Welcome to the inaugural student advice column for Compass! You can already tell this is a pretty fancy deal, since we’ve already dropped the Latinate “inaugural” to describe the dang thing rather than saying it’s the first in a series of a bunch of these suckers.
Sometimes college can feel like that last sentence—a long, winding road that kinda, sorta feels unending, with the occasional need to look up words and ask tough life questions. We know, we know.
We’ve been there, done that, sometimes even successfully! So what follows in this and future columns are our thoughts, words of advice, hard-won lessons, and straight-up guesses to some of your toughest questions. Ready? Let’s go!
DEAR COMPASS, I’ve always been a good student, but I’m a little nervous about college and how to balance all the stuff that comes with it. Here’s my question: How in the world do you maintain (good) grades AND a social life without being either 1) super stressed, or 2) sleep deprived?
SLEEP, SOCIAL LIFE, & SOLID A’s
I think it was the conservative Prussian statesman and 19th Century unifier of disparate German states Otto Von Bismarck who once said “Politics is the art of the possible.” In fact, I’m almost sure it was Bismarck who said this, though I’ve been known to confuse him with Biz Markie at infrequent-yet-inopportune times.
Regardless, in college, all things are (usually) possible, but not always to the degree that you wish.
Much like Bismarck’s politics, success in college—both in and out of the classroom—is the art of the possible. Though you might disagree after taking Quantitative Chemical Biology, the most difficult thing about college is finding balance and figuring out your priorities.
Balancing classwork with your life outside of class is difficult, but it’s not impossible. One thing that will help is a schedule. No, really. As simple as it sounds, if you are able to budget time for the things that you need and want to do—studying, exercising, work, fun, actually going to class—you will immediately see just how much there is to do. And seeing the amount of work is the first, very important step.
The next step is to get into the practice of using your time wisely. Here’s a good list of time-management tips.
But can I tell you a little something that you might not want to hear, Sleep? Sometimes, it’s not all possible.
A lot has been made of Millennials, much of it negative and overblown. But one thing that has stood out is an urge that’s common among young people, whenever it was that they happened to be born. There is this urge, this drive, to try to do everything, leaving absolutely nothing by the wayside. Cram for classes, take an overload, get all A’s, hang out with every friend, spend time with family, take a vacation, nab the perfect internship, work 30 hours a week, all while maintaining a sorta, kinda, not-exactly healthy life.
Mark Edmundson, professor at the University of Virginia, said it best in his essay “Dwelling in Possibilities”:
For students now, life is elsewhere. Classes matter to them, but classes are just part of an ever-enlarging web of activities and diversions. Students now seek to master their work — not to be taken over by it and consumed. They want to dispatch it, do it well and quickly, then get on to the many other things that interest them. For my students live in the future and not the present; they live with their prospects for success and pleasure. They dwell in possibility.
SLEEP, I’m here to tell you that possibility is a wonderful and powerful thing, especially when you are thrust into the world, sans map or dictate, suddenly open to your first real taste of autonomy. But possibility can also serve as the enemy of other, important parts of your life: Completion, Depth, Intimacy, Success.
So, to return to your question, how do you maintain good grades, have a social life, sleep a decent amount, actually learn stuff, and not walk around all day a quaking ball of stress?
Sometimes, you don’t.
Eventually, something has to give. Not everything is possible. And when you acknowledge the reality of this, you start to think about your life in terms of priorities rather than possibilities. What comes first? What is most important? You have the same 24 hour in a day. How do you want to use them?
There’s this saying that you probably know: When one door closes another one opens. It’s a nice thought, but it’s mostly magical thinking. In truth, when a door closes, you suddenly have one fewer options about which door to take.
SLEEP, closing a door is not always a bad thing. One, two, three fewer options might be a blessing. Sometimes, when one door closes, you walk through the other damn door, knowing this is your path and you’d better not mess this one up. Lack of options, Sleep, can sharpen the mind, focus thoughts, and make your late-night coffee taste even more bitter, more sweet.
How do you have it all? This one’s easy, SLEEP. You don’t.
I hope that you don’t see only the negative in this answer. I hope you’ll also recognize the possibilities that exist in narrowing options.
Staying in one weekend to work on a final essay means missing whatever happens outside of your room, it’s true. But what we so often miss, what our Fear-Of-Missing-Out culture conveniently leaves out is the fact that while you are not out there sucking the marrow out of that particular Friday night, you are in fact committing to something. You are declaring what matters to you, at this particular moment, but also in the larger, grander view.
If you are lucky and privileged enough to have possibilities, SLEEP, say a quiet thanks. Possibilities are both beautiful and terrifying for the same reason—they offer us an escape from the present.
But we must tread one path at one time. Perhaps like Frost’s speaker, you’ll look back on the one you chose and be forced to justify it to yourself through grand-sounding self-delusion. But it will have been your path. And it will have been your choice.
This is the dirty secret, I think, about possibilities, that as long as you entertain them, you are held captive by them. They rob you of motion, meaning.
It is the act of choosing that frees you. Rest or study? Study or movie? See friends or steal a quiet night alone for yourself? We are always seemingly awash in possibilities, Sleep, and they will trap you in a web of your own inertia for as long as you let them.
Do as much as you can, do as well as you can, and be the author of your own choices, your own priorities.
There is no way to have everything, though that is not what you’ve been told by your parents, your teachers, your movies, your music, our culture. In a world ruled by possibilities and governed by the fear of limiting yourself to just a few, the act of naming your own priorities is radical, revolutionary.
Do you have a question about college? Need some advice? Send us your questions, problems, complaints, grievances, and other free-floating thinky pains. Each issue of Compass, we’ll pick a few to answer.
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