Ten Things I Wish I'd Known: Inside the Classroom
Dear Class of '15,
Congratulations on getting into Oberlin! You're about to enter a pretty awesome phase of your life. I know it's clichéd, but it honestly feels like it was just yesterday that I was an ickle firstie, coming into Oberlin with my Bright-Eyed Freshman Expectations; it was exciting, wonderful, daunting, terrifying, but mostly awesome.
With a little help from my friends (Emily, Gowri, Paolo, Ma'ayan and my brother), I present to you the first half of a two-part post filled with little pearls of wisdom from those of us who remember (some more distantly than others!) what it was like to feel new and confused. Part I: Inside the Classroom will focus on ways to make that transition from high school to college smoother and less daunting. Part II: Outside the Classroom will focus on college life, roommates, homesickness and how to deal with all of the aforementioned.
To be fair to my parents, they did tell me most of this, but it was easy to dismiss their experiences as being far removed from my own. As your peer, I hope that this will be useful in helping you put yourself in the right frame of mind for what you should expect come September, without feeling overwhelmed.
- College will be hard, because you won't be the only intelligent one.
I did the International Baccalaureate Diploma, which, as any IB student will tell you, is absurdly tough. I can't even count the number of people who told me that the first year of college would be easier than IB. (I'm starting to realise that most of them went to universities in the UK... those slackers.) This is so untrue it's not even funny. For one thing, more often than not, Obies were "the smart people" in high school. Now you're all in one place--after all, you got in for a reason. This time 'round, however, people really want to hear what you have to say, and they're smart enough to make you think about it in a new way. Different professors expect different things and you have to figure out what they're looking for. The American writing style is also quite different from what I'm used to; that was my big hurdle. Be prepared to be challenged and enjoy it while it lasts!
Also, read a great post Tess wrote on this subject.
- Skipping class is a big no-no. Seriously, don't do it.
My immune system sucks. I get sick when I travel, when I'm stressed, when it's absurdly cold or hot, when I eat certain foods, when I push myself too hard... the list goes on. In high school, my grades didn't have much to do with my attendance, but in college, you WILL get grade deductions when you miss class too often, especially if you're taking a studio class. You might think your professors don't notice, but you'd be surprised. It's just not worth the effort of catching up or the risk of getting your grade deducted. If you do feel like you need to skip class, let your professors know and get notes from someone; that way you won't give the impression of just slacking off. If you know you have a hard time waking up in the mornings, don't take morning classes! It's actually that simple.
- Be proactive, and learn from others.
Talk to professors about your grades and what you can do to improve. Email your advisor; set up a time to talk to them about what you find challenging and how to deal with it. My advisor (shout-out to Professor Richman!) gave me so many great tips about how to read and take notes effectively, and how to stay healthy when travelling between two extremely different climates. And learn from your peers--study together in one of the rooms in Mudd. As Ma'ayan puts it, "While you may not want to listen to your parents/their advice, definitely take your peers' advice. I learned more about OSCA/Oberlin/classes/professors/etc. from the people I ate dinner with, took classes with, and hung out with late at night."
- Don't be afraid to ask someone for help.
Whether it's directions to your next class, how to use the printer or how you should take notes in class, if you're not sure, just ask. Chances are, you're not the only person who's lost, and someone else might benefit from your taking the initiative to ask. I still remember sitting in my freshman seminar, my first college class ever, and not having a clue what to do... as it turned out, nobody did. We just all started taking notes without thinking to ask what we were supposed to do. Hopefully, if you look lost enough, someone will probably take pity on you. We all remember what it was like to be freshmen, after all.
Also, if you really feel that you need to take some time off, people will respect your decision. As my friend Gowri says, "there's no negative judgment there, and those who judge you negatively for taking your time with this big step towards the rest of your life are people you don't need in your life."
- Reading effectively is a super important skill. Learn it, and keep it.
