It’s late August, which means that some of you are gearing up to start college for the fall semester – maybe for the first time. While you sort through course catalogues and make packing lists and plan the last hangouts of the summer with your home friends, you also are possibly freaking out about what’s going to happen when you show up on campus. In light of your impending education, dear college-bound butterflies, we have compiled all our wisdom on everything we could think of with regard to College, and compiled it into this College Advice Megapost Situation. We hope it helps quell some of your fears, empowers you to take on whatever challenges you face, and gets you excited to jump into this new exciting life endeavor!
For quick reference, here are links to the many bits of this post:
- making queer friends
- coming out
- hooking up and dating
- drugs and alcohol
- college resources
- navigating college bureaucracy
- college and MONEY
- mental health
- changing your name and pronouns
- being an international student
One of the reasons why this post is so long is because so many of us had drastically different college experiences. It turns out that college is like real life, in that some of it is great and some of it sucks and a lot of it is Really Hard, and it’s going to be different for every person. And while this post incorporates a lot of perspectives from the Autostraddle staff, it isn’t even close to being comprehensive. There are so many ways to get a degree and have a valuable college experience.
Veering from your initial plan is fine, normal and can often be really, really good in the end.
Very few people’s lives turn out how they plan when they are 18 or 19 years old (or really any age). You are growing up, and you will change as a person during college. You will meet new people who will teach you things you didn’t know about yourself. Your interests may shift. Your priorities may change. I encourage you to embrace these changes and shifts. Sometimes your dream school doesn’t turn out to be the fantasy you imagined. It’s okay to leave if you need to. It’s okay to do something different than what you said you wanted to do on your application. It’s also fine if you have no idea what you want out of college, yet. Veering from your initial plan is fine, normal and can often be really, really good in the end. If you told me five years ago when I started college that I’d be where I am right now, I would have been pretty surprised.
It’s nice to surprise yourself.
It’s also important to find people that will support you through these surprises, good and bad. It is more likely than not that you are constantly being inundated with advice from people who think it is VERY CRITICAL you do college in a SPECIFIC way. These people may include, but are not limited to: your parents, your roommate, your friends, college administrators, your professors, children you babysit for, and strangers you meet on the bus.
Some of these people will offer you good advice. I recommend you figure out who you trust and who you believe wants what’s best for you. When you have a decision to make, talk it over with those people, and try to make the decision that is right for you, not someone else. That doesn’t mean you should be an asshole and only look out for yourself; it means to learn to discern what you actually need from what people tell you you should need. You do you, as they say.
And even if you start out solid, and you’re “on-track” to graduate on time, to fulfill all the major requirements, to get the exact degree you planned to — know that it’s going to be okay if things suddenly shift. I wish I’d understood that when I went to college. I was pretty afraid to mess up, and I definitely avoided taking some risks because of that fear.
So here we go.
Just so you know, this post reflects my and other staff members’ experiences, mostly at four-year American universities. If that’s not what you’re doing, I hope you still find things here that apply in useful ways to your situation, and I hope you all post your own tips in the comments!
On Finding Friends and Meeting People
College is an intense social pressure cooker, and it might take you a while to find your people. Give yourself time, or, as Riese said, “if you have social anxiety, it will probably take longer than a few months to find your place at college and possibly the entire year to find friends you really click with, and it’s gonna be hard but YOU CAN DO IT.”
A good first step: Get out of your dorm
Probably you will be provided with some sort of pre-made friend group upon your arrival on your campus, possibly in the form of the people living around you that have all been entrusted to the same Residential Adviser (RA) or RA-equivalent. These groups will be hit or miss. Maybe these people will become your best friends for the rest of your life. It’s more likely that you will find your feelings about these people somewhere between “these are nice people who I enjoy living near” and “this is my own personal hell.”
Regardless of whether or not you feel these people are your new chosen family or your new nightmare mandatory family dinner, take some time to intentionally get away from them. Find an activity, a class or a group where everyone is coming together based on a common interest or experience. Go hang out at a center where people gather based on a shared culture or identity. Join a team. The point is, that it might feel like there’s no way to meet friends outside your dorm, or that if you don’t immediately click with the people in your dorm you are in some way “doing it wrong.” You’re not. And even if you love those people in your dorm to death (which can happen and be amazing), go meet other people anyway. There are a lot of people at college. See who’s there.
