Looking back on my four years of college, I realize how many countless hours I spent in the classroom, doing group projects, finishing homework, and studying for tests and quizzes.
Okay, maybe I didn’t spend as much time on those things as I should have (senioritis is very real and powerful), but still, it added up.
When I think about all that time I spent working toward my degree, I wonder, what did it really leave me with? A piece of paper and a cap and gown that will continue to gather dust in my closet for the next decade?
Upon entering the workforce, I also came to understand that for many employees, skills are learned on the job, from experience and on-site training.
No one asks about your GPA and suddenly, the majority of those homework assignments you did over the years become irrelevant.
Despite all this, I know my tuition dollars weren’t spent in vain. I learned many things in college, even if they weren’t the kind of things I could write about in a term paper.
When I ask myself what I learned during those four years, I don’t think of proper syntax and derivatives. Here are some of the things that do come to mind:
1. How to discipline myself.
What your high school teachers told you is true; in college, no one holds your hand. Your professors might not know your name and they probably don’t have a problem failing you.
There’s no one there to tell you to skip a party to study instead. In fact, your friends might tell you the complete opposite.
Succeeding in college, and in life overall, means learning how to discipline yourself. Whether it’s studying for an exam, going to the gym regularly or just showing up for class, self-discipline is what gets the job done.
In college, you’re more or less on your own, and your success is ultimately in your own hands.
2. How to care for something other than myself.
Whether it was an apartment, a noble cause, a boyfriend, a best friend or a pet hamster that you insisted on having, despite the dorm rules, there was something or someone you cared about in college.
College presents us with a wide variety of situations that teach us to care more deeply than we ever have before.
That’s good thing, so that as we grow and learn more about ourselves, we can focus our lives on those things we truly care about.
3. On that note, how to care for myself.
College taught me how to take care of myself in more than one sense. I realized that my mom wasn’t in charge of grocery shopping any more; I was responsible for making healthy eating decisions, too.
I was the one who had to make time to workout and get enough sleep. I had to set up my doctor appointments, clean my bathroom, do my laundry, contact the school’s financial department, get myself to class, etc.
I had to take care of myself, and if I didn’t, I had no one else to blame.
4. Who my real friends are.
College is a time to “find yourself” and figure out what kind of people you want to surround yourself with. As college progresses, you'll likely lose touch with people from your past.
When you graduate, you won’t stay in contact with everyone from college, either. The friends you continue to make an effort to stay in touch with are the ones who really matter.
This “trimming the fat” process teaches you that when it comes to friendship, quality is more important than quantity.
5. How to cook (kind of).
If there’s one useful thing I learned when I lived on my own in college, it was how to cook a chicken breast.
Start out with that one simple ingredient, and voilà, you have a thousand potential meals.
I’m no Rachael Ray, but being able to cook chicken, steam a vegetable and simmer pasta is what sustained me. Eating is something you have to do for your whole life, so the sooner you can learn to cook, the better.
6. How to create a résumé.
Another crucial life skill is learning how to create a résumé that builds up your strengths and makes you an appealing prospect for the internship or job of your dreams.
College campuses often offer résumé workshops or incorporate tips and pointers into introduction courses.
Creating a clean, clear résumé template in college will set you up for success later in life, when you will have more impressive accomplishments to add.
7. How to handle alcohol.
Throughout college, my tolerance for alcohol skyrocketed, but so did my knowledge about how my body reacts to alcohol and how to deal with situations in which alcohol was not consumed responsibly.
People may drink for different reasons and to different extents, but it’s important to know how your body reacts so that you can drink safely.
I also became much more familiar with valuable hangover remedies, which quickly became a vital part of my Sunday mornings.
8. How to clean.
Before living on my own, I thought cleaning meant using a lint roller. Once I found myself in charge of my own room, apartment and then house, I realized that cleaning consists of much, much more.
Things get dirty, especially in a college student’s house. In college I learned how to sweep, vacuum, Swiffer, wash dishes, do laundry, take out the trash and wipe down countertops.
I’m not saying I was always successful at doing all of those things, but I was definitely made aware of how important they are.
9. How to be independent.
Real independence is found in being comfortable on your own without needing someone with you to stabilize you.
In college, independence is pretty much forced upon you whether you like it or not, and you can choose whether you want to shrink away from it or grow because of it.
10. How to accept and appreciate others.
High school was a comfortable, familiar place for me, full of familiar faces. It threw me into a whole new environment, filled with new people from thousands of different places, backgrounds and lifestyles, who had a million different personalities and perspectives.
