From the beginning of the college application process, and often even before, high schoolers are told they’re headed towards the “best four years” of their lives. But this depiction of college as a manic adventure full of nonstop partying and fun actually only scrapes the surface of what college is really like. Like most things in life, college is full of highs and lows, and experiences that aren’t necessarily good or bad; we’re humans and as such experience college in a nuanced way. Recognizing these myths, however, would not only help us enjoy college more when we’re there, but would also help us make the right choice about which college to go to in the first place.
Here are three of the biggest myths about college — and how you can use the truth to best navigate the application process.
Myth 1: Adapting to college is not a big deal. You’re totally set after orientation and if you find yourself struggling with the transition, then you’re doing it wrong.
Truth: Freshman year can be tough.
How to use this: Pick a college that strikes a balance between challenging you and alienating you.
Transitioning from high school to college is just that—a transition. But students are often thrown into college environments that are culturally disparate from and/or more academically challenging than those in which they’ve grown up with little preparation or warning for how to handle that change. While you’re applying to college, try to be cognizant of the ways in which your school and hometown are different from the places you’re applying — and find out if your preferred colleges have resources that can help you address the transitions these differences will necessitate. For example, if you know you’re looking for a more academically rigorous college experience, find out if that campus has a peer-tutoring program or other academic centers. Seeking help is hardly a sign of failure, but rather one of strength in your determination to succeed.
Myth 2: Don’t worry about loans. Going to the best, most elite school will automatically set you up for financial security.
Truth: An undergraduate degree doesn’t have the same return on investment it once did and debt can negatively shape your entire post-grad life.
How to use this: Try to accrue the least amount of debt humanly possible.
While a college degree is still largely considered the ultimate key to professional and financial success in our society, millions of people —about 40 million Americans, to be exact — are going into debt to obtain this degree. So many college students take on debt to afford soaring tuition prices, assuming that their degrees will help them pay back what they owe in no time, but that’s not always the case. Many people end up defaulting on unmanageably large loans and face other consequences for taking on so much debt.
Being responsible about taking out loans, therefore, is the bare minimum. When applying to college, it’s crucial to also apply for as many scholarships as possible. It’s also worth considering alternative options to pricey, elite schools, like going to community college for a couple of years to knock out some prerequisite courses before transferring for your final two years (and, ultimately, still obtaining the same degree at half the cost).
Myth 3: If you’re struggling during your freshman year, you’re the only who is.
Truth: Everybody goes through a period of adjustment; there’s just a weird culture of silence about maintaining idealistic illusions about college.
How to use this: Ask students to tell you honestly what their campus culture is like and find out about what kind of resources are available to students on campus.
To be fair, college is fun. But it’s also a time of immense change; Students of all ages bump up against many different forms of stress on a pretty much continuous basis. When applying to schools, it’s worth finding out how campuses are with recognizing this and helping students through it. Does that campus enforce a culture of competition anyway? Do they have mental health resources and/or counsellors? You may think you’re not the “kind of person” who will struggle in college, but the reality is many young people are just not prepared for this massive transition. There’s is never any shame in asking for help — and it’s crucial to go somewhere where that help is available should you need to ask for it.
Julie Zeilinger is the author of College 101: A Girl’s Guide to Freshman Year. She is also the founder and editor of The FBomb (thefbomb.org), a feminist blog and community for young adults partnered with the Women’s Media Center, the media organization founded by Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan. She is currently a Politics Editor at MTV News.