And getting outside your dorm can be especially necessary if you are looking for queer community. Which brings us to the next thing:
How do I find Queer Community?
Even though my school was super queer, my dorm freshman year was not a place where I found any queer women, and it took me almost a year to find a group I clicked with. Try looking in your school’s LGBTQ or Women’s centers, feminist and/or activist groups. Other Autostraddle staff found queer people in theater, volunteering at women’s organizations, sports, and a class called Queer Visual Culture.
It is possible you won’t feel particularly comfortable in your school’s de-facto group of queer people, whoever they are. If your school has a large, visible queer community, it will either be really easy to jump in, or it will feel really hard. Finding your queer group might be as easy as going to the LGBTQ center ice cream social during first year orientation. But then it also might feel like you don’t fit in with them in the way they expect you to. “The queer community at [my school] was really intimidating and I never thought they’d include a femme bisexual so I never tried to get included,” said Hannah, who found queer community online. Fikri similarly found queer community off-campus, “I think I’ve met a grand total of like, two people I’ve actually liked in LGBT societies over four years and two schools/countries. But yes volunteering especially outside school changed everything for me.”
Cecelia offered some wisdom for people at schools that aren’t obviously super queer:
“Don’t feel bad for choosing a school that isn’t a queer hotspot. Even if there isn’t a visible queer scene on campus, usually the LGBTQ resource center has a lounge where you can hang out or study in a safe space. If you stake out for even an hour there, you’ll definitely find others building the same kind of community you are looking for. If this isn’t an option for you, find time in your degree plan to take an elective class in a strategic subject area. You may have to spend hours searching the course catalog in a sea of ‘Marketing 101’ classes until you find ‘The History of Witchcraft.’ Rule of thumb: if the subject of the class is useless to anyone interested in maintaining the patriarchy, you could find your next girlfriend there.”
If you don’t find queers you jive with on campus, see what’s in the area around your campus. Find an Autostraddle meetup, find a lesbian bar or party, find a feminist bookstore or a community activist group. “Especially if your campus is huge,” Cecelia added, “it’s very probable that you’ll meet someone at a local protest or film festival and realize only after introducing yourself that you go to the same school.”
KaeLyn went to a college in a rural area without a big queer community. “You have to band together when you are so few and there is real beauty and intimacy in these isolated queer communities,” she said. She also talked about navigating safety as a queer person of color in a rural place.
Safety is a real concern in these smaller communities, though. For black and brown queer and/or trans people, especially, personal safety is an important consideration. At my rural upstate NY college, we drove over an hour to our nearest gay bar because our folks often got harassed at the popular bars around the college town area. QTPOC should think about how comfortable they are in spaces that are mostly white. You may be one of the only QTPOC on your campus. I can count the number of out QTPOC at my school on one hand and I was often the only one in any given space. All that said, our queer family was very tight and I am glad that I got to come out in an environment like that, where everyone knew each other and looked out for each other. I would make the same choice over and over again.
Try new stuff
This is possibly the most cliche thing on this list, but that’s because it is so important. Just because something was “your thing” in high school does not mean it has to be “your thing” in college. If you want to keep swimming or playing violin, that’s awesome, but maybe you are burnt out on it, or maybe there is something more interesting available to you at your school that you never had access to before. Maybe you want to do rugby instead of soccer. Do rugby! Maybe you want to learn ceramics even though you’ve never done anything remotely artistic in your entire life. Do ceramics! This also applies in the academic sphere, too. If you have an extra class to fill into your schedule, pick something different! Audrey concurs: “I took an African American studies class my last semester and it unlocked a whole world of theory and practical understanding, and I wish I had done it a lot sooner.”
No one is too cool for you
I know! I know! You are suddenly in college and in these classes where everyone is so smart and interesting. But how could you ever approach that person in your sociology class even though you really want to ask them more about that thing they said in your small group about Foucault last week? Guess what?? YOU CAN GO TALK TO THEM. You are just as cool and capable as any person at your school. Approach them and strike up a conversation!
How and when do I come out at college?
However and whenever you want to! Do it explicitly and directly if that feels good to you, but you can also do it over time by dropping casual references to ex-girlfriends, or the fact that you really want to get involved with queer stuff on campus. Maybe put a really gay poster up in your room.