I was in classes and group projects with people who were completely different than me.
While I began to realize that I couldn’t possibly be best friends with all of them, I could learn about them and appreciate their differences.
It’s easy to think that there should be more people like you in the world, but once you open your mind to groups of unfamiliar people, you become able to see that our differences are what make humanity so beautiful.
11. Who I am.
I think of this as more of a process than a single “aha!” moment.
Through my interactions with people, my successes, failures and ventures into new activities, I slowly began to piece together not only who I was, but also, whom I wanted to be.
I learned more about my interests, my personality, my strengths and weaknesses, as well as the qualities I admire in others and hope to see in myself one day.
12. Who I am not.
As you grow and try new things, you experience successes and failures that not only teach you who you are, but who you are not.
In college, I learned that it’s useless to try to be something you’re not. By trying to be like other people, you stifle the inner strengths that are unique to you.
Being yourself will leave you much happier and people around you will sense your genuineness and appreciate you for what you bring to the table.
13. To appreciate my parents.
Yes, I missed the laundry and the dinners, but I also missed the unconditional love that my parents had for me at home.
They were always there for me no matter what, even if they had to show me a little tough love sometimes.
As I matured in college, I began to see my parents as people, instead of just “my parents.” I began to appreciate them for who they are and who they always have been.
14. How to save money.
If there was one word to describe me in college, it might have been “broke.” Despite my treacherous financial situation, I learned how to manage my money by saving in small ways.
I abused the Dollar Menu, ate free food when it was available at campus events, bought extremely cheap alcohol that tasted like lighter fluid, may or may not have “borrowed” silverware from our dining hall, shopped at Target (a lot) and participated in paid studies on campus whenever possible.
Finding little ways to be frugal in college not only helped me survive, but also taught me the true value of a dollar.
15. How to cross bridges when and burn them if need be.
There are so many things that can possibly happen in life, that it's easy to become overwhelmed by all of them, especially at a very tumultuous time in your life.
That’s why college taught me how to take one thing at a time and face situations when they occur, rather than wasting time on unnecessary worries.
College also taught me that it is impossible and unhealthy to hold on to everything in your life; sometimes, you have to burn bridges and move on. As Dylan McKay once said, “May the bridges I burn light my way.”
16. How to say no.
I used to be the girl who couldn’t say, no — until I had to. College places demands on you that can be unreasonable sometimes. You do not have time for everything and you will not be able to please everyone.
It took me some time to realize that that’s okay. Saying “no” isn’t about being weak, missing out or offending others, it’s about being smart and understanding what you reasonably can and cannot accomplish.
College hones your priority-making skills and teaches you how to make smart decisions, even when they involve saying no.
17. How to balance.
College taught me that life is a great balancing act. You balance your job, your family, your friends, your personal time and various other factors.
You have to award each of those factors an appropriate amount of time so none of them suffer.
It’s a lot harder than it seems, but going through college and being saddled with much more responsibility allowed me to practice my balancing skills.
18. How to dream.
College showed me possibilities. I learned about majors and jobs that I didn’t even know existed before. I heard about places around the world and possibilities of traveling to them.
I met people I never dreamed would be my classmates, roommates, best friends and boyfriend.
College showed me a little piece of the world, and that little piece was enough to teach me to dream of bigger and better possibilities.
19. What I want.
After almost two years of indecision, I chose a major. By the time I graduated with that major, I knew that I wanted to do something else.
When I began college, I was dating someone, and I left college without that person in my life.
These processes of trial and error helped me dig a little deeper to uncover what it is I want in life, what I want to be, what I want to do and whom I want to be with.
20. How to create opportunities.
Life isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. Colleges don’t just hand you scholarships, jobs don’t just land in your lap and plans to study abroad don’t just appear in your day planner.
First, something or someone has to make opportunities available and possible for you, and often, that person is you.
You have to be the one to reach out, to talk to other people, to apply, to raise the money. If you really want to do something, start creating the opportunity for yourself.
21. How to live my life to the fullest.
College provided me with four of the richest, most fulfilling and best years of my life. For those four years I underwent more social, academic, mental and emotional stimulation than I had ever experienced before in my life.
I faced novel situations, amazing opportunities and all different kinds of people. College opened up the world for me and showed me a new way to look at it.
Now that I have graduated, I’m ready to continue living my life in the full, rich way that I did in college. So, thanks, college, for teaching me more than I than what I learned in class.