Did your family ever have one of those gag gifts that made interminable rounds? Maybe it was an ugly knickknack passed on every year to some new relative who didn’t want it and who would chuck it in a closet until next year provided an opportunity to dump it on someone else. In my family it was an old musical on VHS that bounced back and forth between my brother and my dad for years.
I’ve realised that there’s another gag gift we give without warning: advice. I don’t mean to diminish the value of wise words spoken with care, but a quick review of advice you’ve received should show you that while some advice is thoughtfully given, much of it is slapped about with a dash of cliche and all the serious forethought of a late-night ice cream binge.
College students in particular are singled out for the well-meant but ill-considered gift of unsought advice; we’re young, we’re at a potentially difficult stage of life, and we’re leaping into new experiences and challenges without much idea of what they’ll entail. The words of wisdom I’ve received over the past four or five years could fill several books, ranging from the profound to the laughable.
The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.
And yet, really, good advice is one of the most valuable things we can give each other. Words well thought through and given in love can be as meaningful as slapdash adages can be useless.
So, in the spirit of one of my favourite Oscar Wilde quotes, here it is: the advice I wish I’d been given when I started university.
Don’t do things for the resume.
Trust me, assuming you have a job and some involvement on campus or in the community, your resume will be full by graduation. By signing up for anything and everything that looks good on a resume, you leave yourself no time to pursue things that really matter to you. Almost any activity can build your resume in some way, whether it’s by developing career skills, demonstrating responsible activism, showing your leadership, or simply proving you finish what you start. The difference, though, is that when you get asked about a line on your resume that you took simply to look good, you can only spout a list of typical job skills. But when you get asked about an activity you chased after because you’re passionate about after-school programs, or international relationships, or whatever it is—you could talk for days about all the ways you were challenged and changed. Your passion comes out in your voice, and you stand out. Don’t do things for the resume. Do things because you care about them.
You don’t have to know everyone.
I come from a small school in a small town. Everyone knows everyone. I came to college thinking it would be the same—that I should know everyone’s name. That somehow I was a good person if I knew everyone and a selfish person if I didn’t. Focus on others, I’ve been taught. Care about the people around you. Important attitudes, of course, but impractical when you take “the people around you” to mean every single person with whom you interact. I wish someone had told me to differentiate between common courtesy and real friendship, that someone had reminded me that while I should smile and hold doors and say “thank you,” I could forego learning thousands of people’s names and instead focus my energies on cultivating close friendships with the handful of people near me. If you’re the kind of person who wants to know a hundred people, of course, go meet them. But with a limited amount of time, chances are you won’t have know every person around. That’s fine. Be nice to strangers and save your time and emotions for the few people with whom you’ll develop lasting, meaningful relationships.
Some classes will be bad.
College is an opportunity. Whether you’re working hard and scrounging pennies to make it financially viable or riding it out on your parents’ generosity, you’ve got an opportunity that not everyone is offered, and you should make the most of that. Don’t throw away chances to learn merely because you dislike a teacher or don’t care for the subject. At the same time, recognise that some classes are there to be passed and then forgotten. Maybe it’s the freshman orientation class filled with cliche life skills, or maybe it’s that Spanish class that, it turns out, replicates the one you took in high school. Not every class is well planned, and not every professor is good at teaching. Let the bad classes heighten your appreciation for the good ones. Sit through lectures and do your homework, because sometimes in life we do things we don’t want to, because that’s part of being an adult. Appreciate any brilliant moments in the semester, check the requirement off your catalogue list, and move on. It’s okay to dislike classes as long as it doesn’t keep you from learning when there is something useful to pick up.
In the interest of being fair to all the loving relatives and friends who gave me college advice, I have to admit a lot of it was useful. A lot of it came at just the right moment to encourage me or change my perspective. But we all have lessons we learn the hard way. You’ll make mistakes no matter what, but maybe you can avoid the ones I made.