7 things I wish I’d known before starting college

Omar K. El-Etr
9 min readSep 8, 2020

If I were to go back to my excited-to-go-to-college self, here’s what I’d tell him.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

I still remember how stressful my high school years were when I was applying for universities abroad from Egypt. Because of how overwhelmed I was, I was just focused on getting accepted into prestigious US institutions and didn’t think much about what would happen afterward.

Before you read this article, here are a few pieces of background information that I think you should know about me and my experience to help put things in their appropriate context.

  • I was born and raised in Egypt and moved to the US for college
  • I went to a liberal arts college
  • I graduated with a B.A. in Computer Science

After graduating from college in 2019 and having more than enough time to reflect on my experience there and how I could have better prepared, here are 7 things I wish someone had told me before starting college.

1. No one’s got it all figured out

Oh, the impostor syndrome…

Okay, picture this.

There I was, just a very “normal” dude from Egypt, who (thinks he) barely made it to a university abroad.

Starting my undergraduate career in the College of Engineering at a top-notch liberal arts college with students from all over the world— who had come with impressive achievements, experiences, scores, and extracurricular activities — was very intimidating to me.

Add to that the fact that I came into my major thinking that everyone has had some form of coding experience prior to college, which I did not have.

As time went by, however, I came to realize how many of my peers felt similarly or even more overwhelmed with college and all the academic and social challenges it presents.

Comparing yourself to others can sometimes get toxic; a healthy dose of comparison just to learn where you are in relation to the majority of people around you would not necessarily hurt. Nonetheless, you have to understand that your (and everyone else’s) journey is very unique and that you all are meant to do different — yet equally awesome — things in life.

Impostor syndrome affects most people— even the most brilliant of us — and the best way to fight it is to be vulnerable and talk openly about it with your friends and peers.

2. Read. Read. Read MORE.

If I have one regret in life, it would be not starting to read earlier and read more.

Growing up, I didn’t see many family members read on a consistent basis. And as bizarre as this may sound, my K-12 education didn’t encourage reading as much as it should have either.

And I used to hate it! My mom’s attempts to get me to read anything were of no avail.

It was not until 6th grade when my brother’s English tutor noticed how much I enjoyed English and writing, that I actually started reading. All she had to do was give me her copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and give me the choice to return it in a week if I didn't enjoy it.

I read the first 20 pages or so and the next day I got back home from the book store carrying the entire Harry Potter series.

To this day, I feel indebted to her.

If reading does not come as easily to you, don’t overwhelm yourself with overly complex or jargon-filled books, especially if you’re struggling with English as a language. I made that mistake myself, and it took me years to bounce back to reading regularly.

And for God’s sake, ditch the classics if you don't enjoy them! You don't have to read a book just because everyone else has read it or says that you should read it.

Read books that you genuinely enjoy. If you purchase a book and find that you’re not enjoying it midway, just toss it aside and start reading a new one. Books are not always meant to be read cover to cover; most importantly, reading is not meant to be a chore.

I don’t care what you read as long as you’re reading every single day; if it is just for 20 minutes, 10 minutes, even 5, that's all that matters.

Make it a habit. Never break it.

If you're not sure what books to read and need some inspiration, feel free to check out my Goodreads. But again, remember that books that I enjoy reading may not be the same as the ones you would.

3. Your undergrad is not the place to specialize

With the exception of someone who knows exactly what they want to do upon graduating college, I always advise against committing religiously to taking classes in one major or field of study.

You have no idea how many high school students I've mentored or advised — who had great conviction about what they want to do during/after college — only to lose interest or find something else that they're more passionate about after taking a few classes in that subject.

Think about it—most high schools don't give you enough exposure, if any, to the wide variety of classes and majors offered in colleges. It’s mind-boggling how some students commit to a field for the rest of their lives without having taken a single class in the field.

Take as many different classes as possible, explore your interests, and get a more well-rounded education

As one of my favorite professors in college told me:

If you want to be an expert on a subject, go pursue a Master's or a Ph.D.

4. Choose professors, not classes

You probably will find this piece of advice strange now, but you’ll thank me later in college.