There’s also no rush. There are a variety of reasons why you might not want to come out immediately upon landing on campus. You might feel like you need to build trust with people and get a feel for the campus as a whole. Yvonne wishes she’d come out sooner. Chloe said, “I didn’t come out until the end of my sophomore year, like halfway through college, so my advice from that would be that it is totally one million percent ok to spend a semester or a year or two years figuring that out. I still made wonderful friends and had a community.”
As for me, I think I pretty much announced my queerness to everyone I met upon my arrival on campus. Like, often I literally shouted it. I am kind of embarrassed about this now, but if that’s going to make you feel as good as it made me feel at the time, I think you should do it.
How do I navigate potential awkward feelings from my roommate?
Your call. There are a variety of factors in play here, and two things that are always true: 1) You are not obligated to come out to your roommate, or to anyone, ever. 2) You have the right to feel comfortable in your living space.
So if you come out to your roommate and they are uncomfortable with it, that’s their issue. If they make the living space unsafe for you, it’s your school’s residential life office’s job to make the situation safe for you. This might mean you or your roommate changing rooms, which might be a pain in the ass, but I just really want you to know that you have the right to feel safe in your living space.
But that’s me jumping to worst case scenario! Chances are, your roommate will be chill about it or even pumped for you. On our first night, my roommate tacked up a pride flag above her bed immediately after telling me all about her long distance boyfriend. I think I asked her something along the lines of, “Um, are you bisexual, or just cool?” She became an amazingly supportive friend during the ups and downs of my first year, and we were placed together via a questionnaire that mostly focused on sleeping habits and level of neatness!
On Sexytimes and Dating and Stuff
I hope you have really awesome sex in college, if that’s something you want. I hope you have really nice relationships, romantic or otherwise. How does that happen?
Consent! Consent! More consent!!
Guys, this is just so important. You deserve to be asked for consent; your partner deserves to be asked for consent. Probably, your school will talk about consent, and probably whatever video or skit they make you watch about it will be SUPER heteronormative. So here is my friendly and urgent reminder that sexual assault can be perpetrated by any gender person, against any gender person, and if you need resources about that, here are some.
Seriously think it over before jumping into a relationship with the first person you sleep with
Sometimes people fall into relationships immediately upon arriving at college. Sometimes this works out. Sometimes it doesn’t. I think it’s most important that you figure out why you want to be with that person. I wanted to jump into a relationship situation with the first person I hooked up with, and thankfully she turned me down. It wouldn’t have worked as a relationship at all, but I was so anxious for that kind of intimacy without really knowing what I wanted or needed from it.
Lindsay King-Miller over at the Hairpin had a great thing to say that I found very relevant to this, that I wished someone had said to me six years ago: “Be aware that there’s lots of sex in the world, and you don’t need to get horizontal with anyone you feel lukewarm about just because you’re afraid you might not get a better offer. You’ll get lots of better offers.” It’s so true, you guys!
But all that said, if you do end up u-hauling into someone else’s twin bed, that’s great! I bet you are super cute together. To ensure its cuteness endures beyond fall break, make sure you are building lives and support systems at school independently from each other.
Don’t be afraid to tell someone you like them
Seriously! Once upon a time, I had a huge massive crush on a girl in my freshman dorm. I told her this. She very kindly rejected me. I moved on. We remained friends. Today, five years later, I live with her and her boyfriend, and she is one of my closest friends. It’s not weird, and I’m not pining for her! This all to say that rejection is not the end of the world, nor does it have to be the end of a friendship. Also, maybe the person will end up liking you back! That has also happened when I’ve told someone I liked them.
Drugs and Alcohol
I feel like I have to include this part because this is a post about college, so here are my main thoughts:
Be smart. Be safe. Remember that abstaining from drinking/drugs if you want to doesn’t make you any less cool.
