotes, you idiot. There is no way you’re going to be able to read the first seven chapters of The Great Gatsby before then, and SparkNotes—while given some slack by the tenderly-toasted upper-crust of education—actually goes into great detail when explaining plot and themes. Oh, yes. Gatsby knocks a clock over the first time he sees Daisy after all of those years. The green light at the end of the Buchanan’s dock can be a metaphor for the American dream. Like I said, totally a hypothetical situation.
More often than not, bullshitting pays off. At least you’re directing effort into something rather than nothing at all. Flip through the pages of the reading you forgot to do and then raise your hand to answer a question in class. Worried you won’t reach that nasty minimum page requirement? Go on and add a few sentences of buffer when you’ve run out of ways to analyze the text you’re citing, or better yet, just add another irrelevant citation. Write a brief blurb about bullshitting the night before your assignment is due. Because next thing you know, your professor comes to class and the first thing out of his mouth is, “This is going to be the worst quiz in the world. I literally pulled it off of SparkNotes.” Boom. Your lucky day.
3. Do not budget your time wisely because there is always, always something more fun and far less productive for you to do. I’ve already checked my email three times since beginning this essay. Maybe that’s more of a testimony to my ADD than actual concern over whether or not my inbox has shifted in ten minutes, but I digress. During my first year of college, I was confined to a more claustrophobic space on the Internet. We all were. 2007 was a dark time when Tom from MySpace still had utter hegemony over social networking, and newer monarchies like Twitter and Facebook were barely blinking into existence. Sure, Mark Zuckerberg may have founded the empire that now runs half the world’s lives three years before I even started college, but let me tell you something. Freshman year, I didn’t have to worry about offending my mother because I didn’t accept her friend request. There was no fear of her asking me about pictures where I’m fondling beer bottles or my own boobs (sometimes both at once) the next day at a family brunch. We’ve come so far! I’d much rather spend my evening watching back-to-back episodes of Doctor Who than reading a textbook. Oogling Time Lords while they blow up Daleks and save the universe from concaving in on itself is way more entertaining than reading an article my Caribbean Lit professor posted. Tumblr may as well be called Internet Entertainment Mecca; I get lost in a land of gifs from my favorite television series or stupid memes that make me shake uncontrollably with laugher. Or, I can use my Zuckerbergian privilege and stalk the lives of quite literally anyone I’ve ever come into contact with in my life. You know, the whole ADD thing. Your five-page paper can wait, which brings me to…
4. Never begin an assignment until right before it is due. This receives a separate point on the list only because no, it doesn’t boil down to your laziness or inability to follow instructions. There is a high probability that, when given this assignment, you were told it couldn’t be started the day before it was due and still be completed on time. I’m willing to bet money on the fact that you were given this assignment a whole month before you had to turn it in, but you waited until the night before to start it anyway. Why? To accept the challenge doled out to you. I’m like a child sat in front of a 64 pack of crayons in a solid white room told to stay completely still and, by no circumstances whatsoever, am I to draw on the walls around me. You know what I want to do? I want to doodle all over the place, even if it means half-assed graffiti of stick figures having a sword fight or rollerblading with elephants. At this point in my academic career, I’ve convinced myself that my procrastination isn’t just a result of poor time management. I know full well where my time has gone (into Doctor Who marathons and hours of stalking the girls I went to sleepaway camp with on Facebook). Last minute gives me no other option but to sit down, shut up, and do what is asked of me. I put myself in the proverbial corner with no escape. Do it, Aimee, or your GPA will suffer FOREVER!
Look, doing schoolwork and writing papers is tedious as fuck. You’re telling your professors nothing they don’t already know, so it’s somehow for your benefit. Working against the clock gets those adrenaline levels pumping furiously, adds fuel to the fire that keeps your creative process going when you’re pretty sure your brain is turning into some weird pink mashed potatoes. Load up on the coffee or Red Bull, maybe one of those 5 hour energy shots if that’s more your schtick. I always cackle with achievement when I complete a paper or project the night before it’s due. More often, I turn things in on the actual due date. I don’t feel like any less of a student for it. No, instead I feel like some master villain who has just set their grandiose scheme into motion while curling the corners of his mustache around his fingertip. The method isn’t foolproof, though, and there will be times—rare times certainly, but they nonetheless occur—where you miss your deadline. What do you do then? Well, you finish whatever it is you’re working on and then simply hand it in whenever you get the chance. Professors always threaten that they’re going to drop the grade on late papers but, truth be told, the folly gets overlooked more often times than not. That isn’t to say you should constantly hand in work late or extend that lateness past an extra day or two. Time your lateness with precision and self-awareness, and know the rapport you have with your professor. Key into the years of bullshitting experience that you have, and if all goes according to plan, you’ll get a better grade than if you turned in an incomplete paper on time anyway.
5. The most important lessons are learned outside of the classroom. What? A lesson about lessons?! It’s lesson Inception! After five and a half years and three different schools, I’ve noticed a pattern concerning which parts of my college experience stand out the most. Maybe stand out isn’t the correct term; the experiences that are the most influential on my life, perhaps. Knowledge from semester to semester is barely retainable. I got an A- the time I finally passed my Precalculus course, but could I still tell you how to calculate marginal functions and perform implicit differentiation? Fuck no! There is a reason we have required classes and why they’re donned with that title. What about classes that we choose for ourselves, the ones we enjoy or plan to utilize towards some end goal in our lives? Well yes, of course there are lessons to be learned. I’ve loved just about every English course I’ve taken throughout my educational career, and I’ll likely carry what I’ve taken away from them for the rest of my life. I don’t mean to entirely demean the experience of higher education. There is a reason I’ve gone to college, reasons outside of the superficial aspiration of getting a job once I graduate.
But the wealth of knowledge I gained in the classroom isn’t what stands out. My friends stand out, my experiences stand out. Concerts I’ve gone to, nights out, grocery shopping for myself for the first time, learning the subway system and knowing just where to transfer to get someplace in the minimum amount of time. In five years, I’ve gone from being absolutely frightened by the idea of becoming an adult to taking the reins of independence and steering them in the directions that I, not anyone else, want to go in. I’ve figured out what I want to do with my life, or at least have a semblance of structure planned for myself (anything can happen and, side lesson, expecting things to go as planned will almost always ensure they don’t). More than anything, I’ve learned that being a little lost is okay sometimes. Bullshitting here and there and putting off a paper is fine, nothing for anyone to turn their nose up at, and one awful grade isn’t going to throw my entire life off course. College should be taken seriously, yes, but sometimes you just have to shove it back a little and show who’s really boss.