During my college admissions process, there were many factors that I wasn’t completely decided on in terms of finding the perfect fit. I didn’t truly know how to rank universities and figure out my priorities in terms of tangible goals, because at that point, I didn’t know what I wanted my future to be. I hadn’t decided on my intended major, I didn’t know what location would be most exciting, and I didn’t completely understand how to navigate the financial process.
I relied heavily on my “gut feelings” when I visited or researched universities, trying to find the natural “pull” or “allure” that I knew I’d get when I found an inspiring community I wanted to be a part of. Other than spirit, community, excitement, and happiness, the only factor I settled on during my college search was the size of the college I wanted to attend.
Growing up, I had attended small schools for my entire life. My 8th grade graduating class was a mere 12 students, while my high school graduating class soared to 76 students total. I was brought up in an educational system that fostered community values, friendship, close connections, and communication, and while I was endlessly thankful for the strengths and privileges I received from those experiences, I knew that college would be my chance to branch out: to meet an overwhelming number of people, to explore opportunities, cultures, experiences, and ideas unfamiliar to me, and for once, to sit in a classroom full of students, without a single person already knowing my name. To me, going to a large school was somewhat of a fresh start: I could learn about entirely different sides of myself, without being pigeonholed into a life others assumed I would lead. I could join multiple extremely different social communities all at once, and find supportive relationships in very diverse corners of campus.
Knowing that a large university was something I longed for on a deep level helped me set a baseline on which I was able to grow my list of pros and cons about all of my choice colleges. At that point, it was somewhat of a puzzle: find a large college with the strong sense of community, support, and excitement usually found at a tight-knit liberal arts college. Find a college that would make me both nervous and excited to explore, grow, and change, but would provide a community with which I could fall in love with and call my own. In the end, this dichotomy drove my choice to attend UC Berkeley, and was one of the best decisions I made.
However, the transition from my tiny communities to Berkeley’s gigantic pool of students was a shock, and required quite a bit of adjustment. Learning how to navigate this new world was at times stressful, scary, and even lonely, but it was the most rewarding learning curve that I ever embarked on. Along the way, I learned important life skills and priorities that helped me succeed in a large community:
1. Ask for help: In a large college community, and in the real world, for that matter, help rarely comes to those that don’t seek it out. It can be hard for those around you to read your mind or feelings, and figure out what kind of help you might need (and when). Being communicative with your friends, your professors, your peers, and your mentors can help you cultivate more authentic, expressive relationships, but also find support systems and resources before crisis moments happen. Trust me, I know that asking can be the scariest part, but you should never be ridiculed for asking for help. Independence is not synonymous with isolation, and asking for help never makes you less of a capable, intelligent, brave person.
2. Prioritize mental health: In all honesty, this is something I struggle with on a daily basis, and still do after having graduated from UC Berkeley. As students, we get so caught up in academics, social circles, world events, popularity, you name it, and we forget to take care of ourselves first. Especially in a larger community, it can feel like everyone is running at a million miles per minute, and we can forget to slow down and care for ourselves. Happiness is a foundation on which we can stand the tallest, fight the longest, and help the most people around us, so your mental well-being should not be taken for granted (as it frequently is in our society). Whether that means starting a journal to organize your scrambled thoughts, cooking yourself a healthy meal every night, exercising, teaching yourself a new skill, giving yourself 1 compliment every day, or curling up in a comfortable blanket on the couch after a long day of classes, do what you need to treat yourself and stay invested in yourself.
3. Push past the awkward phase: For me, sometimes meeting new people can be scary, nerve-wracking, or awkward, especially when you feel like a small fish in an outrageously enormous pond (or ocean, for that matter). Sometimes I don’t know how to continue the conversation, sometimes I am tired, or sometimes I’m just nervous that I’ll embarrass myself in front of this cool person I just met. However, pushing past these feelings and doing your best to put yourself out there will inevitably result in many more happy moments than awkward ones, and will foster relationships that you otherwise wouldn’t have pursued simply out of a fear of saying the wrong thing. Each time you push past those feelings in a group of new friends, it becomes easier to be yourself, and to find people that allow you to let your guard down and forget about why you were even worried in the first place.
4. Explore different communities: Especially in a large college environment, it’s important to find your smaller cohort/group of friends that you can call your second family. Oftentimes, this happens naturally based on the clubs you join, the studies you pursue, or the socials you attend. However, sometimes it takes some effort to put yourself out there and explore new interests in order to meet new people. A low-stress way to meet new friends can mean joining some kind of group that has scheduled times in which you’ll see each other again (repeatedly), so that a friendship can begin naturally, and feel less forced. This can help you find friends by association and interest, and can ultimately help connections blossom into something outside of that initial encounter. Whether it’s a club sport, a comedy group, a class study cohort, or a volunteer team, finding a smaller association of people can help make a large college feel much smaller and more intimate.
5. If possible, live in a dorm/campus housing: Since making new friends can be a stressful process when first getting to college, having a live-in community can be extremely helpful in jump-starting the socialization process in a large environment. In fact, having people that you share mundane life tasks with (doing laundry together, studying together, eating breakfast together, cleaning your room together, figuring out where buildings are on campus together) can quickly make best friends out of strangers. You learn to interact with someone on a frequent, intimate basis, and you get exposed to their other friend networks which can introduce you to even larger social communities. Your roommates can be the ones you confide in during late night chats, and you can learn about their weird quirks or personality traits before anyone else does. By living on campus, you can face other unfamiliar groups (in classes, clubs, meetings, etc.) knowing that you have a support system to come home to. Even virtually, many colleges have set up remote bonding sessions and meet-and-greet programs for incoming students, which can help you find a peer support system even while being at home for the semester.
If you are interested in attending a large university, reach out to me! Joining a community of 40,000+ individuals was an intimidating leap of faith, but ended up being the best choice I ever made for myself on a variety of levels. I am happy to share my thought process with you: my worries, my struggles, my best moments, and my worst, and talk to you about how I learned to thrive in this new, unfamiliar environment.
Sarah is a Consultant on the Study Hall College Consulting Team. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley in the Class of 2020 where she majored in Architecture and minored in Spanish Language & Literature. For more college application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at shcollegeconsulting.com.