As sad as it sounds, professors DO have a great effect on your class experience (and ultimately, your grades). This is especially true for discussion-based classes, where you can’t really self-learn while skipping class.

Choosing the right professor turned statistics — a subject that I used to find boring — into a field of study that I’m currently really passionate about and that I use on a daily basis at work. Conversely, choosing the wrong professor for a computer science class caused me to slowly lose interest in my own major because of how the class was taught!

So how can one choose the right professor?

Besides asking for my peers’ thoughts and opinions about professors, one of the tools I, and almost every student I knew, used, was RateMyProfessors.

This website gathers student ratings and reviews on professors.

With that said, not all ratings on RateMyProfessors are accurate, fair, or even honest. Some could be written out of spite, others out of huge admiration regardless of the actual quality of teaching. Like most reviews, they usually tend to be on either extreme, so use them cautiously.

5. Professors are one of your best resources

While we’re still on the subject of professors…

I cannot tell you how many discussions I've had with professors that absolutely changed the course of my life.

This is not an exaggeration.

During a time when I was questioning pretty much everything about my major choice and what I am going to do after college — which happens to more people than you’d think — professors were the number one resource that helped me figure these out.

Two professors helped me understand that it is okay not to stick with the major I came into college with; one professor gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do research with him that would end up landing us a Best Paper Award and paving my road for a successful career; my computer science advisor guided me every step along the way; and my stats professor was one of the greatest life mentors, teaching me invaluable lessons as I navigated college (I still learn from him to this day!)

If it weren't for my reaching out to those professors and fostering strong relationships with them, I would have missed out on so many amazing opportunities and invaluable academic, professional, and life advice.

Professors don’t bite! Go seek them out!

6. Location DOES matter!

As an international prospective student from a relatively underprivileged country, my criteria for adding a college to my list was based primarily on the following two questions:

  1. Is it likely that this college will accept me?
  2. If they do, are they going to meet my full financial need?

Thinking about college location was more of a luxury than anything else. And I’ll be frank, I was not really sure why I should even care about that.

It was not until I started applying for internships that I realized the substantial advantage (or disadvantage) location can have on your chances of success.

Think about it — why would a California-based company spend thousands of dollars to send recruiters to a small liberal arts college in rural Pennsylvania? Economically, this makes ZERO sense to any company.

This results in companies overlooking some great talent simply because they don't know they exist!

And sadly…

But hey, I graduated from college and landed a fantastic position, and so did every single one of my close friends who also went to my school.

Although it will take more effort, it surely is not impossible.

7. Your mental health is more important than anything else. Yes, even classes.

I still remember how the second semester of my sophomore year took its toll on me. Not only was I taking the hardest classes of my undergrad in one semester, but that was also the time I realized I didn't really want to pursue a career in the field I chose to major in.

That was very overwhelming.

At the time, the concept of self-care seemed more like a luxury to me. It took me quite a while to learn that if I'm not kind to my mind, body, and spirit, they also wouldn't be kind to me.

During that semester, I would go on to receive some of the worst grades on assignments and exams. It wasn't that I didn't put enough time or energy in those; if anything I spent more time studying and working on assignments.

But that was exactly the problem.

I was waaaay past the point of burnout and I wasn't even aware of it. Pushing more without taking time to take care of myself only exacerbated things.

Self-care can take many different forms for different people. Some people feel better when they take a walk, go for a run, eat a healthy meal, or get more sleep; others pray, meditate, or sleep more. Whatever you do, just make sure it is something that brings you joy and mental clarity and makes you feel rejuvenated afterward.

And prioritize it!

So when things get tough — and believe me, they will — don’t forget that your mind, body, and spirit need care too. Do not de-prioritize them just because you have an essay deadline or an exam coming up. You’ll always have something going on at school and a part of growing up is learning how to balance school, life, self-care, and, for some people, work.

If you don’t nourish your body, mind, and spirit, they won’t be able to give back

These were just a few thoughts and reflections that I had looking back on my experience during college. I hope that by sharing some of the mistakes I made and things I learned you will start college more prepared.

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