The best thing I did for myself to prepare for college was admit that I had no idea what I was doing. As the type of person who deals with stress by making detailed lists and planning schedules weeks in advance, that was hard for me to do.
When it was time to say goodbye to my parents and my sister on move-in day, all I could do was cry. Who was I without them? Who was I among Yale students? Who would I be in a month? Not knowing was scary.
Yet, there I was in my newly decorated little shoe box where I would be living for the next year. Everything was unfamiliar — the room, the campus, the city and the people. I had moved between schools and countries before, but this felt like being dropped off in an entirely new mode of existence — the next phase of my life.
Soon that will be you, waking up in your dorm room at Yale for the first time, ready to walk to your first college class before you head to a meal with your first college friends — your first time experiencing so many firsts since your first year of life.
The feeling of firsts was constant adrenaline, giving the most mundane activities a sparkle. It was a slight raise in my average heart rate and a subtle buzz in my fingertips. It was not quite excitement or anxiety, because it was both.
I remember the first time I went to study in a library at Yale with so much clarity. There I was, walking across Cross Campus with my backpack from high school and “Sterling Memorial Library” searched in Google Maps on my phone. Sterling library would soon become my favorite spot on campus because it is the kind of place you will never get used to. Its high ceilings supported by the cylinder columns that line the entrance’s hall — walled in by stone that caused the sound of my footsteps to echo — will never not feel too grand for me to study in. Turning left at the end of the hall into the Starr Main Reading Room, I took a seat at one of the many wooden tables arranged in rows, whichever one I happened to gravitate towards that day.
What work of mine was of high enough quality to be done in this room built for the most accredited names in academia? My first Math 120 p-set, which I would struggle through. But the Starr reading room reminded me that having trouble visualizing 3D space was in and of itself an experience.
Sterling, along with the other cathedral style buildings at Yale, is a loud reminder of the context in which I am experiencing my problems — it sends me back to the moment when I got into Yale, that moment of pure bliss and shock that came after months of intense longing for the opportunity to go to school somewhere where I could get closer to the person I want to become. I was longing for growth. That feeling of firsts — that adrenaline — reminded me that growth is exactly what I was getting.
The best way I have found to enjoy an experience as overwhelming and disorienting as starting your first semester at Yale is to embrace it for what it is — insane and leaving no space for pride or perfectionism. When you accept that you know very little about how to navigate college, you also realize that grades, leadership positions and positive professor feedback are difficult to control — that those markers of success that you may have used in high school are not so useful anymore.
Adjusting to college life is a balancing act achieved through trial and error and a lot of effort. I tried so hard to build a life for myself that would make me feel good, and in the end, it was knowing that I was putting that effort in that actually made me feel good.
Making effort the marker of success — not just in relation to work, but in relation to all important aspects of life — is the best way I have found to avoid the chronic dissatisfaction that is so easy to fall into when you are constantly trying to outcompete yourself. If your focus is on effort, chances are the results will follow anyway.
It is so simple, but so easy to forget: every single thing you experience in college is part of the chaotic experience that it is. If it was easy, it would not be worthwhile.
I am on a gap year right now, and when I think about starting school up again in the fall, it is easy for me to feel nervous about my ability to keep up with the pace of Yale again, so this has also been my advice to myself. I hope it helps us both become more excited than nervous about the crazy year ahead.