How to interact with an instructor
Our Senior Editor Rachel was an actual instructor at an actual college, and she has some ideas for you:
Hello Rachel here! Ideally your instructors won’t just be educational ships that you pass in the night and who you turn work in to, but people you have some sort of relationship with. And like any relationship, the most important thing I can emphasize to you is communication! Please talk to your instructors — both in general, like chatting and getting to know them, but also actively letting them know about things on your end. Here’s an incomplete list of things I’d really recommend you actively reach out to your instructors about as soon as possible:
- anything going on in your life that you think might impact your schoolwork — this could be a job, a mental illness, a death in the family, a challenging housing situation, etc. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students who struggled with absences, missed schoolwork, or falling behind only to let me know in the very last week of the semester that they were dealing with a lot of anxiety, or that they had lost someone in their family — things I would have been happy to work with them on or accommodate if I had just known. Not all of your instructors will be willing or able to make changes or accommodations for stuff like this, but I can pretty much guarantee that both you and your prof will be better off if they at least know. If you’re nervous, please know from my experience that you are definitely not the only person who has ever had this conversation with your prof — you’re probably not even the only person this semester or this class.
- learning or other disabilities — let your professors know what accommodations they should be providing to you. The office of disability services (or something similar) on your campus may be able to help you draft an email or provide you with a sample email on this topic.
- if your name or pronouns are different than what your instructor may have been given on the class roster. There’s a section below that deals with name and pronoun changes at university more broadly, but please do let your instructors know as soon as possible!
- questions you have about the material! Hopefully, your instructors will provide lots of ways for you to do this easily, from office hours to check-ins to emails. The bottom line is that helping you learn is our job; help us and also help you by asking questions when you have them.
Communication is a two-way street, so make sure you’re also paying attention to the things your instructor communicates to you. Read the syllabus closely, and keep it throughout the semester to refer to; if your instructor has rules or guidelines for the classroom or for quality of work, make sure you’re remembering to follow them. (For instance, in my syllabus I explained I wouldn’t check or respond to email after a certain time at night; I still got lots of emails at 11 pm about work that was due at 9 am the next morning. Those emails did not get answered and it didn’t make me think super highly of those students.) Make sure that you’re communicating with your instructors in a way that’s respectful and compassionate; they’re people too, and likely underpaid and overworked people. If you wouldn’t yell at your friend “Give me a ride to work on Tuesday!” don’t email your instructor “I’m not going to be in class — send me all the reading and explain what you said during the lecture.” That request is fundamentally totally reasonable, but take the time to say it in a way that’s polite and understanding — “Dear [Person], I’m sorry, I have to miss class on Tuesday! When you have time, would you mind sending along any online reading that we were assigned in class? I’ll come by your office hours to talk to you about what happened during lecture in the class I missed. Thanks!”
Finally, while I hope that all your instructors during your university tenure are wonderful humans and fantastic educators, they likely won’t ALL be. You’ll have some instructors that range from ineffectual to really unpleasant. Check out the time periods for class add/drop options carefully; be aware of when your window to drop a class without a penalty ends, so if a prof seems really bad, you can still drop the class. If a prof is actively harmful — saying or doing things that are racist, transphobic, etc — or otherwise personally vindictive to you — you do have some options. I’d recommend trying to keep all of your communication with them (and really all profs) in email, so that you have it in writing; that way if they try to deny they promised you an extension or something later, you have the proof. You can also look up your professor’s higher-up in their department and go see them if things don’t improve; they can help mediate something between you and the professor. If a professor gives you a grade you feel is unfair, universities generally have a process through which you can appeal grades.
Lastly, for the most part, your instructors are people who really truly want you to do well and to learn everything you need to know — if you work with them towards that shared goal, you can succeed academically and maybe also build some mentorship relationships that you’ll really value.
Find a studying situation that works for you
Whether it’s at a table in the library with all your friends, at a table in the chemistry lounge alone at 3 am, or early mornings in your dorm room, take the time to figure out what kind of studying vibe you need to get things done. This varies so significantly for different people. If you need to try a bunch of things before you find a good combination of noise, light and human interaction, that’s fine. It’s going to take really varied approaches for everyone to get their work done how they need to.
Utilize your school’s resources to the max!
Access to academic journals. Academic resource centers. Your professor’s office hours. Lectures and workshops. Free food at lectures and workshops. Fancy computer labs and video editing software. Free safer sex supplies. These are all things available to you as a student that can be much more difficult to come by when you aren’t one anymore! Make the most of them while you’ve got them, because you’ll miss them when you don’t have access to them anymore.
On the next page: jobs, navigating bureaucracy, authority figures, campus activism, pronouns, mental health, transferring, and being an international student