I can't stress enough how important it is to do your readings and take notes in a way that will be useful to you. I don't know about you guys, but we never had daily chapters to read in high school, so it took me a long time to figure out that my first semester would have been a thousand times simpler if I'd done the readings as they had been assigned, i.e. every day after class. Instead, I ended up scrambling around, reading long and wordy chapters on things that I couldn't fit into context anymore during the exam periods when I was too tired to process what I was reading anyway. More often than not, professors expect you to be conversant with the material, and it's obvious when you're not. Everyone works differently, but I can tell you the things that worked for me. First of all, don't feel obligated to read for hours. Skim-reading is such an important skill. Take notes as you read, highlight important sections. At the end, force yourself to write at least one sentence summarising the chapter or article. That way, you can bring your notes to class and it will augment whatever you're discussing that day.
- Learn to take notes in the way that suits you best.
You'll figure this out as you go along, but it's easy to forget that there's a difference between writing down everything the professor says and taking effective and useful notes. Be open to new methods which may actually be of more help to you. For example, I never took my laptop to class during my first semester, because I actually write faster than I type, and I was too afraid that I would get distracted. I also remember things better when I write them down. During my second semester, however, I had some teachers with heavy accents that were sometimes difficult to understand, and I was also taking an art history class where a lot of time was spent analyzing pieces in a fast-paced way that made it difficult to keep up. I discovered PearNote, a $40 note-taking program which allows you to simultaneously record a lecture and type notes, and if you click on a particular section of your notes, it'll take you to the section of the recording when you typed them. That way, I can listen to the recordings in case I missed anything, and the better notes I take, the more useful the recording will be. Super useful! And it appeals to my learning methods. But not everyone needs or even wants it. So spend some time figuring out what helps you learn best.
- You don't have to have your life figured out.
There's a reason why college is four (and for Double-Degree majors, five) years long. No one is expecting you to write an honors thesis, create masterpieces or sing big arias straightaway. Because that would be silly. As my friend Emily wisely puts it, "You start from square one, and honestly, we all need that to grow." In high school, I wrote a 4,000 word Extended Essay over a couple of months, and that was my Big Achievement. In college, you will write long essays at least every two weeks, more if you're taking mostly humanities and social sciences. It won't be easy at first, but you'll catch on soon enough. Gowri made a great point when she said that "contrary to the IB, [college is] a marathon, not a sprint... the most important thing, the single most important thing you can gain, is knowledge of yourself; and if you find yourself building a good sense of that, then that's worth all the money you're spending on your education and more."
- Don't be afraid to try new things!
There are so many great opportunities at Oberlin, so why not make the most of them? Sign up for a completely different class from anything you've done before. On a whim, I took Linguistic Anthropology with Professor Erika Hoffman, and I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this class; being an international student, I've had so much exposure to different languages and I was so fascinated to read about the ways in which language and culture interact. Take an ExCo! Sign up for a job! Try out for a sports team! Get involved with events! Sign up for a club! (Join Tanwir, the Middle Eastern Studies Association! We feed you yummy pita bread and hummus and kebabs and badger professors into letting us study what fascinates us most. End of PSA.) Put yourself out there.
- Learning to say "no" is hard but necessary.
Bear in mind that college is hard, and you should never feel overwhelmed. Don't skip class because you had a game; I know so many people who allow their sports commitments to overshadow their academics, and it never turns out well. Keep your priorities straight and don't take on more than you can manage. Ma'ayan said it best: "Learn to say yes to lots of things (that's how you experience new stuff), but learning how to say no is even more valuable."
- You already knew this, but it's worth repeating: College is awesome.
I can't really put it any way better than this:
Emily: 1. You will get your ass kicked.
Emily: 2. You will have the time of your life.
Gowri: 3. You will have the time of your life getting your ass kicked?
Let me know what you think, feel free to leave suggestions, and please read Part II: Outside the Classroom!