The Best Four Years?

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

The Best Four Years?

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 new 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.

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