College, as the joke goes, can be the greatest four, five or six years of your life.
But no matter how long it takes, most everyone starts off at the same spot: as a freshman.
For many students, that means parental emancipation, educational opportunities and the chance to meet thousands of people who don't remember what a dork you were in third grade.
It's a flight into the unknown, too. And although nothing can prepare someone totally for the college experience, here are a few tips to help send those college-bound readers among you on their way.
Each section contains advice culled from an assortment of self-help books. Having just finished my first year in college myself, I threw in my own observations.
What to pack
"Only you can be the judge of what and how many clothes you'll need," said Jennifer Hanson, author of "The Real Freshman Handbook" (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996).
"The average college student would wait a month before they do laundry," says the popular college speaker David Coleman, also known as the Dating Doctor. "My suggestion is to bring twice as many undergarments as they need."
"Space is at a premium," notes Coleman, "always err on the side of simplicity." Certain things -- such as winter clothing -- aren't necessary right away, he advises, and they make a great care package or excuse for parents to visit in later months.
Bring three rolls of quarters for laundry. Break up the rolls and put them in a container and hide them. I used my old lunch box Thermos. Quarters left rolled are easily spent. A cup of quarters on your desk is inviting for your roommate and his or her friends.
Get some fabric-softener sheets. They make clean laundry last longer, and when the room needs a little freshener, you can put one over the fan for that all-over dryer-fresh feeling.
Also, get an egg-crate mattress. It is nice and soft, and puts a little bit of air between your sheets and a mattress that hundreds of people have slept on.
In the first week, each roommate should write down his minimum standards "while they are still friends," Coleman says. "Be flexible, be patient, be courteous."
"Develop a system so you know when not to disturb each other," says Hanson.
The best way to get time alone is to plan. Ask your roommate when he or she will not be in the room, or ask to be alone at a certain time.
"It's up to you to make the effort to talk with Ph.D.s if you want them to get to know you," one Michigan State University junior told Suzette Tyler in her book "Been There Should've Done That" (Front Porch Press, 1997). "I always try to find out what they're into, what research they're doing. If it's monkeys. ... I ask about monkeys."
"Never underestimate the power of kissing butt!" one University of Colorado student told her.
Take seminars. My first year I took "Gandhi and Civil Disobedience," a seminar that met Tuesdays from 7 to 10 p.m. Seminars give you unthinkable independence. You have all week to do the reading and you can discuss it with your teacher and classmates in a friendly circle.
I've heard it said that every class you skip is worth $100. That's shortchanging your education. It makes all that money boil down to classes. Your money goes to libraries, career development centers, music spaces, computers and funding for student organizations. Make sure you get more than you paid for: Take advantage of every office in school.
Go to night lectures. I think I learned just as much from guest speakers as I did from classes.
"College is a good time to become a vegetarian. The meat is the worst," noted one University of Florida sophomore in "Been There Should've Done That." In a school of 2,000 people, roughly 200 are going to be vegetarians.
Coleman always tells college students not to eat anything in the two hours before they go to sleep. "While you are asleep, your body is running a marathon digesting."
All dining-hall food is cooked with the minimum level of spices and extras. The secret to enjoying the dining halls is to get creative with spices, sauces and fixings. Be on a first-name basis with the dining-hall staff, and they'll get you the best food possible.
"You can't beat the long-distance plans that the cell phone companies have," says Coleman.
Cellular telephones should be sold on campus at every school. Calling cards can cost up to 33 cents a minute, and calling collect can cost even more. If you can find a phone with nationwide long distance, you can call home and your old friends any time for less than $30 a month. In a long-distance relationship, where you're calling almost every day, a good calling plan is mandatory. But one caveat: When signing up for a long-distance cell phone plan, make sure everything that is promised to you is put into writing on the contract, even the tiniest details.
One last word
If you're lucky enough to go to college, make the most of it. Try something new, season your dinners and take care of yourself. And when you're calling home, don't forget to say "thank you."
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