10 Things I Learned in College (Outside of the Classroom)

(AKA what I wish I knew as a college freshman.)

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Top 10 lessons I learned in college, outside of the classroom

I graduated from college last month and although it is a bit strange to make the transition from student to graduate, it has made me do some reflecting. Now I’m realizing just how many things I learned in college — both in and out of the classroom.

Today I wanted to share my newfound knowledge with any college student who may need it, freshman, senior or anyone in between. Here are the top 10 things I learned in college, outside of the classroom.

1. You are a person first, student second

Things I've learned in college - breathing and taking care of myself. pink breathe neon sign in leaves
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My sophomore year I took a position as a resident assistant at my university. All of my friends had become RAs and I thought it’d be a good way to make new friends.

I’ll never forget what a fellow RA told me when I took the position:

You’re a person first, student second, everything else should be taken care of after those two things.

That advice got me through my first year as an RA, although it forced me to make some tough decisions. I had to give up some stuff like theater so I could better do my job, take care of myself, and keep up with my schoolwork.

The next year, I was placed on another floor. This time around, I really struggled to juggle the position with everything else in my life. Because I had learned the importance of taking care of myself and making sure I was okay mentally and physically, I resigned from my position. This wasn’t easy to do, but it was the right choice, and an important lesson for me.

2. It’s okay to ask for help

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This may be a given, but it is still really important to remember. Everyone struggles sometimes.

Whether you’re having a hard time reaching the deadline for an assignment because of a personal matter or you’re not quite understanding your course material, it’s really good to know when to ask for help.

In my experience, professors and supervisors are incredibly understanding if you explain why you may be falling behind. However, if you don’t tell them what’s going on, they won’t know what the problem is and they likely won’t be able to help you solve it.

I went through a lot of ups and downs through my time in college. I struggled with personal issues and balancing my work load. There was a point where I got so stressed that I cried every day for a week. I turned to my friends for help and they suggested I see a school counselor. My friends and the counselor helped me get back on track and process everything I was going through.

I know now that asking for help was one of the best decisions I made in college. It really turned things around for me.

3. Join clubs/groups you’re interested in

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When I started college, I struggled to make friends. I was in a fairly small major and my roommate was rarely in our room. The first couple of months were hard.

On a whim, I auditioned for the school musical a little ways in. I had done theater in high school and really enjoyed it. I was cast in the musical and through the rehearsals and meetings, I met a new group of friends.

Next, I joined the drama club and I realized I had finally found my group. I spent the next three years with them and I can honestly say they were one of the best parts of my college experience.

And if I had never tried out for the play, I never would have met my friends.

So trust me when I say you should look into the groups/clubs/organizations you find interesting. Yes, it is scary to go outside of your comfort zone — but it’s worth it! You may just find “your people” if you do.

4. Sometimes people change and friendships change with them

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One of the most important things I learned in college is the old adage, you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. So it’s important that those five people are individuals who care about you and want what is best for you.

For instance, if you have a friend that always brings you down or you feel is toxic to be around, it may be best to limit the time you spend with them.

This can be hard, yes. But it’s important for your own wellbeing.

I know it’s hard to say goodbye to someone you’ve known for a long time and maybe you feel an obligation to stay friends with them, but you need to do what is best for your health and growth. If you’re stressed or annoyed when you’re around someone, maybe it’s best to cut ties with them.

5. Sometimes things don’t work out as planned

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I know I had a lot of expectations going into college. I thought I’d be best friends with my roommate like my mom had when she went to my school. I thought that in four years I’d figure out what I wanted to do for my career.

Well, I told you above how the roommate situation worked out. And as for the latter, I’m still figuring out what I want to do. So it’s safe to say that for me, college didn’t go as expected.

(Also, I never, ever imagined that I’d graduate after finishing my final semester quarantined in my apartment, but you can read about that story here.)

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from this is that life happens, but things still work out in the end.

For instance, most of my friends graduated the year before me. I was so scared about finishing school without them, but then I ended up meeting my significant other that year. Similarly, being an RA was challenging, but if I had never taken the position I never would have met my now best friend.

So things didn’t work out as I planned, but in some ways I think they’re better than what I thought they’d be.

6. You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do

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I know I’ve been asked many, many times what I’m going to do for my career after graduation. (BTW, if you need help in answering that question, this post may help.)

