The Best Four Years?

What to do when college is not the best time of your life.


Entering college incoming freshmen are told that the next four years will be the best years of their life. While the four (or five or six) years of college may turn out to be among their best years, for most the experience isn’t quite so sweet. It’s neither as care-free, nor as happy as they had hoped. The fact that they had been led to believe it should be the best time of their life makes it even more embarrassing and disappointing when it turns out not to be.

Of course, students may experience any number of problems during the course of their college career. Among the most common: Homesickness, academic failure, and difficulty coping with issues surrounding new friendships, romantic relationships, sex, love, and identity formation. On top of that, some experience psychiatric problems like anxiety and depression, or struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, body image, eating disorders, and other self-destructive behaviors.

In my book “What to Do When College is Not the Best Time of Your Life” (Columbia University Press), I give college students insight into how common their problems are, thereby helping them overcome their shame. I also give them tools to deal with problems on their own, while easing the path to getting help from the many professionals trained to assist them.

The idea that college should be the best time of your life comes from two sources. The first is the fact that college is legitimately a time-out from “real life.” It’s a hiatus between the restrictions of adolescence and the responsibilities of adulthood. When you’re in high school, your parents, teachers, and community all supervise and scrutinize you. You have relatively little freedom or autonomy. Worse, you’re pigeonholed by everyone who knows, or thinks they know you. In college you have the chance to reinvent yourself—to make new friends, shed old habits, and start a new life. You get to live in a relatively unsupervised community with people your own age. And you get to study important, life-changing subjects with experts in their fields.

The other source of the “best four years” myth is the nostalgia of adults who’ve forgotten their own struggles in college and remember only the fun and freedom they had, lo those many years ago.

In my experience, academic floundering is the number one reason college students become unhappy or depressed. Most students want to do well in college. They come motivated to work but aren’t sure how to cope with the workload. They’re used to having their studies structured for them by parents and teachers. And they’re often intimidated by college-level work and distracted by the activities going on around them.

To be sure, most college courses move quickly. It’s very easy to fall behind, and once you do, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and give up. Unfortunately, few colleges provide tutorials on how to choose appropriate classes, take notes, form study groups, cope with a heavy reading load, or prepare for exams. But every college should be giving tutorials on how to study.

Having said all this, my first piece of advice is to take all advice, mine included, with a grain of salt. College is a time to begin the transition to adulthood, which means you want to come to know and trust your own judgment. This doesn’t happen overnight, and you need to make a concerted effort to get to know yourself, including what advice rings true to you based on self-knowledge. One sure-fire sign that you’re getting bad advice is that it makes you feel lousy—less confident, more rivalrous, and less optimistic.

Here are my recommendations to freshmen just starting school:
a) Be optimistic. You should enjoy college most of the time. Don’t expect to enjoy it all the time.  
b) Do your classwork. If you stay on top of your school work you’ll probably enjoy college. If you don’t, you won’t. It’s that simple.
c) Make at least one friend. If you do your work and make a friend, you’ll enjoy college.
d) Deal with your problems. Problems are inevitable. They’re part of life. Learning how to deal with them will help you become an adult. Don’t bury your head in the sand and hope your problems will solve themselves. They won’t.
e) Get help. Don’t be ashamed if you’re having a problem. One of the hallmarks of being an adult is knowing when to get help. Don’t delay getting help until the problem is really difficult to solve.  
f) Keep your parents in the loop. College is a time to develop independence. But your parents have life experience and your best interests at heart. They are a valuable resource. Make use of them. If your parents can’t help, find an appropriate adult who can.  
g) Don’t give up. Many students flounder in college. There is no shame in this, and most students who struggle in college succeed in life. The lessons learned coping with the challenges of college help them to succeed in life.  

For more see my Psychology Today blog, The College Shrink.

David Leibow, M.D. is a psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and a faculty member of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He is the author of “Love, Pain, and the Whole Damn Thing: How to Reap the Rewards of Adulthood and Find Real Happiness.”

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