Everything I Wish I Knew When I Started College, by a 2020 Grad

Ayden Berkey
6 min readSep 1, 2020

If you’re a recent graduate like me, it is more likely than not that you have spent the last few months reminiscing about all things college-related: friends, freedom, and finals (ok, maybe not that one…).

Other than daydreaming about how the end of my senior year might have turned out, I have also found myself thinking a lot about the students who are about to begin their college careers. Despite the fact that these students are entering college during arguably one of the most hectic shitstorms that our world has ever experienced, they still deserve to get the most out of their college years for all of the awesomeness that they are. With that, I have compiled my list of Everything I Wish I Knew When I Started College, aiming to help the Class of 2024 (and maybe even Classes of 2023, 2022, and 2021) squeeze every last ounce of magic juice out of what college has to offer.

Meet and form relationships with your professors, (yes, even if it means reaching out over Zoom).

The one thing I regret in terms of professor relationships is becoming friendly with my professors but never truly taking it a step further. I know that forming these relationships may feel like an awkward thing to do, but taking the time and effort to form close relationships with professors who are knowledgeable and cool pays off. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you need to go out of your way to become best buds with every professor you have. If you are interested in a certain topic or area of study, reaching out to the person who is supposed to know it best is a great place to start. Not only do most professors love it when their students put in the extra effort to form a relationship, but having these relationships will also bode you well if you are ever in need of career advice, mentorship, or a letter of recommendation. You’d be surprised at how helpful this allyship can be in the long-run!

Even if your classes are over Zoom this semester, you can still do this! A good (and not awkward) course of action is to email your professor and suggest “meeting” after the next lecture. This way, you will already be on Zoom and you can introduce yourself after the other students have left the class.

You can still be successful without having your entire week, semester, or the next four years planned out.

When it comes to anything school-related, I am Type A: every task, plan, reminder, and deadline gets written down in my planner, color-coded, and only gets checked off once it’s complete. While working this way certainly has its perks, the downside to this type of mindset is that when something doesn’t go quite as planned (meeting runs late, workout takes longer than usual, etc), it can feel like the world is imminently coming to an end (okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic). If this sounds like you, too, here’s my advice:

  • Be open and willing to adapt and change things up every once in a while. While it’s good to have some sort of idea about the classes you want to take next semester, or what day you need to start studying for that exam in order to get an A, if you try to over-plan, chances are you will end up in panic-mode, which takes you nowhere but backward.
  • So much of the next few months is up in the air due to COVID, which means that most of the world has been forced to embrace this feeling of rolling with the punches. Use this to your advantage, because if anything, crazy COVID times should encourage you to take a step back, relax, and try not to worry about everything going exactly as you wanted or intended it to.

Prioritize your health, both physical and mental.

I wish I took care of myself earlier in my college career. I feel like most people immensely overlooked this before COVID, but it deserves recognition.

When I was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I remember feeling like I always had to go out when my friends were going out and because there was so much going on with studying and things to get involved in, I definitely overexerted myself at times and disregarded the importance of self-care. Whether you are going into your first year, your last year, or either of the two years in between, take this time to do a little bit of introspection. Identify your stressors and what calms you down. Find a type of physical activity that you enjoy, and make a point to plan (yes, you should plan this) some time in your week to unwind, unplug, and generally just chill out.

By the end of my senior year, even though I was doing school from home because of COVID, I made a point to set aside at least thirty minutes a day for running, limited my screen time, and made time each evening to read, which is a great alternative to scrolling through Instagram until you PTFO (no surprise there). It might take you months or even years to find the perfect balance of things that work for you, but getting started early and prioritizing yourself will pay off with everything you do in the long run.

Take the time to understand your tuition bill, and apply to scholarships!

While this is not great of me to admit, I went through the majority of my college career without ever looking into the details of my tuition bill to see what my parents and I were actually paying for. Given the fact that the cost of higher education in America is EXTREMELY expensive, this is something that I wish I spent more time educating myself about because I’m sure it would have even opened my eyes to taking advantage of some of the many resources that were available to me as a UW student (that I was paying for without even realizing it — (talking about you @TheSerf #iykyk)

For the past several months since graduating from college, I have helped to create a scholarship resource platform called Access Scholarships (shameless plug, check it out!!), where high school, college, and grad school students can easily find and apply to scholarships to help them cover future or current educational expenses. During my time spent developing this idea and seeing it all the way through, I have come to realize just how much I overlooked the importance of utilizing this type of resource and taking the time to apply for scholarships to help me fund my own education. So, my advice for you is to set aside some time to researching and applying for scholarships. Your bank account will certainly thank you for it!

Don’t feel like you need to join a club, organization, etc, just because the people around you are doing it.

While it’s definitely fun to be involved in things on campus with your friends, don’t feel like you need to do exactly what your friends are doing, because if it’s something that you aren’t truly interested in, then the time spent being involved there will mean less time spent being involved in something you actually care about.

This piece of advice also stems from another piece of advice, which is to not forget the importance of being yourself. Friends you will make throughout your time in college may or may not have the same interests as you. If they do, that is great! If they don’t, that’s okay too, because at the end of the day, taking the time to join that a student org or club sports team that you’re passionate about can be a great time to branch out (make new friends) and learn more about yourself.

Lastly, set aside time to step outside of your college “bubble”.

Having gone to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had the opportunity to live right in the center of a fairly active city. This was great because not only did I have on-campus events and activities that I could take part in, but there were so many citywide events going on all year round to take advantage of. Looking back, I regret not immersing myself in the city more during the first two years of my college experience. Even if you are not on campus right now, eventually, you will be, so don’t forget this!

If you’ve made it this far, congrats, and I hope you might be able to implement some of my advice into your own college experience!