I’ll answer the question right now: I’ve always known that I wanted to go into writing of some sort, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten.

I know firsthand how scary it is to try and figure out what you want to do, but another one of the things I’ve learned in college is — it’s 100% okay to not know what you want to do. Most of us are in this boat!

College, after all, is about experiencing new things and trying stuff out. Maybe you’ll learn what you want to do along the way, maybe you won’t, and that’s fine. One day you’ll find the thing you’re meant to do, but until then, you can try out things you enjoy and see if they’re a fit. If they aren’t, you can keep trying.

7. It’s more than okay to change your major

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When I was a freshman, I was surprised when I discovered that people often changed their majors — sometimes multiple times before graduation. I never had any doubts that I wanted to study English, especially once I got into the specific major courses. But plenty of my friends changed their majors with no regrets.

If you’re unsure about your major or are undeclared, the best advice I can give is to take classes that seem interesting to you. (See our guide to the 5 classes every college girl should take for more on this!)

For instance, I knew on the first day of my Irish Literature course that I was in the right place. So if you have classes that you don’t enjoy, maybe you should try taking an elective for fun. That one class may be the key to you finding out what you want to study.

If you’re still unsure about switching, I’d advise you to speak with some faculty about switching majors and what the best way to do it may be, based on your school and major. There are people at every university who want to assist you in matters like this and can help you with any questions you may have. (See: Asking for help when you need it!)

8. Work on your schoolwork for each class a little bit each day

Things I've learned in college - how to study right. Photo of a person taking notes with laptop open and a glass of coffee
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I will admit that I, like many students, have struggled with procrastination. But a few years ago, I finally found a way to complete things successfully, without procrastinating. It’s one of my favorite things I learned in college.

My system is so simple but it works:

I would set aside a certain amount of time each day for schoolwork and I would dedicate a chunk of that time to each of my assignments I had to do that week. The ones that had the soonest deadlines were taken care of first, then I worked on the biggest assignments, like projects or essays.

My grades improved when I organized my tasks this way, and it left me with time to add finishing touches to everything before turning it in.

9. Become study buddies with people in your major

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I went to a school that focused on tech with the biggest majors being computer science and cyber operations. So my little English department was small, which made it easy to get to know everyone in my major.

This was invaluable. Everyone needs to know people in their classes.

Because I had classes with the same people all the time, it was really easy to ask them for help on assignments. Everyone had their own strengths in different courses and we were all able to help each other better understand the material. I also had some classes that required peer editing which was so much more comfortable when I knew everyone.

If you’re in a bigger major, you may not be able to get to know everyone in it. That’s totally OK — a few friends in your major, though, will greatly improve your college experience.

10. You might not be able to do everything and that’s okay

Things I learned in college - not being able to do everything. Photo of a woman working on multiple projects at a table

My junior year of college, I tried doing a lot of things. (Read: Too many things.)

I worked three jobs: as a resident assistant, a tutor in our writing center, and a writer for our school paper. I was also the president of two clubs on campus. I stretched myself pretty thin. This is when I decided to quit my RA position, which I talked about earlier.

I struggled so much with my decision to quit. In the end, though, I knew it was for the best.

My grades suffered before I made the choice. I had a hard time focusing and I wasn’t properly taking care of myself. I knew that something had to go or I would crash, hard. I knew then that I couldn’t necessarily do everything I wanted to do. This is the most important thing I learned in college.

So if things are getting difficult and you’re having a hard time keeping track of everything, consider that it may be time to drop something. You don’t have to do everything all at once. Put yourself first and you’ll finish college strong.

What do you think of my ‘things I learned in college’ list?

What advice do you have for other college students? What’s one of the best things you learned in college? What was your favorite memory from college? Mine is staying up way too late and playing board games with my friends.

2 thoughts on “10 Things I Learned in College (Outside of the Classroom)”

  1. I love this article. Have you heard of the book “A Word to the Wise: Lessons I learned at 22”? It’s similar to this article, but in book form and it’s geared to help you in life after graduation. Good read!

    • I’m so glad you liked the article. I haven’t heard of that book, but I’ll definitely add it to my TBR list. I’m always looking for advice and tips to help me navigate my way through life. Thank you for the suggestion!


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