Is College Really the Best Four Years of Your Life?

Freshman year of college, when I thought Doc Marten sandals were "in"

Freshman year of college, when I thought Doc Marten sandals were “in”

You’ve heard it.  I’ve heard it. Maybe we’ve both even said it. “College is the best four years of your life!”  Lately, I’ve begun to question the validity of this statement, especially since it’s used in broad terms without much explanation.  Don’t get me wrong–I loved my college experience and I have very few regrets about those four years.  But, I wonder if we’re sending the wrong message to high school students.  Are we sending them off with heightened expectations?  Are we neglecting to share how tough college classes can be and how inflexible professors can be, for example?

I’m not sure all students know that working through the tough times makes them stronger people in the long run, even if it really, really sucks at the time.  For some students, it seems all too easy; if something doesn’t go their way, they can just go back home or call their parents to solve their problems.  But, what happens during those first few weeks, months, or even years of college when everyone is trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be; who their friends are and who their best friends for life will be; or what their current major is and what double-major-plus-a-minor combination they will ultimately graduate with?  How can students be prepared to navigate these issues?

I’m curious about how we can encourage students to become their own advocates. More than that, I wonder how we can prepare them to be able to deal with and overcome adversity.  Part of the problem is that students have seen movies or TV shows that depict a glorified so-called “quintessential college experience” in which the lead characters instantly have 50 best friends, fun social events to go to, and somehow rarely ever have to go to class.  I actually missed my very first college class because I thought I would be able to switch out of the 8:00am section and into a more convenient session of the class offered later in the day that didn’t require me to shed my night owl ways.  In the end, I was stuck in the 8:00am class and there was nothing I, my parents, or anyone else could do to change that.  I just had to deal with it.

I didn’t have instant best friends when I went to college. It takes time to meet people and find true friends in college, especially if you don’t know many people going in.  I remember hanging out with my hall mates in the dorm rather than going to parties many weekends during my first year of college. We were still trying to figure out how we fit into a very different college social scene than we were used to and to understand what we were comfortable with.

In college admission essays, students often talk about perseverance, being resilient, and overcoming challenges, failures, and disappointments.  I think we need to make sure not to sugarcoat what college—especially at first—is really like.  There are going to be ups and downs, and how you get through the ups and downs is what makes you who you are.  You learn things about yourself that you had no idea about and you can surprise yourself with how strong and smart you really are.  College might end up being the best four years of your life, but what about the year you get married?  The year you start a family?  The year you have that crazy adventure when you live in a brand new city and get out of your comfort zone and make yourself happy?  Looking back, my college years have been some of the best of my life so far.  Personally, I sure hope the best four years of my life aren’t behind me already.

By Meredith Britt



  1. Meredith,

    I think the general sentiment that you gesture toward here deserves mention within college admission’s various communities but I would push your ideas even farther to grapple with how and why this trend might exist.

    In your second paragraph you write, “I’m not sure all students know that working through the tough times makes them a stronger person in the long run, even if it really, really sucks at the time.” Here, I think there are two things of note: 1) your opening touches on the issue of resiliency in this generation of students and the myriad theories for why this generation might be less able to cope with the stresses of college (while certainly also acknowledging that the types of stress that students may experience may have also changed), which in turn raises the question of “If resiliency is valued as something that will make a student successful in college, how is a student asked to display that quality on/through the application?” 2) This sentence in particular demonstrates a way in which the thinking of the admission community might be skewed when it comes to contextualizing success and failure in that it often seems that, in order to be worthy, failure must then lead to a recognizable success. What happens when failure is just a failure? Must it always be looked at in hindsight as a stepping stone to success? These two points are, I think, linked as we endeavor to understand how we communicate concepts like “success” and “failure” to students.

    Later, the discussion shifts toward self-efficacy (“I’m curious about how we can encourage students to become their own advocates“) and I think it would be again interesting to link this to a larger framework that understands success/failure and youth. Can we draw a conclusion that a lack of meaningful failures (and possibly successes) is related to the failure to develop a measure of self-efficacy in youth? How are coping mechanisms and self-efficacy related?

    I also think you raise an interesting point with regard to the way teen-oriented media (in so far as it is reflective of a popular sentiment) depicts the “college” experience (which, with the exception of Community and possibly Modern Family, is currently largely skewed toward a particular iteration of higher education). I am actually working on a piece about the depiction of college counselors in popular media for the Journal of College Admission and my research has suggested that it might be interesting to pay attention to the way in which fictional high school students interact with college. Finally, I would also note that I think Masters of Sex (perhaps unlikely viewing for high school students) actually has one of the most interesting portrayals of a university (albeit one that is dated). Parenthood is also a show that touches (very lightly!) on institutional issues surrounding education and student success but also tended to feature the glossing over that you mentioned in previous seasons.

    What you suggest near the end is a way in which we need to marry the discussion that youth are having regarding their trials (here I would break into a longer discussion that draws upon my study of Young Adult fiction and the current popularity of the dystopic) with the sets of challenges that we adults foresee for students. One of the constant struggles in the admission process as both an officer and an adult is to endeavor to understand just how valid the struggles of these students are in the moment—although we can see beyond/up/out, we must remember how real these breakthroughs, journeys, and stumbles are for students. We might, for example, sigh at the student who has finally come to the realization that he or she lives in a “bubble” (understandably, perhaps) but we should strive to remember what it was like when our world changed for the first time (or, using the mantra of YA: “Everything you know has been a lie!”).

    And, as a final minor thing: your last paragraph makes some assumptions about what might be constituted as a “normal” life for someone after he or she graduates college and while this might be the path taken for many students, the wording suggests an unconscious preference toward a particular route (and therefore an ideal of success). I only mention this because it is precisely the interrogation of the beliefs that we hold—that which we assume is a given—that must occur if we are to begin to have a productive discussion with students about something like success.

    -Chris Tokuhama

  2. Meredith- You bring up very valid points, worthy of examining. There are far too many students having a hard time adjusting to college life and coming home after 1 or 2 semesters. I agree that one reason is unrealistic expectations. When college life does not live up to what they have seen in the media or heard from family, students are often too quick to blame the college. Having alumni come and talk to students about their adjustment to college and teaching some basic skills such as time management would be beneficial. A little dose of reality goes a long way!

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